Lesson 22. German Perfect Tense (Das Perfekt)

Finally, it is time to learn some more complex grammar form in German. This time we will go for German Perfect Tense (das Perfekt). Present Perfekt Tense in German is considered to be the conversational past as it is mostly used in spoken German when referring to past events. When in English you say I saw him, in German you will have to use Ich habe ihn gesehen.

How to build Perfect Tense in German?

The formula is quite simple.

The verb haben or sein + Partizip II (Participle II). You should be familiar with the participle II form as it is the third basic form of every verb in German. Just to remind you, the regular verbs form their participle II form by adding the prefix ge- and the ending -t to the stem.

Example:

lernen – gelernt

rauchen ‑ geraucht

As for irregular verbs you should have the Ablaut Reihen memorized by now.

Now, let’s get back to the rules of building the Perfect Tense.

Haben/Sein + Partizip II, whereas haben/sein are to be conjugated and Partizip II is the constant element, no changes applied.

Let’s remind you about the conjugation pattern of these two verbs. 

Haben

Ich habe

Du hast

Er, sie, es hat

Wir haben

Ihr habt

Sie, sie haben

 

Sein

Ich bin

Du bist

Er, sie, es ist

Wir sind

Ihr seid

Sie, sie sind

 

The greatest problem in forming the Perfect Tense in German is the choice of the verb ‑ haben or sein.

There is one general rule that says that all intransitive motion verbs as well as verbs which mark the change of state require the use of the verb sein. These are such verbs as fahren (drive), gehen (walk), kommen (come), reisen (travel), steigen (climb), sterben (die), wachsen (grow), werden (become), laufen (run) and similar. If you are unsure if the verb falls into this category, check the dictionary, it will always show a small letter next to the verb (h for haben, s for sein).

Examples of use:

Ich bin nach Hause gegangen. I went  home. – motion verb

Ich bin eingeschlafen. I fell asleep. – change of state

Additionally, the verbs sein and bleiben (stay) also form the perfect tense with help of the verb sein.

Example:

Ich bin zu Hause geblieben. I stayed at home.

The verb haben is used to form das Perfekt of the following groups of verbs:

  • All transitive verbs

bauen (construct) — hat gebaut
essen (eat) — hat gegessen
lieben (love) — hat geliebt

  • Reflexive verbs

sich rasieren (shave) — hat sich rasiert
sich beschäftigen (keep yourself busy/occupied) — hat sich beschäftigt

  • Modal verbs (they have a different formation rule which we will discuss in a different lesson)

Ich kann es nicht machen — I can’t do this
Ich habe es nicht machen können — I could not do this.

  • Intransitive verbs which have the meaning of a long-lasting action or state

liegen (lie) — hat gelegen
stehen (stand) — hat gestanden

  • Verbs which require Dative case and do not have the meaning of motion

glauben (believe somebody) — hat geglaubt
gefallen (like somebody) — hat gefallen

  • Verbs with the meaning of the beginning and the end of the action

beginnen (begin) — hat begonnen
aufhören (stop. cease) — hat aufgehört

There are verbs in German which can build their Perfect form with either sein, or haben based on the context.

Example:
Ich bin nach New York geflogen. I flew to New York.
fliegen is an intransitive motion verb, hence the use of “sein” to build the Perfect Tense
Der Pilot hat das Flugzeug zum ersten Mal geflogen
Here fliegen is a transitive verb and has an object in the Accusative case ‑  das Flugzeug

If in doubt, consult the dictionary, it will show the correct helping verb for every meaning of the verb.

How to use in the sentence

When using das Perfekt you should pay special attention to the words order in the sentence. The helping verb haben/sein will always be on the second place in the sentence whereas the participle II will take the very last spot in the sentence.

Er hat das Buch gelesen.

There are other rules for words order in the complex sentences but we will get to it at a later stage.

This is a very complex topic but it is also one of the most important ones in the German language. Here are a few grammar exercises to help you process all the new information you have received.

Exercises

1. Build sentences using the correct form of the Present Tense

Er/Sie hat/ist geschlafen

einen Brief geschrieben

Essen gekocht

nach Hause gekommen

geschwommen

gefallen

geheiratet

2. Tell us what did you do on the weekend. (Was haben Sie am Wochenende gemacht?) Use the phrases below.

Tanzen gegangen, Geburtstag gefeiert, Fussbal gespielt, das Auto gewaschen, zu Hause geblieben, Besuch gehabt, einen Ausflug gemacht.

3. Using the phrases from exercise 2 tell us what did your friend do on the weekend (Was hat er/sie am Wochenende gemacht?)

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