6 German vs 12 English Tenses: When to Use Which?

If you’ve ever tried to translate between German and English, you’ve probably come across verb tenses and their details. It may seem simple, but it can get tricky. One German sentence can become several English sentences. In this blog post, we will closely examine the German vs English tenses. Let’s look at this interesting language challenge.

6 German vs. 12 English Tenses: When to Use Which? - B1 German Grammar

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Translating “Bob isst”

Do you know how to translate this sentence into English? 

GermanEnglish
Bob isst. ???

It seems like this should be pretty easy to do, but what if I told you that you could translate this ONE German sentence with any of these THREE English sentences? 

GermanEnglish
Bob isst. Bob eats. OR Bob is eating. OR Bob has been eating.

These are all correct translations for this ONE super simple German sentence. Why? What is going on here? 

Surely that is just a weird example, right? What about the past tense version? How would you translate this?

GermanEnglish
Bob hat gegessen. ???

It seems simple that since there are 6 tenses in German and 12 in English there is going to be more than one way to translate something from German into English, but it isn’t just the one direction that is a problem. 

How would you translate this?

EnglishGerman
Bob ate.???

Wrong again. You could say either of these two options.

EnglishGerman
Bob ate.Bob aß. OR Bob hat gegessen.

Some of you may remember my blog post about the six German tenses from last year. However, today’s post is a departure from that. We’re delving into the intricacies of translating between German and English, exploring both directions. If you haven’t had a chance to read my previous post on German tenses, I suggest checking it out after this one (Video link here: Every Tense in German).

Understanding English Tenses

Before delving into German-English translations, let’s establish a solid understanding of English tenses. Even if you’re a native English speaker, this section can be valuable. If you’re confident in your grasp of all twelve English tenses—how to form them, when to use them—feel free to skip ahead (timestamp provided in the video).
We can categorize English tenses into three categories: Basic tense, Perfect, and continuous (or progressive).”

Basic tenses

The basic tenses consist of past, present, and future, each with its dedicated “simple” tense.

1. Simple Past Tense

In English, the simple past tense refers to actions that occurred before the present moment. For instance, “Bob ate the cookie” tells us that the eating happened in the past, but it doesn’t provide much additional information.

2. Simple Present Tense

The simple present tense signifies actions happening at the time of the statement or habitual actions. For example, “Bob eats the cookie” implies that the eating is currently taking place, and this tense often conveys ongoing actions. For plural subjects, such as “They eat the cookie,” the verb form remains the same.

3. Simple Future Tense

The simple future tense predicts actions that have not occurred yet but are likely to happen after the present moment. “Bob will eat the cookie” suggests a future action.
These three basic tenses lay the foundation for understanding the complexities of German-English verb translations.

We’ve already covered the three basic tenses in English: past, present, and future. However, the complexity deepens as we delve into the realms of progressive and perfect tenses. These additional elements can be added to each of the basic tenses, resulting in a total of twelve English tenses.

Progressive Tenses: The Continuous Actions

Progressive tenses, commonly known as continuous tenses, earn their name by indicating actions that began before a particular reference point and are continuing at that point, aligning with the basic tense (past, present, or future).

1. Past Progressive Tense

In the past progressive tense, we observe an action that began before a past reference point and continued thereafter. For example, “Bob was eating the cookie” indicates that Bob commenced eating the cookie in the past and was still eating it at a particular past moment. In the plural form, “were eating” would be used.

2. Present Progressive Tense

The present progressive tense showcases actions that started before the present moment and are continuing at the very instant of speaking. “Bob is eating the cookie” demonstrates that Bob started eating before now and is still doing so. The choice between “am eating,” “is eating,” or “are eating” depends on the subject.

3. Future Progressive Tense

Looking into the future progressive tense, we find actions that initiate before a future reference point and persist into that future moment. “Bob will be eating the cookie” suggests that Bob will begin eating the cookie before a specified future time and will continue doing so.

These progressive tenses consistently employ the “-ing” form of the verb, combined with a helping verb, which is always a form of “to be” (e.g., “was” for past, “is” for present, “will be” for future).

Perfect Tenses

The Completed Actions Perfect tenses describe actions or states of being that are completed either before the present moment, at the present moment, or in the future.

1. Past Perfect Tense

The past perfect tense, also known as the pluperfect, illustrates actions that were completed before a point in the past that is also before the present moment. “Bob had eaten the cookie” indicates that Bob completed eating the cookie, and this completion is evident before now.

2. Present Perfect

Tense In the present perfect tense, actions have been completed, and the results are observable in the present. “Bob has eaten the cookie” suggests that Bob’s eating has concluded, and this fact is apparent now. For plural subjects, “have eaten” is used.

3. Future Perfect Tense

The future perfect tense envisions actions that will be completed in the future, but their completed status won’t be evident until after the present moment. “Bob will have eaten the cookie” implies that Bob will finish eating the cookie, but we won’t see this completion until the future.

The perfect tenses rely on the helping verb “to have” and the perfect form of the main verb. For regular verbs, this involves using the past tense of the verb (e.g., “walked” for “to walk”). Thus, we have examples like “Bob had walked,” “Bob has walked,” and “Bob will have walked” for the respective tenses.

Combining Progressive and Perfect Tenses

Now that we understand the functions of progressive and perfect tenses individually, we can explore their combinations.

1. Past Perfect Progressive Tense

The past perfect progressive tense describes actions that began before a past reference point, continued afterward, and have since been completed. “Bob had been eating the cookie” tells us that Bob started eating the cookie before a specific past moment, continued eating beyond that point, and has now finished.

Notice that this tense incorporates both the helping verb “to have” (had) and the helping verb “to be” (been), along with the “-ing” form of the main verb, encompassing all three elements: the main tense, perfect, and progressive.

2. Present Perfect Progressive Tense

In the present perfect progressive tense, actions started before the present and continued for a duration that, from the sentence’s perspective, is now. “Bob has been eating the cookie” implies that Bob initiated eating before now and has been doing so up to the present moment. In the plural form, “They have been eating the cookies” is used.

3. Future Perfect Progressive Tense

The future perfect progressive tense portrays actions that haven’t yet concluded, but they began before a future reference point and are ongoing. “Bob will have been eating the cookie” suggests that, at the specified future time, Bob will have been eating the cookie for a period.
With these twelve tenses in English, we can visualize a timeline illustrating when each tense occurs in relation to the point of reference, adding depth and precision to our language.

Group / Time Present Past Future 
Simple verb / verb + sam / is / are the second form(regular / irregular) will + verb 
Continuous am / is / are + verb + ing was / were + verb + ing will be + verb + ing 
Perfect have / has + the third form had + the third form will have + the third form 
Perfect Continuous have / has been + verb + ing had been + verb + ing will have been + verb + ing 

The three verb forms mentioned in the flowchart are infinitive, simple past, and perfect form. I have several videos about his pattern in German, but the same is done in English as well. The verb I used in all of my examples is irregular. It changes from the infinitive “to eat”, to the simple past “ate” and finally the perfect “eaten”. An example of a regular verb would be “to walk”, “walked”, “walked”.

If you want to see how this works in German, watch this video (3 Principal Parts of German Verbs: Infinitive, Simple Past, Pas Participle).

Understanding German Tenses in Context with English

In our exploration of verb tenses, we’ve covered the intricacies of English, including progressive and perfect tenses. Now, it’s time to align German tenses with their English counterparts. Traditional German grammar recognizes six tenses: Plusquamperfekt, Perfekt, Präteritum, Präsens, Futur 1, and Futur 2. While there are some similarities between the two languages, it’s essential to use German names for German tenses and English names for English tenses to avoid confusion.

Diverging Perspectives: The German Progressive Tense

Before diving into the German tenses, it’s worth noting that some dialectical and conversational changes have introduced a form of progressive tense in German. For example, “Ich war am Arbeiten,” “Ich bin am Arbeiten,” and “Ich werde am Arbeiten sein” are direct translations from English to German. However, many German teachers consider these forms non-standard or colloquial. While native speakers may use them, don’t be overly concerned if you’re not familiar with them.

German Tenses: Completeness and Timing

German tenses serve two primary functions: indicating whether an action is complete or ongoing and specifying when the action occurred or will occur relative to the speaker’s viewpoint. Contrary to common belief, the Präsens (present) and Perfekt (present perfect) tenses in German do not inherently convey the time of an event. Temporal information is conveyed through adverbs, prepositions, and other contextual cues.

The other four German tenses (Plusquamperfekt, Präteritum, Futur 1, and Futur 2) are the ones that directly indicate when an action happened or will happen in relation to the speaker’s perspective. To better understand the intricacies, let’s explore each of the six German tenses and how they correspond to English.

1. Plusquamperfekt (Past Perfect)

The Plusquamperfekt tense in German represents actions that were completed before a past reference point, similar to the English past perfect tense. For instance, “Er hatte das Buch gelesen” translates to “He had read the book.” This tense emphasizes that the reading was completed before a particular past moment.

2. Perfekt (Present Perfect)

Perfekt in German corresponds to the English present perfect tense, describing actions that have been completed with results observable in the present. “Ich habe das Buch gelesen” translates to “I have read the book.”

3. Präteritum (Simple Past)

Präteritum in German aligns with the simple past tense in English. It’s used to recount events that happened in the past without emphasizing their impact on the present. For example, “Er las das Buch” translates to “He read the book.”

4. Präsens (Present)

Präsens in German functions similarly to the English present tense, but it doesn’t inherently convey when an action occurs. Instead, it indicates actions or states of being in the present moment, such as “Ich lese das Buch” meaning “I read the book.”

5. Futur 1 (Future Simple)

Futur 1 in German corresponds to the English future simple tense, indicating actions that will happen in the future from the speaker’s perspective. “Ich werde das Buch lesen” translates to “I will read the book.”

6. Futur 2 (Future Perfect)

Lastly, Futur 2 in German aligns with the English future perfect tense, denoting actions that will be completed in the future, but the completed state won’t be evident until after a specified point. For instance, “Ich werde das Buch gelesen haben” translates to “I will have read the book.”

Complexities in Translation

Despite the apparent similarities between German and English tenses, it’s essential to recognize that translation is not always straightforward. For every German tense, there may be several English tenses that could be used, depending on the context. These complexities illustrate that the differences between the two languages go beyond the absence of progressive tenses in German. In the next part of this discussion, we’ll delve deeper into each German tense, providing examples and clarifying the nuances of translation.

In the world of German verb tenses, the Präsens (present) and Präteritum (simple past) tenses offer their own unique complexities, which become apparent when translating into English. Both German tenses often require additional context or modifiers to ensure accurate translations. Let’s explore each of these tenses in detail and shed light on their nuanced translations.

1. Präsens (Present Tense):

In German, the Präsens tense can be expressed with a sentence like “Bob isst,” which translates into English as “Bob eats.” However, the German sentence is inherently ambiguous. It implies that Bob has been known to eat and will likely continue to do so in the future. To remove this ambiguity, context or adverbs, prepositions, and other additional information within the sentence can be used.

Contextual Clarification:

  • “Bob isst manchmal.” – “Bob eats sometimes.” In this case, both languages are explicit in their meaning, indicating that Bob occasionally eats, without specifying the present moment.
  • “Bob isst gerade.” – “Bob is eating right now.” By adding “gerade,” which means “right now,” to the German sentence, we eliminate any ambiguity and align it with the English translation.

Translation Options:

  • “Bob isst.” – “Bob eats.” OR “Bob is eating.” OR “Bob has been eating.”
  • “Bob isst manchmal.” – “Bob eats sometimes.”
  • “Bob isst gerade.” – “Bob is eating right now.”

These examples illustrate the importance of context when translating between languages. Often, the choice of translation depends on the specific circumstances or nuances of the conversation.

2. Präteritum (Simple Past Tense)

The Präteritum tense in German, represented by “Bob aß” or “Bob hat gegessen,” shares similarities with the Perfekt tense. While technically Präteritum suggests ongoing actions in the past, in practice, it is frequently used to describe past events, just like the Perfekt tense. The challenge in translation lies in accurately conveying the intended meaning, which may require additional context.

Translation Options:

  • “Bob hat gegessen.” OR “Bob aß.” – “Bob has eaten.” OR “Bob ate.” OR “Bob was eating.”

The first two translations often seem like the best options for Präteritum and Perfekt, as they mirror the formation. However, both sentences can be used to translate the other. “Bob hat gegessen” can mean “Bob ate” as much as it can mean “Bob has eaten,” and “Bob aß” can mean “Bob has eaten” as much as it can mean “Bob ate.” To provide clarity, context or additional words can be introduced.

Contextual Clarification:

  • “Bob hat jeden Tag einen Keks gegessen.” OR “Bob aß jeden Tag einen Keks.” – “Bob ate a cookie every day.” OR “Bob was eating a cookie every day.”
  • “Bob hat jeden Tag seit seinem Geburtstag einen Keks gegessen.” OR “Bob aß jeden Tag seit seinem Geburtstag einen Keks.” – “Bob has eaten a cookie every day since his birthday.”

These sentences with added context help differentiate the meanings, making it clear whether the action was a one-time event, a continuous habit, or an ongoing action.

As we delve further into the intricacies of German verb tenses and their English counterparts, we encounter the future tenses, specifically Futur 1 and Futur 2. While these tenses are relatively straightforward, they present a few nuances worth exploring.

1. Futur 1 (Future Simple Tense):

In German, Futur 1 is expressed with sentences like “Bob wird essen,” which translates into English as “Bob will eat.” This tense indicates actions that will occur in the future from the speaker’s perspective. However, unlike some other tenses, adding extra information or context doesn’t eliminate the potential for multiple English translations.

Contextual Clarification:

  • “Bob wird irgendwann essen.” – “Bob will eat sometime.” OR “Bob will be eating sometime.”
  • “Bob wird um zwei essen.” – “Bob will eat at two.” OR “Bob will be eating at two.”

In these examples, while the first translation is likely preferred, the second translation remains valid. Futur 1 inherently allows for a degree of ambiguity in translation, as it doesn’t specify whether the action is a simple future event or an ongoing one.

Translation Options:

  • “Bob wird essen.” – “Bob will eat.” OR “Bob will be eating.”
  • “Bob wird irgendwann essen.” – “Bob will eat sometime.” OR “Bob will be eating sometime.”
  • “Bob wird um zwei essen.” – “Bob will eat at two.” OR “Bob will be eating at two.”

2. Futur 2 (Future Perfect Tense):

Futur 2 in German, represented by sentences like “Bob wird gegessen haben,” corresponds to the English future perfect tense. It indicates actions that will be completed from a future reference point. In English, this distinction is further clarified by indicating whether the action continued for a bit before being completed.

Contextual Clarification:

  • “Bob wird seit zwei Stunden gegessen haben.” – “Bob will have been eating for two hours.” (Unambiguous)
  • “Bob wird früher gegessen haben.” – “Bob will have eaten earlier.” (Unambiguous)

In these examples, the use of time-related adverbs or phrases removes ambiguity, leaving only one valid English translation.

These contextual clarifications emphasize the temporal aspect of Futur 2 and provide a clear translation.

In the German language, things take a slightly different turn. German verb tenses mainly indicate whether an action is finished or still in progress and when it happens or happened from the speaker’s point of view.

Let’s delve into the intricacies of translating these verb tenses from German to English, uncovering the nuances that often go unnoticed.

Futur 2 in German presents an interesting challenge. It indicates an action’s completion from the future perspective, with an added twist that the action might have continued for a bit before reaching completion.

  • Das Kind wird sich an seine Hausaufgaben erinnert haben.
    Translation: The child will have remembered his homework.
    Alternative: The child will have been remembering his homework. (Less likely)
  • Der Hund wird den ganzen Tag auf dem Sofa gelegen haben.
    Translation: The dog will have laid on the sofa the entire day.
    Alternative: The dog will have been laying on the sofa the entire day.

Plusquamperfekt: The Past Before the Past

Now, let’s rewind to the past with Plusquamperfekt, a tense used to denote actions completed before another past event. It’s a bit like telling a story within a story, and it requires careful consideration when translating.

  • Bob hatte gegessen.
    Translation: Bob had eaten.
    Alternative: Bob had been eating.
    Adding context can help streamline the English translation:
  • Bob hatte seit zwei Stunden gegessen.
    Translation: Bob had been eating for two hours.
  • Bob hatte zwei Stunden gegessen.
    Translation: Bob had eaten for two hours.

Pairing German and English Verb Tenses for Translation

As we wrap up our exploration of the various German and English verb tenses, let’s recap by pairing each German tense with its corresponding English tenses. Understanding these pairings can be immensely helpful when translating between the two languages.

Präsens (Present Tense):

German: “Bob isst.”
English: Simple Present (Bob eats.), Present Progressive (Bob is eating.), Present Perfect Progressive (Bob has been eating.)

Perfekt (Perfect Tense):

German: “Bob hat gegessen.”
English: Simple Past (Bob ate.), Present Perfect (Bob has eaten.), Past Progressive (Bob was eating.)

Präteritum (Simple Past Tense):

German: “Bob aß.”
English: Simple Past (Bob ate.), Present Perfect (Bob has eaten.), Past Progressive (Bob was eating.)

Plusquamperfekt (Past Perfect Tense):

German: “Bob hatte gegessen.”
English: Past Perfect (Bob had eaten.), Past Perfect Progressive (Bob had been eating.)

Futur 1 (Future Simple Tense):

German: “Bob wird essen.”
English: Simple Future (Bob will eat.), Future Progressive (Bob will be eating.)

Futur 2 (Future Perfect Tense):

German: “Bob wird gegessen haben.”
English: Future Perfect (Bob will have eaten.), Future Perfect Progressive (Bob will have been eating.)

When I showed you the tenses in English, I had a visual representation of when the tenses take place on the screen. This representation shows when an event is occurring based on the criteria described by the various tenses. The tense itself describes when it happens. This is represented by the 3 main colors. Perfect makes it complete, which is shown by having a decided end mark from the action and an arrow pointing to that ending. Progressive makes it ongoing. This is shown with the gradient box in each of the tenses.

In German the representation was slightly different, as the tenses really just show if the action is completed or not and when that action occurs, will occur, or has occurred relative to the speaker’s point of view.

To accommodate this issue, my last visualization attempts to combine the two previous images into one that shows not only when to use each tense, but also how the tenses in each language interact.

The white lines represent points at which the action is taking place and the yellow ones show the transition from English to German.

Pop Quiz: Translations from German to English:

Ich fahre jeden Morgen mit dem Bus zur Schule.
Answer: I ride the bus to school every morning. (Click to unblur the answer.)

Was liest du zur Zeit?
Answer: What are you reading at the moment? (Click to unblur the answer.)

Wir sind schon seit zwei Stunden unterwegs.
Answer: We have been underway for two hours already. (Click to unblur the answer.)

Der Junge hat heute Morgen mit seinem Bruder gesprochen. OR Der Junge sprach heute Morgen mit seinem Bruder. 
Answer: The boy spoke with his brother this morning. OR The boy was speaking with his brother this morning. OR The boy has spoken with his brother this morning.  (Click to unblur the answer.)

Das Mädchen hat einen Kuchen zur Party mitgebracht. OR Das Mädchen brachte einen Kuchen zur Party mit. 
Answer: The girl brought a cake to the party. OR The girl was bringing a cake to the party. OR The girl has brought a cake to the party.   (Click to unblur the answer.)

Mein Bruder wird mir eine E-Mail schreiben.
Answer: My brother will write me an email. OR My brother will be writing me an email. (Click to unblur the answer.)

Meine Schwester wird eine Stunde studieren.
Answer: My sister will study for an hour.” OR “My sister will be studying for an hour. (Click to unblur the answer.)

Das Kind wird sich an seine Hausaufgaben erinnert haben. 
Answer: The child will have remembered his homework. OR (less likely) The child will have been remembering his homework.  (Click to unblur the answer.)

Der Hund wird den ganzen Tag auf dem Sofa gelegen haben. 
Answer: The dog will have laid on the sofa the entire day. OR The dog will have been laying on the sofa the entire day.  (Click to unblur the answer.)

Der Lehrer hatte den Schülern die richtigen Antworten gezeigt.
Answer: The teacher had shown the students the correct answers. OR The teacher had been showing the students the correct answers.  (Click to unblur the answer.)

Meine Oma hatte mir eine Geschichte erzählt. 
Answer: My grandma had told me a story. OR My grandma had been telling me a story. (Click to unblur the answer.)

Understanding verb tenses is essential for effective communication in any language. While English and German may have distinct systems, this breakdown helps bridge the gap, allowing learners to navigate these complexities more confidently.
We hope this explanation has shed light on the intricacies of verb tenses in English and German. If you have questions or want to test your translation skills, feel free to leave a comment below. Das ist alles für heute (That is all for today). Danke fürs Lesen (
Thank you for reading). Bis zum nächsten Mal (See you next time). Tschüss (Bye).

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