Getting to Know German Verb Tenses

verb

As you all know, the 3 most common verbs in German are the ones also used as auxiliaries: sein, haben and werden. Let’s take a look at how they function in the context of German verb tenses.

German has 6 tenses: 2 finite tenses, i.e. tenses that are formed using just the main verb, and 4 compound tenses, i.e. tenses that are formed using the main verb plus one or more auxiliary verbs.

The finite tenses:

Present tense = Based on the infinitive form, perhaps with a present tense stem change.

Simple past tense = Created from the simple past stem.

The compound tenses:

Future tense = werden + infinitive of main verb

Present perfect tense = present tense of haben or sein + past participle of main verb

Past perfect tense = simple past tense of haben or sein + past participle of main verb

Future perfect tense = werden + past participle of main verb + the infinitive haben or sein

In addition to their active voice usage, these same 6 tenses can also occur in the passive voice, though only the present, simple past and present perfect tense occur very frequently in German. The passive voice requires the combination of the auxiliary werden + a past participle in addition to whatever else a given tense requires.

Present tense = present tense of werden + past participle of the main verb

Simple past tense = simple past tense of werden + past participle of the main verb

Present perfect tense = present tense of sein + past participle of the main verb + passive past participle variant worden

(Note: Most verbs form the perfect tense with the verb haben. Certain verbs require sein (to be) instead of haben (to have) to form the perfect tense. These verbs often describe some form of movement or a state such as fahren, kommen,…)

So in addition to understanding how auxiliary verbs figure in each of the tenses, it is also necessary to know the various parts of the main verb that are used in the formation of the tenses. Let’s examine the principal parts of German verbs that are used in building all of the verb tenses:

The infinitive – The basic form of any verb, as it appears in a dictionary entry. The infinitive stem = the infinitive minus -(e)n.

Present tense stem change – Some strong and mixed verbs change some letters in their stem in some or all present tense singular forms. Most verbs do not have this change — none of the weak verbs have it — but many of the verbs that do have the change are very common words.

Simple past stem – The simple past stems of all weak verbs are predictable and can be formed from the infinitive stem. But the simple past stems of strong and mixed verbs are unpredictable and need to be learned.

Past participle – The past participles of weak verbs all follow the same pattern. The strong and mixed verbs have unpredictable past participles that must be learned.

(We will talk more about this in later article).

Here is the German tenses chart.

1. First person pronoun

Tense German English
Simple Present Ich lerne Deutsch I learn German
Present continuous Ich lerne Deutsch I am learning German
Simple Past Ich lernte Deutsch I learned German
Past continuous Ich lernte Deutsch I was learning German
Present Perfect Ich habe Deutsch gelernt I have learned German
Past Perfect Ich hatte Deutsch gelernt I had learned German
Simple future Ich wurde Deutsch lernen I will learn German

2. Second person pronoun

Tense German English
Simple present Du lernst Deutsch You learn German
Present continuous Du lernst Deutsch You are learning German
Simple past Du lerntest Deutsch You learned German
Past continuous Du lerntest Deutsch You were learning German
Present Perfect Du hast Deutsch gelernt You have learned German
Past Perfect Du hattest Deutsch gelernt You had learned German
Simple future Du wirst Deutsch lernen You will learn German

3. Third person pronoun

Tense German English
Simple present Er/sie/Es lernt Deutsch He/She/It learns German
Present continuous Er/sie/Es lernt Deutsch He/She/It is learning German
Simple past Er/sie/Es lernte Deutsch He/She/It learned German
Past continuous Er/sie/Es lernte Deutsch He/She/It was learning German
Present Perfect Er/sie/Es hat Deutsch gelernt He/She/It has learned German
Past Perfect Er/sie/Es hatte Deutsch gelernt He/She/It had learned German
Simple Future Er/sie/Es wird Deutsch lernen He/She/It will learn German

4. Plural-First person

Tense German English
Simple Present Wir lernen Deutsch We learn German
Present continuous Wir lernen Deutsch We are learning German
Simple Past Wir lernten Deutsch We learned German
Past continuous Wir lernten Deutsch We were learning German
Present Perfect Wir haben Deutsch gelernt We have learned German
Past Perfect Wir hatten Deutsch gelernt We had learned German
Simple future Wir werden Deutsch lernen We will learn German

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