German Review of all Tenses
There are 6 basic tenses in German. The two ‘simple’ tenses are present and simple past. They use just one, conjugated verb. The four ‘compound’ tenses are present perfect, past perfect, future, and future perfect.
When learning the tenses in German from the perspective of an English speaker, it is important to try to remember that there isn’t a direct equivalent for each tense.
For example, there isn’t a “progressive/continuous” tense in German, as there is in English. Instead, we use the regular present tense (das Präsens) to talk about things that we are doing right now. If we do wish to emphasize that an action is occurring at this very moment, we can use the adverb “gerade” (right now), but the conjugation of the verb itself does not change.
Another important aspect to remember is that tenses in English aren’t used the exact same way in German, and vice versa. For example, in English we use the simple past to talk about events that occurred and ended in the past, and we use the present perfect to talk about things that occurred in the past, but are still on going. In German, it is common to use the present perfect (das Perfekt) to talk about events in the past, even if they occurred and ended in the past.
Here is an overview of all German tenses with examples:
1. Das Präsens (the simple present).
We use “das Präsens” for things that occur in the present tense, both habitually, as well as right now. If we wish to emphasize that an action is occurring at this very moment, we can use the adverb “gerade”. The conjugation of the verb stays the same.
Ich trinke morgens einen Kaffee. I drink a coffee in the mornings.
Ich trinke gerade einen Kaffee. I am drinking a coffee right now.
In English and in German, it is common to use the present tense to talk about events in the future. In English we can use the present continuous. In German, we use “das Präsens”.
Example:Ich trinke am Freitag einen Kaffee.
I am drinking (going to drink) a coffee on Friday.
2. Futur I (werden + infinitive verb)
In English we can wither use “will + verb” or “am/is/are going to + verb” to talk about events in the future. In German, we use the auxiliary verb “werden” (will). As there is no progressive/continuous tense in German, we can use an adverb to add an element of time to a future sentence.
Ich werde später einen Kaffee trinken. I will drink a coffee later.
Ich werde dann gerade einen Kaffee trinken. I will be trinking a coffee then.
3. Futur II (werde + particple + haben/sein)
The English equivalent of the “Futur II” is the future II simple. It is used to express an action that will be finished at a certain time in the future. This is exactly how it is used in German as well, however, as we use past participles to constuct this tense, we need to pay attention to whether the verb we are using forms its participle with “haben” or “sein”.
Ich werde morgen abend ins Kino gegangen sein.
I will have gone to the movies tomorrow evening.
Ich werde am Samstag ein neues Auto gekauft haben.
I will have bought a new car on Saturday.
4. Das Pretäritum/Das Imperfekt (the simple past)
The German preterit(e), the equivalent of the English simple past, is most commonly used in formal writing, but is an acceptable tense to use to talk about events occurring and ending in the past. Once again, there is no progressive/continuous tense in German, hence, there is no past progressive (was going, was eating). Instead, we can use an adverb to express that an action was occuring at a specific moment in the past.
Examples: Ich trank gestern einen Kaffee.
I drank a coffee yesterday.
Ich trank gerade einen Kaffee, als das Telefon klingelte.
I was drinking a coffee when the phone rang.
In English and in German, there are regular and irregular verbs, so it is important to pay attention to verb stem changes. For example, the stem of the verb “trinken” (trink-) changes to “trank-” in the preterit.
5. Das Perfekt (haben/sein + past participle)
“Das Perfekt” (the present perfect) is formed with either “haben” or “sein” and the past participle of a verb. Two rules of thumb help us identify what verbs form the present prefect with haben, and which ones use “sein”. Typically, if a verb has a direct object, it uses “haben”. If a verb does not require an object, then it most likely uses “sein”.
For example: Ich kaufe ein Auto. (I buy a car) The verb “kaufen” implies that there is an object (das Auto), so the present perfect is built using “haben”. However, “Ich laufe in die Arbeit” (I run to work), does not require an object, as you cannot “run someone”. Hence, “laufen” uses “sein” to form the present perfect. Another rule that helps us identify when to use “haben” and “sein” in some cases is, seeing if the verb indicates movement, a change in location or a change in the state of mind/being.
Ich habe einen Kaffee getrunken. I have drunk a coffee.
Ich bin in die Arbeit gelaufen. I have run to work.
6. Das Plusquamperfekt (hatten/waren + past participle)
“Das Plusquamperfekt” is the German equivalent of the past participle in English. It is used when referring back to a moment in the past, before another moment in the past occurred. For example, we would use the past perfect when sharing about buying popcorn at the movies last night, and then referring to another event before the popcorn, for example, going to the ATM to take out money. To form the past perfect, or “das Plusquamperfekt” in German, we will use “hatten” for verbs that use “haben” to form the present perfect, and “waren” for verbs that use “sein”.
Ich hatte einen Kaffee getrunken, als das Telefon klingelte.
I had drunk a coffee when the phone rang.
Ich war an diesem Tag in die Arbeit gelaufen, weil mein Auto in der Wekstatt war.
I had run to work that day, because my car was at the shop.
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