The Basics of the Perfekt Tense & Regular Verbs

Hallo, Deutschlerner. In my last video I introduced you to the Perfekt tense through a conversation about the question “Was hast du am Wochenende gemacht?” If you haven’t seen that video yet, I recommend you watch it first. Today I’m going to explain a bit about when to use the Perfekt tense, how to form it and how regular verbs work in this tense.

The Basics of the Perfekt Tense & Regular Verbs

If you are really wanting to put your German learning on track, consider joining Herr Antrim’s Deutschlerner Club! For just $14.99 per month you will get access to his full A1 and A2 courses plus new materials as he creates them. You will go from knowing zero German to being able to have a short conversation in a short few weeks. Before you know it, you will be conversational in German on a variety of important topics, all while mastering German grammar.

When to Use the Perfekt Tense in German

First let’s talk about the purpose of the Perfekt tense. The Perfekt tense is primarily used when speaking in German about events or actions that occurred in the past. It is also commonly used in emails and letters. The actions described in the Perfekt tense, however, must be complete and not continue on into the present. If an event continues into the present, you use the Präsens for that. The Perfekt tense, however, is only used for things that have already happened and are finished.

How to Translate the Perfekt Tense into English

There is often a lot of confusion online around the translation of the Perfekt tense, because in English we have a thing called the present perfect tense. The word “perfect” and the fact that the way you form the present perfect is very similar to that of the Perfekt contributes to the issue of people online calling the Perfekt tense the German present perfect tense. The problem is that the use of the present perfect in English is completely different from that of the Perfekt in German.

I often get questions in the comments asking why I didn’t use the English present perfect tense to translate the German Perfekt tense. In English when we say something in the present perfect tense, we mean that the action is continuing on into the present, which as I already mentioned, requires the Präsens in German and not the Perfekt. The better translation from the German Perfekt into English is the English simple past tense. For this reason, you will see me use the English simple past as a translation for each sentence. I will point out the difference in meaning a few times throughout this video also, to highlight the reason why I chose this translation.

How to Form the Perfekt Tense in German

Now that we know when to use the Perfekt, let’s get into the creation of the Perfekt tense. The Perfekt tense requires two parts. The first is a helping verb. This tense uses “haben” or “sein” as the helper and you conjugate them just like you would if you used them in the present tense, which is likely the only way you have encountered these verbs so far in your German learning.

haben or sein?

Traditionally German teachers have said that you use “sein” as a helping verb when the main verb shows motion or a change in location, but this causes confusion when the verbs “sein” and “bleiben” both use “sein” as a helper, but clearly don’t show motion or change in location.

I have argued for the terminology of “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs. “Transitive” verbs are those that require or often take a direct object. “Intransitive” verbs don’t get direct objects. This does require students to remember what those terms mean, but explains “sein” and “bleiben” better than the motion vs non-motion method.

Unfortunately, this causes other issues, as verbs that have to do with your body and a whole lot of other verbs that don’t have direct objects still use “haben” as the helper. So now in my classes I teach a kind of hybrid method. Use the “motion vs non-motion” methodology as your main rule, but remember that certain intransitive verbs (“sein” and “bleiben”) require the use of “sein” without motion. Also, if you use a verb of motion with a direct object, you need to use “haben” instead of “sein” as the helper. This is due to the fact that you changed the verb into a transitive verb, which requires “haben”.

Verbs like reisen (to travel), wandern (to hike), fliegen (to fly), and fahren (to drive) use “sein” in the Perfekt tense, but the verbs fliegen and fahren can use “haben” if you add in a direct object, for example you are flying a plane or driving a car. If you say that using the plane or car as the direct object, you need “haben” as the helping verb. Since those verbs are both irregular verbs, I’ll show you examples of that in the next video.

Verbs like haben (to have), machen (to do), arbeiten (to work), reden (to speak) fotografieren (to photograph) and many more use “haben” as their helping verb. Most are due to the use of a direct object, but some have to rely on the non-motion verb rule, as “arbeiten” generally doesn’t have a direct object, but has to have “haben” in the Perfekt tense.

If you want to take a deeper dive into the haben vs sein conversation, you can watch this video for that.

das Perfekt mit haben oder sein - You're Doing It WRONG!

How to Form the Partizip 2 of Regular Verbs in German

The second component of the Perfekt tense is what’s known as a past participle or in German a Partizip 2. Regular verbs follow a very distinct pattern and are easy to figure out just by looking at the infinitive of the verb. Irregular verbs, however, don’t follow such clean patterns, so I’m saving those for my next video.

To form the Partizip 2 of a regular verb follow these steps

  • Start by removing -en from the end of the infinitive to reveal the verb stem.
    • For example: the verb stem of “machen” would be “mach”.
  • Now we add ge- to the front and -t to the end of the verb.
    • This gives us “gemacht” as the Partizip 2 of “machen”.

Since “machen” is not a motion verb and is a transitive verb, we use “haben” as a helper. Here is an example using “machen” in the Perfekt tense.

Was hast du am Wochenende gemacht? –
What did you do this weekend?

As you can see in this example, I conjugated the verb “haben” to go with “du”, which gave me “hast”. I put “hast” where the conjugated verb usually goes, in this case after the question word “was”. The Partizip 2 is put at the end of the sentence right before the punctuation.

Let’s try another regular verb.

Infinitiv: reisen
Verbstamm: reis
Partizip 2: gereist

Ich bin im Sommer nach Deutschland gereist. –
I traveled to Germany in the summer.

This time I used “sein” as a helping verb, because the verb “reisen” means “to travel” and obviously shows motion. It also doesn’t take a direct object, which makes it an intransitive verb. Since both rules point to “sein”, we use “sein” as the helping verb. I put “sein” where the conjugated verb goes, which, since this is a statement, is directly behind the subject “ich”. The Partizip 2 of “reisen” is “gereist”, which I put at the end of the sentence.

More Rules for Regular Verbs in the Perfekt Tense

The verbs “machen” and “reisen” are regular verbs, which is why they added ge- to the front and -t to the end when making the Partizip 2. Other regular verbs do something similar, but not quite exactly the same. There are a few extra rules we need to know before we can claim to be the masters of all regular verbs in the Perfekt tense.

Rule Number #1

Verb stems that end with T or D require an added -e between the stem and the final -t in the Partizip 2. This also happens when there is a cluster of consonants that would make it difficult to pronounce without this additional -e. For example:

Infinitiv: arbeiten
Verbstamm: arbeit
Partizip 2: gearbeitet

Mein Vater hat zwanzig Jahre bei dieser Firma gearbeitet. –
My father worked at this company for 20 years.

Infinitiv: reden
Verbstamm: red
Partizip 2: geredet

Die Mutter hat mit der Lehrerin geredet. –
The mother talked with the teacher.

Infinitiv: atmen
Verbstamm: atm
Partizip 2: geatmet

Wir haben tief durchgeatmet. –
We breathed deeply.

Rule Number #2

If a verb has a separable prefix, the Partizip 2 requires the ge- between the prefix and the rest of the verb. For example:

Infinitiv: aufwachen
Verbstamm: wach
Partizip 2: aufgewacht

Ich bin mitten in der Nacht aufgewacht. –
I woke up in the middle of the night.

Infinitiv: vorstellen
Verbstamm: stell
Partizip 2: vorgestellt

Die Lehrerin hat den Kindern die neue Schülerin vorgestellt. –
The teacher introduced the new student to the children.

Infinitiv: zuhören
Verbstamm: hör
Partizip 2: zugehört

Hast du mir nicht zugehört? –
Didn’t you listen to me?

Rule Number #3

If a verb has an inseparable prefix, the Partizip 2 does not add ge- to the beginning. For example:

Infinitiv: erzählen
Verbstamm: erzähl
Partizip 2: erzählt

Sein Vater hat ihm jede Nacht eine Geschichte erzählt. –
His father told him a story every night.

Infinitiv: versuchen
Verbstamm: versuch
Partizip 2: versucht

Sie hat versucht einen Kuchen zu backen. –
She tried to bake a cake.

Infinitiv: verabreden
Verbstamm: verabred
Partizip 2: verabredet

Wir haben verabredet, nicht mehr vor den Kindern zu streiten. –
We agreed not to argue in front of the children anymore.

Rule Number #4

If a verb ends with -ieren, no ge- is added to the front of the Partizip 2. Fun extra fact, EVERY and I do mean EVERY verb that ends with -ieren is regular in every tense. For example:

Infinitiv: apportieren
Verbstamm: apportier
Partizip 2: apportiert

Der Hund hat fast eine Stunde Bälle apportiert. –
The dog fetched balls for almost an hour.

Infinitiv: fotografieren
Verbstamm: fotografier
Partizip 2: fotografiert

Als Kind habe ich fast alles fotografiert. –
As a child I photographed almost everything.

Infinitiv: studieren
Verbstamm: studier
Partizip 2: studiert

Ihr Bruder hat Chemie an der Uni studiert. –
Her brother studied chemistry at the university.

Past Tense with “haben” and “sein”

I mentioned earlier that the Perfekt tense is usually used when speaking. What I didn’t mention yet is the use of “haben” and “sein”. Since “haben” uses “haben” as a helping verb in the Perfekt tense and “sein” uses “sein”, it is often considered redundant to use these verbs in this tense. Most people will use the Präteritum tense of these two verbs when speaking instead of the Perfekt tense.

While you will often read online that the two versions of “haben” and “sein”, Perfekt and Präteritum, can be used interchangeably, in practice this isn’t really the case. This is another instance of native speakers overlooking a pattern, because it has become too familiar to them. Pay attention to the following examples:

Ich war im Club und meine Ex-Freundin ist auch da gewesen. –
I was in the club and my ex-girlfriend was there too.

The first half was written in the Präteritum tense, as it was a continuing action in the past. It sort of sets the stage for when the second action occurred. The second half is an action that is done or complete. Let’s switch the sentence around and see what happens.

Ich bin im Club gewesen und meine Ex-Freundin war auch da. –
I was in the club and my ex-girlfriend was there too.

In this version the presence of the ex-girlfriend sets the time when something happens and the first half of the sentence shows what happened during that time frame.

Bottom line: The Perfekt tense is a completed action while the Präteritum (simple past) is an ongoing action occurring within the past. In practice, most people don’t see a distinction, because the difference is so subtle. The real difference is when speaking Perfekt is more common and when writing Präteritum is more common.

Past Tense of Modal Verbs

The Präteritum tense is also often used with the modal verbs: dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen, and wollen, but this has to do with the additional verb that would be used with the modal verb. Since modal verbs are often paired with another verb to convey the desired meaning, it just gets messy in the Perfekt tense.

If you don’t have an additional verb with the modal verb, however, the Perfekt tense is used. Most of the modal verbs are also sort of regular verbs in the Perfekt tense with one notable change. I say “sort of regular”, because the ones with umlauts lose the umlaut in the Perfekt tense, but otherwise they are regular. There is also the verb “mögen” which is irregular, as the Partizip 2 is “gemocht”. Here are a few examples using modal verbs in the Perfekt tense.

Meine Schwester kommt gegen 3 Uhr morgens nach Hause. Ich habe das nicht gedurft. –
My sister comes home at 3 in the morning. I wasn’t allowed to do that.

Ich habe diesen Film gemocht. –
I liked this film.

Ich habe dieses Getränk nicht gewollt. –
I didn’t want this drink.

As I mentioned, the use of modal verbs with the Perfekt tense is pretty rare. If you want to learn more about the past tense of modal verbs, I have an excellent post about that here.

Examples of the Perfekt vs Präsens

antworten – to respond, answer

Die Lehrerin antwortet den Schülern. –
The teacher is answering the students.

Die Lehrerin hat den Schülern geantwortet. –
The teacher answered the students.

arbeiten – to work

Mein Vater arbeitet bei einer Firma in der Stadt. –
My father works at a company in the city.

Mein Vater hat bei einer Firma in der Stadt gearbeitet. –
My father worked at a company in the city.

fragen – to ask

Das Kind fragt seine Mutter. –
The child asks his mother.

Das Kind hat seine Mutter gefragt. –
The child asked his mother.

glauben – to believe, to think

Der Lehrer glaubt dem Schüler nicht. –
The teacher doesn’t believe the student.

Der Lehrer hat dem Schüler nicht geglaubt. –
The teacher didn’t believe the student.

erleben – to experience

Ich erlebe das jeden Tag. –
I experience that every day.

Ich habe das jeden Tag erlebt. –
I experienced that every day.

verabreden – to arrange

Der Chef verabredet für morgen mit ihr. –
The boss arranges to meet her tomorrow.

Der Chef hat für morgen mit ihr verabredet. –
The boss arranged to meet her tomorrow.

entwickeln – to develop

Ich entwickle eine neue Krawatte. –
I am developing a new tie.

Ich habe eine neue Krawatte entwickelt. –
I developed a new tie.

interessieren – to interest

Some how I forgot to mention it in the video, but verbs that end with -ieren do not get the “ge-” at the beginning of the past participle.

Fußball interessiert mich. –
Soccer interests me.

Fußball hat mich interessiert. –
Soccer interested me.

How Nena can help you practice the Perfekt tense

In meinem Leben - Nena: Lyrical Analysis - German Learning Tips #19 - Deutsch lernen

Verse 1

The video above covers a lot of the song, but I thought I would take an even closer look here. Let’s start with the first verse.

In meinem Leben – In my life
Bin ich oft geflogen – I have often flown
Bin ich tief gefallen – I have fallen deeply
Und manchmal auch ertrunken – and sometimes drowned, too
Ich hab gewonnen – I have won
Und ich hab verloren – and I have lost
Und ich bin gestorben – and I have died
Und wieder neu geboren – and been born again
Ich hab gegeben – I have given
Und ich hab genommen – and I have taken
Wir haben uns gefunden – We have found ourselves
Wir sind so weit gekommen – We have come so far
Ich bin mir nah – I am close to myself
Und immer wieder fremd – and a stranger again
Das hat was von allein sein – That has to do with being alone
Und das mich keiner kennt – and that no one knows me

Because she starts with a prepositional phrase the subject of the sentence, “ich”, moves to the other side of the conjugated form of “haben” or “sein”. As a result she can start each line with a form of “haben” or “sein” and end each line with a past participle. This is great for German learners, because it allows you to follow along very easily. You can clearly see that the “bin” at the beginning of the second line is connected to the “geflogen” at the end of that same line.

Verbs with das Perfekt – Verse 1

If you follow the same logic for the following lines you can start to make a list of verbs and past participles and whether they use “haben” or “sein” with das Perfekt. I took the liberty of creating that list for you so you can follow along with the song and know what each verb means and what past participle it takes. In order to help you follow along, I put them in the same order that they appear in the song.

fliegen: Ich bin geflogen.
to fly: I have flown.

fallen: Ich bin gefallen.
to fall: I have fallen.

ertrinken: Ich bin ertrunken.
to drown: I have drowned.

gewinnen: Ich habe gewonnen.
to win: I have won.

verlieren: Ich habe verloren.
to lose: I have lost.

sterben: Ich bin gestorben.
to die: I have died.

geben: Ich habe gegeben.
to give: I have given.

nehmen: Ich habe genommen.
to take: I have taken.

finden: Wir haben gefunden.
to find: We have found.

kommen: Wir sind gekommen.
to come: We have come.

Verbs with das Perfekt – After Verse 1

In the next several verses we get even more verbs. Here is a list of those as they appear in the present perfect tense.

weinen: Ich habe geweint.
to cry: I have cried.

lachen: Ich habe gelacht.
to laugh: I have laughed.

trinken: Ich habe getrunken.
to drink: I have drunk.

rauchen: Ich habe geraucht.
to smoke: I have smoked.

aufbrauchen: Ich habe meine Kräfte aufgebraucht.
to use up: I have used up my strength.

lügen: Ich habe gelogen.
to lie: I have lied.

betrügen: Ich habe dich und mich betrugen.
to cheat: I have cheated you and me.

sinken: Ich bin gesunken.
to sink: I have sunk.

Verb Opposites

With the verbs in this song we can actually learn something else in addition to the present perfect. We can also learn the opposites of several popular verbs.

fliegen – to fly
fallen – to fall

gewinnen – to win
verlieren – to lose

geben – to give
nehmen – to take

weinen – to cry
lachen – to laugh

All in all, this is a great song, not just because it has a great tune, but because it is a built in mini lesson about das Perfekt. You can learn German from it simply by enjoying a great love song. You can watch the music video for it below.

NENA | In meinem Leben [2010] [Offizielles Musikvideo]

Learn More About the Perfekt Tense with These Lessons!

If you are really wanting to put your German learning on track, consider joining Herr Antrim’s Deutschlerner Club! For just $14.99 per month you will get access to his full A1 and A2 courses plus new materials as he creates them. You will go from knowing zero German to being able to have a short conversation in a short few weeks. Before you know it, you will be conversational in German on a variety of important topics, all while mastering German grammar.

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