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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