The perfect tense: How to talk about the past in German

To talk about things you’ve done in the past, whether it was yesterday, last week, or last year, you will need to use a past tense. In German, you can use the perfect tense. This also exists in English to show that you have done something:

  • I have eaten a salad.
  • He has played football.

How to form the perfect tense

To form the perfect tense, you need three parts:

1. A subject

The subject is the person or thing who does the verb. This will be a noun or a pronoun such as ich (I), du (you) or er/sie/es (he/she/it).

2. An auxiliary verb

This is either haben (to have) or sein (to be). Along with the pronoun, a conjugated auxiliary verb helps you determine who is doing the action in the past.

3. A past participle

This tells you what action is happening in the past, like played or listened. Regular German past participles start with ge and end with t - gespielt (played).

The auxiliary verb 'haben'

Most German verbs in the perfect tense need the auxiliary verb haben. Use the subject and the conjugations of haben in the present tense to show who is doing the action in the past. You can find these in the table below.

EnglishGerman
I haveich habe
you havedu hast
he has er hat
she has sie hat
it has es hat

Conjugate means changing the endings of a verb to match the person doing the action.

The conjugation of haben has to be the second idea in the sentence.

  • Ich habe Fußball gespielt - I played football.
  • Du hast in London gewohnt - You lived in London.
  • Er hat Hausaufgaben gemacht - He did homework.

The auxiliary verb 'sein'

If a verb implies movement, like gehen (to go) and fahren (to go/travel), it needs to use sein as an auxiliary verb instead of haben. Use the subject and the conjugations of sein in the present tense to show who is doing the action in the past. You can find these in the table below.

EnglishGerman
I amich bin
you aredu bist
he is er ist
she is sie ist
it is es ist

The conjugation of sein has to be the second idea in the sentence.

Two common verbs that take sein are gehen and fahren. The past participles are irregular.

  • Ich bin ins Kino gegangen - I went to the cinema.
  • Du bist zum Skatepark gegangen - You went to the skate park.
  • Er ist nach Deutschland gefahren - He travelled to Germany.

Past participles

Regular German past participles start with ge and end with -t, like gespielt.

To form a regular past participle:

1. Take the -en off an infinitive, leaving a stem.
2. Add ge- to the start of the stem.
3. Add a -t to the end.

Take a look at some examples of common verbs and their past participles in the table below.

InfinitivePast participleEnglish
spielen gespieltplayed
hörengehörtlistened
machengemachtdone/made
wohnen gewohntlived
haben gehabthad

The past participle comes at the end of the sentence.

  • Ich habe Fußball gespielt - I played football.
  • Du hast in London gewohnt - You lived in London.
  • Er hat Hausaufgaben gemacht - He did homework.

Irregular past participles

Some past participles are irregular and don’t follow this pattern. You can find some examples in the table below. There isn’t a rule here, so try to learn the past participle when you learn a new verb. There are some examples of common irregular past participles in the table below.

InfinitivePast participleEnglish
essen gegessenate
trinken getrunken drank
lesen gelesen read
sehen gesehensaw
gehen gegangenwent
fahren gefahrenwent/travelled
  • Ich habe einen Apfel gegessen - I ate an apple.
  • Du hast Wasser getrunken - You drank water.
  • Meine Schwester hat einen Film gesehen - My sister saw a film.

Word order in the perfect tense

The verb has to be the second idea in all German sentences. When using the perfect tense, the auxiliary verb is the second idea and the past participle is moved to the end of the sentence.

Any extra information you want to add to the sentence is sandwiched in the middle of the two verbs:

Ich habe Fußball gespielt - I (have) played football. (translated literally as I (have) football played).

You can think about this like a sandwich. The pronoun and auxiliary verb make up the top slice of bread, the detail is the filling, and the past participle is the bottom slice of bread!

Quiz

Find out how much you know about the German perfect tense in this short quiz!

Complete the following phrases using your knowledge of the perfect tense. Use the English translations to help you.

Where next?

Discover more from around Bitesize.

How to use the infinitive and other verbs in German
The present tense: How to talk about what you do in German
KS3 German