German Past Tense – How to talk about the Past in German

Past Tense German

The Perfect Tense – A Common German Past Tense

We’re now going to jump back in time to the past tense in German. There are a few different forms of the past tense, but in this article we will be looking at the Perfect Tense. This is probably the most commonly used, especially in the spoken form.

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When to use the perfect tense?

  • The perfect tense is used to talk about situations in the past:
  • For example:
    I have played football. ⇨ Ich habe Fußball gespielt.
    She has been to the cinema. ⇨ Sie ist ins Kino gegangen.

Forming a sentence in the perfect tense

The perfect tense is made up of 2 parts:

  • The first part is the present tense of either haben or sein. The majority of past tense German sentences are constructed using the verb haben, however when talking about something movement related, you would use the verb sein.
  • The second part is the past tense version of the German verb called the past participle. This is equivalent to played, walked, gone etc. in English.

The first part is pretty straight forward. The second part, forming the past participle (the past tense German verb) is a little bit more involved. This depends on whether the verb is a weak verb, a strong verb, or a mixed verb.

Past participle of weak and mixed verbs

To form the past participle of a weak or mixed verb, you add ge to the beginning of the verb and t after the stem of the verb. Here are a few examples of how to get a weak verb into the past tense:

spielen (to play) ⇨ gespielt

lachen (to laugh) ⇨ gelacht

lernen (to learn) ⇨ gelernt

sagen (to say) ⇨ gesagt

Remember: With mixed verbs (as with strong verbs), the stem of the verb may change when going into the German past tense.

For example:
bringen (to bring) ⇨ gebracht
denken (to think) ⇨ gedacht

Past participle of strong verbs

To form the past participle of a strong verb, you again add ge to the beginning of the verb, but add en to the end of the stem. As with mixed verbs above, the stem may change when going into the past tense.

lesen (to read) ⇨ gelesen

fahren (to drive) ⇨ gefahren

essen (to eat) ⇨ gegessen

trinken (to drink) ⇨ getrunken

Putting it all together

Now you know to use haben or sein and how to form the past participle, you can put it all together to form a sentence in the perfect tense:

I have laughed so much ⇨ Ich habe so sehr gelacht. (Literal: I have so much laughed.)

I drove home yesterday. ⇨ Ich bin gestern nach Hause gefahren. (Literal: I am yesterday home driven.)

I have read a great book. ⇨ Ich habe ein tolles Buch gelesen. (Literal: I have a great book read.)

A couple of exceptions

There are a couple of exceptions to look out for. These exceptions exist when the verb in its infinitive form begins with be, ge or ver. When this happens, the beginning of the verb stays the same.

For example:
besuchen (to visit): I have visited my grandma last week. ⇨ Ich habe letzte Woche meine Oma besucht. (Literal: I have last week my grandma visited.)

gewinnen (to win): Tom has won €100. ⇨ Tom hat 100€ gewonnen. (Literal: Tom has €100 won.)

vergessen (to forget): We’ve forgotten our keys. ⇨ Wir haben unsere Schlüssel vergessen. (Literal: We have our keys forgotten.)

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  • Mariam

    Thanks alot this was a great help. we have to make our own language as a school project. its hard but we have to first do it in english then native language then make it up any way thanks

  • zach lawrence

    OK I understand but what is watched in German I don’t mean observed or saw i really mean watched

  • Hello Zach,

    The word “to watch” in German is “anschauen”. For example: I watch the Simpsons every day. And in German it is: “Ich schaue jeden Tag die Simpsons an.” I hope this helps 🙂

  • daksh

    this article was really helpful……..i had to study for my german exam and was not able to understand perfeckt at all….if u hav any more material on this topic …….plz send it on my email id.

  • Amy

    This is really helpful, but how do you know whether to use haben or sein?
    thanks for any help

  • Hello Amy.

    Most verbs are “haben” verbs. However verbs of movement are formed with sein. Here are the most common German verbs which use sein:

    – gehen
    – rennen
    – joggen
    – schwimmen
    – fahren

    I hope this helps 😀

  • Seshadri Codati

    This blog is very helpful.

  • Fernando Salazar

    Die Frage ist, wann ich genau perfekt oder imperfekt benutzen muss?

    The recommendation is to use the perfekt to describe a situation…
    1) … which happens in the past with no link to the Present anymore,
    2) … which describes how people felt in the past or how things were in the past, and
    3) … which used to happen regularly in the past.

    But for the Perfekt I’m still confused… I was taught to use Perfekt in spoken language and Imperfekt in written (??).

  • Hallo Fernando,

    Die Regeln, die du aufgezählt hast sind alle richtig.

    Und du hast recht. Das Perfekt wird oft im gesprochenen Deutsch benutzt. Jedoch wäre es nicht falsch, wenn du das Imperfekt nutzen würdest. Im Prinzip gibt es kein wirkliches falsch und richtig, da beide Formen gültig sind.

    Aber im Zweifelsfall würde ich immer das Perfekt verwenden, da es im Sprachgebrauch häufiger benutzt wird 🙂

  • jahan

    This really helped me keep up the good work and thanks alot 🙂

  • how do you say used, you know like, my aunt used to live in my house

  • Hi Sabina,

    In normal daily German conversation you just say the sentence in the past tense. You can also use the emphasiser “mal”. For example:

    • My aunt used to live in my house. ⇨ Meine Tante hat in meinem Haus gewohnt.
    • I used to work for BMW. ⇨ Ich habe mal bei BMW gearbeitet.
  • Ross murphy

    How do you, say will you marry me Nicola

  • Hi Ross,

    In German you would say ⇨ Nicola, willst du mich heiraten? 🙂

  • Serge

    I think that this blog is very helpfull

  • ali

    thnx a lot these are very useful but how can i get the full german verbs or some useful with the conjugation and is it better to memorise them 🙂

  • Hi Ali. There is no need for you to memorise them all. Just follow our rules (strong verbs, weak verbs and the exceptions be-, ge- and ver-).
    However, we have published quite a few German verb tables over the years. They all have the past tense in them. You might find them helpful 🙂

  • Saoirse Rourke

    Great! I finally have an understanding of the past tense in german!

  • bob

    That’s good innit 🙂