EVERY Tense in German Explained! – Präsens, Perfekt, Präteritum, Plusquamperfekt, Futur 1, Futur 2

Hallo, Deutschlerner. The German language has 6 tenses. In this lesson I will introduce them all to you and show you a general overview of how they are used, why they exist and how you form them. For each of these tenses, I have already made a post or multiple posts that go into much more detail. You can find links to all of those at the end of this post & sprinkled throughout the post. 

What is a tense?

First, let’s define what a tense is and what a tense is not. Tenses describe two things. They tell us if the action is complete or ongoing and when the action happened or will happen relative to the speaker’s point of view.

How many tenses are there in German & what are they?

There are 6 tenses in German: Präsens, Perfekt, Präteritum, Plusquamperfekt, Futur 1 & Futur 2. There is one present tense (Präsens), three past tenses (Perfekt, Präteritum & Plusquamperfekt) and two future tenses (Futur 1 & Futur 2).

Contrary to common belief, the Präsens and Perfekt tenses do not tell us the time of anything. This is done by adverbs and prepositions among other things when we use those tenses. The other four tenses do tell us the time when something happened or will happen. Let’s take a look at all of the tenses to see what I mean. 

Präsens – Present

There are two tenses that serve as reference points for the other tenses. First up is the Prӓsens, often called the present tense by English native speakers in German classes. This tense tells us that an action is currently happening at the time the sentence is used. This can mean that the action is happening just that one time or it could be something that happens multiple times and is likely to occur again.

The sentence “Ich esse.” can mean that the speaker is currently eating at the time they said “Ich esse.” In English we would use the progressive tense “I am eating.” to express this. You can also use the Präsens to mean that you have eaten before and you are likely to do so again in the future. The action of eating is ongoing. In English we would use the simple present tense “I eat.” 

Perfekt – Present Perfect (Spoken Past)

The Perfekt tense is often called the present perfect tense by English speakers (although they are not exactly equivalent). This tense tells us that the action is complete at the time the sentence is used. This is why it is used to speak about past events in German. The sentence “Ich habe gegessen.” means that the speaker is already finished eating at the time they said “Ich habe gegessen.” The action has been completed. 

Trying to translate the Perfekt tense into English is a bit problematic at times, as the present perfect tense in English does not fit perfectly with the Perfekt tense in German. You can translate the phrase “Ich habe gegessen.” with the English phrase “I have eaten.” (the present perfect tense) or “I ate.” (simple past tense). The differences between these tenses are made up through context and extra descriptors within the sentence. The main point is that it describes an action that is complete. 

Futur 1 – Future

The other four German tenses simply give us a time relative to the Prӓsens or Perfekt tenses. The Futur 1 is usually simply called the future tense in English. It shows us that an action is ongoing, but happens after the current reference point (i.e. the future). For example: Ich werde essen. – I will eat. This tells us that the action of eating has not yet begun, but when it does start, it will be an ongoing action. 

Futur 2 – Future Perfect

The Futur 2, usually translated as the future perfect in English, shows us that an action is completed after the current reference point (i.e. the future). For example: Ich werde gegessen haben. – I will have eaten. This tells us that the action of eating is complete at the reference point that is sometime after now. 

Präteritum – Simple Past (Written Past)

The Prӓteritum tense is usually translated with the preterite or simple past tense in English. It shows us an ongoing action that occurred before the current reference point (i.e. the past). For example: Ich aß. – I ate. This tells us that the action of eating already occurred at the time the statement is made, but that was ongoing at that time. It was an ongoing action before now. 

Plusquamperfekt – Past Perfect (Pluperfect)

The Plusquamperfekt, usually translated as the Pluperfect or past perfect, shows us a completed action that occurred before the current reference point (i.e. the past). For example: Ich hatte gegessen. – I had eaten. This tells us that not only did the action of eating take place before now, that action was completed at the time of reference. It is used to differentiate between two points in the past. It isn’t very commonly used, because you can already differentiate relatively easily with the Perfekt tense. Adding an extra layer to it is usually unnecessary. You can use an adverb or a prepositional phrase to express the same type of thing that is explicitly done by the Plusquamperfekt. 

One German Tenses Infographic to Rule Them All!

All German Tenses Explained with Example Sentences
Every tense in German answers 2 fundamental questions:
1. Is the action ongoing or complete?
2. Is this happening now (present), before now (past) or after now (future)?

German Tenses vs English Tenses

Let’s take a look at a few examples to see them in more concrete uses and how they compare to each other. 

Präsens – Present

Mein Bruder isst jeden Morgen zwei Eier. –
My brother eats two eggs every morning. 

Due to the use of the adverb “jeden Morgen”,  you cannot use the English present progressive tense “My brother is eating two eggs every morning.” This would be one of those sentences in English that identifies you as a non-native English speaker, as it just doesn’t quite sound right, even though it makes logical sense. 

Perfekt – Present Perfect (Spoken Past)

Mein Bruder hat jeden Morgen zwei Eier gegessen. –
My brother ate two eggs every morning. 

This is an interesting sentence, because I used the simple past tense in English to translate, due to the use of the adverb “every morning”. It is possible to translate this sentence with the English present perfect tense, “My brother has eaten two eggs every morning.” This translation would have to change, if I added “seit letzter Woche” (since last week). Then the sentences would look like this. 

Mein Bruder hat jeden Morgen seit letzter Woche zwei Eier gegessen. –
My brother has eaten two eggs every morning since last week. 

As you can see, in English, the adverbs of time have a big influence on which tense you use, but in German this issue is not important. In German, the only questions we have are “Is this action ongoing or completed?” and “Is this action happening now, before now or after now?” 

Präteritum – Simple Past (Written Past)

Mein Bruder aß jeden Morgen zwei Eier. –
My brother ate two eggs every morning. 

You remember when I translated the Perfekt tense with the simple past in English just a minute ago and then I said you could totally just use the present perfect tense, if you wanted? Well, that is true for this tense, too. 

This is where we get into a bit of a hot button topic. While it is true that the Perfekt tense describes a completed action and the Präteritum describes an ongoing action in the past, it is a very ambiguous and fluid distinction. This has caused an evolution in the German language over the last century or two. In modern German, the Perfekt tense is used when speaking about past events, whereas the Präteritum tense is used when writing about past events. 

Perfekt vs Präteritum: The Real Difference

This ambiguity becomes even more apparent when you look at how the past tense of “sein” is treated in German. It is almost always used with the Präteritum tense, both when speaking and writing. This is because the Perfekt tense is redundant with “sein”. You have a conjugated form of “sein” plus a Partizip II form of “sein” at the end of the sentence. To avoid this redundancy, Germans simply use the Präteritum tense. 

Mein Bruder war im Café. –
My brother was in the café. 

vs 

Mein Bruder ist im Café gewesen. –
My brother was being in the café.
(No one would say this in English. We would use the simple past, too.) 

There is still a use for the Perfekt version of “sein”, however. This is to distinguish that the “being” is completed. “Mein Bruder war im Café.” means that the brother was in the café at the time we are referencing. “Mein Bruder ist im Café gewesen.” means that the brother is no longer in the café at the time this sentence was spoken. Is this an important distinction? Most of the time, no. Does it occasionally come in handy? Yes. 

The bottom line is that you generally use the Präteritum tense to express past events when writing and the Perfekt tense to speak about past events. Occasionally you need to make a slight distinction and you choose your tense accordingly. 

Plusquamperfekt – Past Perfect (Pluperfect)

Mein Bruder hatte jeden Morgen zwei Eier gegessen. –
My brother had eaten two eggs every morning. 

This example shows us not only that the eating is no longer going on, but that this happened before some other point of reference in the past. This is one of the few times the German and English line up almost perfectly. The English past perfect and the Plusquamperfekt can almost always be used to translate each other. Under rare circumstances the past perfect progressive, also known as the past perfect continuous, is needed, but that is less common. In the previous example that would be “My brother had been eating two eggs every morning.” 

Futur 1 – Future

Mein Bruder wird jeden Morgen zwei Eier essen. –
My brother will eat two eggs every morning. 

This is another instance when English is weird. It is entirely possible to translate this sentence as “My brother will be eating two eggs every morning.” This changes the meaning slightly in English, but in German the same sentence is used to express both of those English sentences. There is no change needed in German to make this distinction. There are no progressive or continuous tenses in German. 

Futur 2 – Future Perfect

Mein Bruder wird jeden Morgen zwei Eier gegessen haben. –
My brother will have eaten two eggs every morning. 

This is another tense in which the English and German line up almost perfectly. The future perfect shows a completed action in the future and the Futur 2 does exactly that, too. Again, the exception to the translation rule here is the use of the English future perfect progressive or future perfect continuous. This would make the translation of the last example “My brother will have been eating two eggs every morning.” 

Example Sentences with a Non-Motion Verb as a Statement in Every German Tense

German TenseGerman ExampleEnglish Translation
PräsensDie Autorin schreibt ein Buch.The author is writing (writes) a book.
PerfektDie Autorin hat ein Buch geschrieben.The author wrote (has written) a book. 
PräteritumDie Autorin schrieb ein Buch.The author wrote (has written) a book. 
PlusquamperfektDie Autorin hatte ein Buch geschrieben.The author had written (had been writing) a book. 
Futur 1 Die Autorin wird ein Buch schreiben.The author will write (will be writing) a book. 
Futur 2 Die Autorin wird ein Buch geschrieben haben.The author will have written (will have been writing) a book.
These examples use a non-motion verb, which requires “haben” as a helping verb when expressing a completed action.

Example Sentence with a Non-Motion Verb as a Question in Every German Tense

German TenseGerman ExampleEnglish Translation
PräsensKauft dein Bruder ein neues Auto?Is your brother buying a new car? (Does your brother buy a new car?) 
PerfektHat dein Bruder ein neues Auto gekauft?Did your brother buy a new car? (Has your brother bought a new car?)
PräteritumKaufte dein Bruder ein neues Auto?Did your brother buy a new car? (Has your brother bought a new car?)
PlusquamperfektHatte dein Bruder ein neues Auto gekauft?Had your brother bought a new car? (Had your brother been buying a new car?)
Futur 1 Wird dein Bruder ein neues Auto kaufen?Will your brother buy a new car? (Will your brother be buying a new car?)
Futur 2 Wird dein Bruder ein neues Auto gekauft haben?Will your brother have bought a new car? (Will your brother have been buying a new car?)
These examples use a non-motion verb, which requires “haben” as a helping verb when expressing a completed action.

Example Sentence with a Motion Verb in Every German Tense

German TenseGerman ExampleEnglish Translation
PräsensDer Junge geht ins Geschäft. The boy goes (is going) into the store.
PerfektDer Junge ist ins Geschäft gegangen.The boy went (has gone) into the store. 
PräteritumDer Junge ging ins Geschäft.The boy went (has gone) into the store. 
PlusquamperfektDer Junge war ins Geschäft gegangen.The boy had gone (had been going) into the store. 
Futur 1 Der Junge wird ins Geschäft gehen.The boy will go (will be going) into the store. 
Futur 2 Der Junge wird ins Geschäft gegangen sein.The boy will have gone (will have been going) into the store. 
These examples use a motion verb, which requires “sein” as a helping verb when expressing a completed action.

Example Sentence with a Modal Verb in Every German Tense

German TenseGerman ExampleEnglish Translation
PräsensDas Kind muss nach Hause gehen.The child has to (is having to) go home. 
PerfektDas Kind hat nach Hause gehen müssen.The child had (has had) to go home. 
PräteritumDas Kind musste nach Hause gehen.The child had (has had) to go home. 
PlusquamperfektDas Kind hatte nach Hause gehen müssen.The child had had (had been having) to go home.
Futur 1 Das Kind wird nach Hause gehen müssen.The child will have (will be having) to go home. 
Futur 2 Das Kind wird nach Hause sein gehen müssen.The child will have had (will have been having) to go home.
These examples use a motion verb, which requires “sein” as a helping verb when expressing a completed action.

More About Tenses in German

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have lessons explaining each of these German tenses in detail. You can click the links below to find the ones you are most interested in. Das ist alles für heute. Danke fürs Zuschauen. Bis zum nächsten Mal. Tschüss. 

Präsens – Present Tense Posts

Present Tense Master Class
Regular Conjugation in the Present Tense
Present Tense of “haben”
Present Tense of “sein”
Konjugation mit “Gewinner” & “Verlierer” von Clueso
Irregular Verbs in Present Tense (Stem-Changing Verbs)

Perfekt – Present Perfect Tense Posts

Basics of the Perfekt Tense + Regular Verbs
Perfekt mit “haben” oder “sein”
Perfekt with Irregular Verbs
3 Principal Parts of German Verbs
Was hast du am Wochenende gemacht? – Perfekt Example Dialogue
Du hast eine echt coole Party verpasst. – Perfekt Example Dialogue

Präteritum – Simple Past Tense Posts

Präteritum Overview
haben in Simple Past
Regular Verbs in Simple Past
Irregular Verbs in Simple past
3 Principal Parts of German Verbs
Modal Verbs in Simple Past
Rainers erste Reise – Präteritum Reading Comprehension
eine Geschichte im Präteritum – Präteritum Reading Comprehension
Hans im Glück – Präteritum Reading Comprehension
Rapunzel – Präteritum Reading Comprehension & Practice

Plusquamperfekt – Past Perfect Tense Posts

Past Perfect Explained in 3 Minutes

Futur 1 – Future Tense Posts

Future Tense with “werden”

Futur 2 – Future Perfect Tense Posts

Future Perfect Explained in 3 Minutes