Unit 7: Perfect Tenses and Participles
In English, present perfect tense is formed with the auxiliary verb “have” plus the past participle of the main verb, for example: “He has studied for a month.” German present perfect tense likewise relies on an auxiliary verb plus the main verb’s past particle. The three main differences are: 1) German allows for two possible auxiliary verbs: haben or sein, 2) the word order is different, and 3) their meanings are usually not the same (as discussed below).
Formation of Past Participles
German past participles are generally more instantly recognizable than English participles thanks to most of them using a ge– prefix. The participles of German regular (also called “weak”) verbs are usually formed simply by adding ge– before the stem of the infinitive and ending with –t or –et. Thus, gesagt is the past participle of sagen, gewartet is that of warten. You will not find regular-verb participles listed separately in your dictionary, so you must be able to figure out the corresponding infinitive form on your own in order to look up the meaning.
The past participle of irregular (also called “strong”) verbs usually ends in –en and also begins with ge-. Thus, geschwommen is the participle of schwimmen, geworfen is that of werfen. Note the vowel change. Irregular-verb participles are listed with their own entries in your dictionary, so you don’t necessarily need to memorize them. Your dictionary may also have a section listing a large number of irregular verbs in all their forms.
There are exceptions to these rules for verbs with:
- Inseparable prefixes (see Unit 4): no ge– is added. Thus, verkaufen (to sell) – verkauft (sold) and verstehen (to understand) – verstanden (understood).
- Separable prefixes (see Unit 4): the ge– appears between the prefix and the stem of the verb e.g., einkaufen (to shop) becomes eingekauft, aufgehen (to rise) becomes aufgegangen.
- Verbs ending in –ieren, e.g., studieren: all of these verbs are regular and therefore end in –t, but they never add ge-. Thus, the past participle of studieren is studiert, that of interessieren, interessiert. (Caution: the inseparable-prefix verb verlieren, the past participle of which is verloren, is not an –ieren verb.)
As mentioned, either haben and sein may appear as the auxiliary verb in German, whereas English only ever uses “to have”. Examples:
|Er hat ein Buch gekauft.||He bought a book.|
|Wir haben in München studiert.||We studied in Munich.|
|Er ist in die Stadt gegangen.||He went to town.|
|Wann seid ihr nach Hause gefahren?||When did you drive home?|
When is sein the auxiliary? Sein is the auxiliary for many intransitive verbs, i.e., verbs that do not take a direct object. These verbs are usually verbs of motion (gehen) or those depicting a change of state, such as werden (to become) or verschwinden (to disappear).
The basic law of German word order covered in Unit 1, “verb in second position,” explains why you see the auxiliary verb – the part of the verb that is conjugated to match the subject – take the second position, while the participle appears at the end of the clause.
The position of the participle is a useful reading cue that we don’t get to enjoy in English. Everything between the helping verb and the participle is the predicate of that sentence or clause. Of course, in subordinate clauses, as you learned in Unit 6, the auxiliary verb will appear at the very end of that clause, thus immediately after the participle.
Nachdem sie in den Laden gegangen ist, ist sie gleich wieder herausgekommen.
After she went into the store, she came right back out again.
In German, unlike in English, the meaning of present-perfect tense is not different than simple past tense. Accordingly, it’s usually more naturally translated using English simple past tense: “Er hat gelernt.” = “He studied.” Other time information in the context of the text you are reading will allow you to select the best tense to use for an English translation.
Keep in mind that the term “present-perfect tense” is just a linguistic term describing how this tense is built, not what it means. The term “present-perfect tense” merely describes the technique of using a present-tense helping verb combined with the main verb’s perfect (participle) form. You may find it useful to review your English grammar to become conscious of what exactly English present-perfect tense means.
If an action is complete, i.e., “over and done with,” then use the English simple past tense:
Österreich ist 1995 Mitglied der EU geworden.
Austria became a member of the EU in 1995.
Er ist eine halbe Stunde Richtung Norden gefahren.
He drove northwards for half an hour.
Whereas if the action is still continuing from the past into the present, then use English present-perfect tense:
Österreich hat in diesem Jahr vorläufig mehr an das Ausland geliefert als vom Ausland angekauft.
So far this year, Austria has shipped more to foreign countries than it has purchased from foreign countries.
It may help to review the meaning of German present tense at this point. German present tense is actually closer to the meaning of English present-perfect tense, because English present-perfect tense expresses that the action is continuing from the past into the present, quite specifically including the present. Compare:
Ich bin seit sechs Jahren Student. (German present tense)
I have been a student for six years. (English present-perfect tense)
Ich bin Student gewesen. (German present-perfect tense)
Ich war Student. (German simple-past tense – exactly the same meaning)
I was a student. (English past tense)
Again, pay attention to additional time information given in the sentence when deciding how to translate German present and present-perfect verb tenses. And in the absence of additional time information, understand German present-perfect tense as English past tense.