das Perfekt mit haben oder sein

    Your German teacher is great. Probably one of your favorite teachers of all time. They taught you a lot of cool things about the German language, but they aren’t always right. This causes you to become confused and mess things up that you otherwise wouldn’t have messed up. Today I’ll explain to you how your German teacher taught you the Perfekt tense incorrectly and what the real explanation is.

    Practice your knowledge of the Perfekt tense with a worksheet, answer key, mp3 download and copy of the script here.

    das Perfekt Skit

    (Herr Lehrer) If a verb shows motion, use “sein” in the Perfekt. If a verb does not show motion, use “haben” in the Perfekt.

    (Inquisitive Antrim) If I am playing soccer, I am clearly moving around, kicking the ball, running from one side of the field to the other, all of that means I should use “sein”, right Herr Lehrer?

    (Herr Lehrer) No. Playing is a non-motion verb. Insert convoluted explanation as to why this could possibly be.

    Beginner German with Herr Antrim

    (Inquisitive Antrim) But when I ride my bicycle, I am moving and then I need “sein”, right Herr Lehrer?

    (Herr Lehrer) Maybe. You say “Ich bin mit dem Fahrrad gefahren.” but “Ich habe das Fahrrad gefahren.” I would love to explain why, but it just is that way. It is just one of those things that you have to get used to in German.

    (Real Herr Antrim) NO IT ISN’T!

    How das Perfekt is usually taught

    Almost everyone who has learned about “das Perfekt” or the present perfect tense, the spoken past or whatever your teacher called it, has probably been told that you use “sein” and a past participle when the verb is a motion verb and “haben” with the past participle when it is not a motion verb. For example:

    Ich bin mit dem Bus nach Chicago gefahren.
    I drove by bus to Chicago.

    We used “bin”, a form of “sein”, with the past participle “gefahren”, because the act of driving from one place to another includes motion.

    Ich habe Pizza in Chicago gegessen.
    I ate pizza in Chicago.

    We used “habe”, a form of “haben”, with the past participle “gegessen”, because the act of eating does not make you go from one place to another, which means there is no motion involved.

    Why they are wrong about das Perfekt

    Well, spoiler alert, they are wrong or at the very least inaccurate. Try these two examples:

    Ich habe das Auto nach Chicago gefahren.
    I drove the car to Chicago.

    FREE A1/A2 Materials

    In the previous example, the verb “fahren” was a motion verb, which is why we used “sein”, so how did the verb suddenly change from a motion verb to a non-motion verb while having the same meaning? IT DIDN’T! What about this one?

    Ich bin in Chicago geblieben.
    I stayed in Chicago.

    How is the verb “bleiben”, which means to remain or stay, the very definition of a non-motion verb, a motion verb that requires “sein” in the Perfekt? IT ISN’T! Your German teacher probably wrote this verb off as an exception to their rule of motion vs non-motion, but it isn’t an exception to the rule, it follows the rule perfectly, but your teacher is using the wrong rule.

    The Real Rule

    (Sarcastic Antrim) Ok, Herr Smartypants, what is the rule then?

    While the motion vs non-motion rule is a good rule of thumb, it isn’t a good rule of grammar, as it isn’t accurate and causes students to have trouble when it comes to the verbs and verb uses that don’t fit into this paradigm. The real rule requires you to understand two grammatical terms. Transitive verb and Intransitive verb.

    A transitive verb is a verb that either requires or very often takes a direct object. It is a verb whose action is applied to an object or person. This includes verbs like “to play”. You can say “Ich habe gespielt.” (I played.) and not have an object, but “Ich habe Schach gespielt.” (I played chess.) is also possible. If the “default” version of a verb requires an object or the verb usually is verbing some object or acting upon some object, it is a transitive verb. These verbs require “haben” in the Perfekt in German.

    An intransitive verb is either a verb that can’t take an object or one whose default version does not require a direct object. These verbs require “sein” in the Perfekt tense. While a lot of these verbs are “motion” verbs, the idea of motion is too vague to be an accurate description of what is happening. An intransitive verb can’t act upon something. It can only act. Let’s look back at our examples from before.

    Transitive vs Intransitive Examples

    Ich bin mit dem Bus nach Chicago gefahren.
    I drove by bus to Chicago.

    In this sentence the verb “fahren” does not have a direct object. The mode of transportation is contained within the prepositional phrase “mit dem Bus” and therefore is not being directly acted upon by the subject. This version is an intransitive verb. Most of the time, this is how “fahren” is used, which is why most textbooks and teachers tell their students that “fahren” requires “sein” in the Perfekt tense. The problem is that you can drive something. That is exactly what happened in our second example.

    Ich habe das Auto nach Chicago gefahren.
    I drove the car to Chicago.

    The car is the direct object of the sentence. It is the thing being driven. It is directly acted upon by the subject, “ich”. This means that “fahren” in this sentence is being used as a transitive verb. It has a direct object. This is why we use “haben” in this sentence.

    bleiben (to stay) shows motion?

    Ich bin in Chicago geblieben.
    I stayed in Chicago.

    The verb “bleiben” cannot have a direct object.

    (Sarcastic Antrim) But, something can stay something. I am still the same man I once was. I remained the same man. Ha. I showed you, Herr Smartypants.

    Sorry. That’s not a direct object. That is a predicate nominative. This means that you use the nominative case in the part of the sentence after the verb. Essentially it is used when you can put an equal sign where the verb is. In your example, if I put an equal sign where “remained” was, the sentence means the same thing. I = the same man. This means we do not have an object that is being acted upon, but rather a restating of the subject after the verb. Here’s an example in German.

    Die Antwort ist ein Rätsel geblieben.
    The answer remained a puzzle/mystery.

    Both the answer and a mystery are the same thing and one is not acting upon the other. Therefore, both are used in the nominative case. This means that “bleiben” is still being used as an intransitive verb, which will require “sein” in the Perfekt tense.

    Direct Object or No Direct Object, that is the question

    The rule boils down to this: Is there a direct object or is a direct object more often than not used with this verb? If yes, use “haben”. If no, use “sein”. The direct object almost always answers the question “what”. Let’s take a look at more examples to drive this home.

    Ich bin mit dem Flugzeug geflogen.
    I flew by plane.

    No direct object, intransitive verb, requires “sein”. What did you fly? Nothing. The plane flew and I went along. I didn’t fly anything.

    Ich habe das Flugzeug geflogen.
    I flew the plane (on my own).

    Direct object, transitive verb, requires “haben”. What did you fly? The plane. The plane flew, because I made it do so. I flew the plane. The plane is my direct object.

    Reflexive Pronouns Count as Objects

    Ich habe mich hingesetzt.
    I sat myself down.

    Direct object, transitive verb, requires “haben”. The reflexive pronoun “mich” is the direct object of the sentence. What did I set down? Myself.

    Ich bin aufgestanden.
    I stood up.

    No direct object, intransitive verb, requires “sein”. What did you stand up? Nothing. I am acting, but not acting upon something or someone. There is no direct object.

    Do you get it now? Do you have a better grasp of the “sein” vs “haben” dilemma? Did I just blow your mind? Are you going to show your German teacher this video and be like, “I told you there had to be a better explanation than ‘It just is that way’.” I bet if you do, your teacher will tell you they knew that all along, but they didn’t want to confuse you. What other lies have they told you?

    Herr Antrim

    Herr Antrim is a German teacher with over 10 years of teaching experience. In 2011 he started his successful YouTube Channel "Learn German with Herr Antrim". In 2015 he created this website to enhance the German language lessons he was providing on YouTube. He is now the author of his own e-book, "Beginner German with Herr Antrim". He has also been featured on numerous blogs and other sites.