Well that’s just perfect! — Using das Perfekt in German

Screen Shot 2012 11 04 At 18 39 32

Well that’s just perfect! — Using das Perfekt in German

A few weeks ago one of our Facebook followers asked me to write about using the perfect (das Perfekt)in German. This post is mean to be an answer to that question and a detailed continuation of the posts “Understanding German Verbs 1 & 2.

While there are many things that make German a rather complicated language, one of its advantages over English is that it has fewer tenses. For instance German generally disregards all continuous forms (to be + ing; z.B. I’m reading a book). In German “Ich lese ein Buch.” can mean “I’m reading a book.” or “I read a book.” by simply putting a time phrase in the sentence it could even be a future form. But let’s get back to das Perfekt. In spoken German, das Perfekt is most often used for talking about past events and unlike in English the referred to event does not need to have happened in the recent past.

Form:

Hauptsätze (Independent Clauses)

We build das Perfekt with conjugated forms of haben or sein and the past participle (Partizip II). I strongly recommend that, with every new verb you learn, you also learn its past participle and which auxiliary verb it takes (haben or sein). Das Perfekt is one of the most important things you can learn in German, because with it you can talk about yesterday (gestern) and the day before yesterday (vorgestern) and two weeks ago (vor zwei Wochen). You’ll here it a lot in spoken German too. With regards to the auxiliary verb some verbs can take both and in some regions people will use one instead of the other, but the dictionary (Duden) is your best and most reliable guide here.

In standard German sentences (Hauptsätze) what must come in the second position? That’s correct, the verb. When we talk or write im Perfekt the verb that goes in the second position is the auxiliary verb (haben or sein).

Know one of the myths about German is that the verb always comes at the end. This is obviously not true, because we just said that the conjugated verb must come in the second position. However, the past participle (Partizip II) does come at the end of the clause. Because the past participle tells us much more than the auxiliary verb though, it is easy to see why this myth is so prevalent.

Below is a sample sentence structure. Remember though, that a time phrase or another sentence element (object, indirect object etc.) could go in the first position. If the subject isn’t in the first position though, it will have to be in the third. The term Mittelfeld means anything between the two verb parts. Some books will call this bracketing.

Here is a funny video with Henning Wehn at the BBC explaining the bracketing principle: http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/german/comedy/waiting_for_verb.shtml

Our sentence thus looks like this:

  • Subjekt + Hilfsverb + Mittelfeld + Partizip Perfekt

The question of whether we use haben or sein is dictated by the past participle, or rather the actual action we are trying to express. Typically verbs take haben. However, verbs dealing with personal movement or a change of state — ex. gehen, werden, fahren, wachsen, etc. — require sein.

Here are two examples of sentences in the past:

  • Max hat zu Mittag sehr viel gegessen. (Max ate a lot at lunch.)
  • Anita ist letzte Woche nach Südafrika geflogen. (Anita flew to South Africa last week.)

Note that in English we would often use the past simple form. You need to get over this and start thinking haben/sein + past participle when speaking/writing German. This is also easier, because you can already conjugate haben and sein in your sleep, and only needing to learn the past participle is easier than learning the simple past form of the verb. (Note here the simple past form is standard in formal written language, so I don’t want to totally discredit it.)

In case you’re still struggling with haben and sein, this is for you:

Subjecthabensein
ichhabebin
duhastbist
er / sie / eshatist
wirhabensind
ihrhabtseid
Sie / siehabensind
Past participlegehabt + habengewesen + sein

Nebensätze (Dependent Clauses)

Nebensätze incomplete ideas and rely on information in the independent clause (Hauptsatz). No matter how we start a Nebensatz (with a subordinating conjunction like weil, or a relative pronoun like denen) the verbs come at the end of the clause.

A sentence with a Nebensatz thus looks like this:

  • Hauptsatz , Konjunktion + Subjekt + Mittelfeld + Partizip Perfekt + Hilfsverb.

Let’s work with our sentences from above to see what this looks like:

  • Max hat jetzt Bauchweh, weil er zu Mittag zu viel gegessen hat. (Max has a stomach ache now because he ate too much at lunch.)
  • Anita kann heute nicht ins Kino, weil sie letzte Woche nach Südafrika geflogen ist. (Anita can’t come to the cinema today because she flew to South Africa last week.) *Implied here is that she’s still gone.

Learning your past participles.

Most German grammar books will go into great detail about the many different forms and variations of past participles. It’s my experience that this is not really worth learning, because it is much easier to learn them along with your regular conjugations. Here are a few tips though.

  • Generally the past participle starts with ge- and ends in -t. z.B. machen = gemacht
  • If the verb has a separable prefix the ge- comes between the prefix and the stem. z.B. abmachen = abgemacht
  • If the verb starts with be-, ent-, ge-, er-, ver-, or zer-, then it does not take a ge-. z.B. bezahlen = bezahlt.
  • If the verb ends in -ieren, then it does not take a ge- at the start. z.B. studieren = studiert.

Haben & Sein one last note:

In general haben and sein are used in the simple past (Präteritum) and not the perfect. This is because they occur so often and are very simple to remember. In Switzerland and Vorarlberg many people use bingewesen whereby gewesen is said as gsi.* Because of the use of gsi Austrians call people from Vorarlberg “Gsibergeres are often shortened.Here they are conjugated in the past simple:

Subjecthabensein
ichhattewar
duhattestwarst
er / sie / eshattewar
wirhattenwaren
ihrhattetwart
Sie / siehattenwaren

* (other past participles are also shortened)

Exercises:

Try these exercises to improve your usage of the perfect in German!

Conjugate the following verbs in the present simple and write the past participle including which auxilary verb it takes.

Subjectaufstehen frühstücken machen
ich
du
er / sie / es
wir
ihr
Sie / sie
Partizip II
Subjectessenkaufentreffen
ich
du
er / sie / es
wir
ihr
Sie / sie
Partizip II
Subjectsehenhörenlesen
ich
du
er / sie / es
wir
ihr
Sie / sie
Partizip II
Subjectgehenpassierenstudieren
ich
du
er / sie / es
wir
ihr
Sie / sie
Partizip II

Was ist gestern alles passiert?

Wann bist du aufgestanden?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Wann hast du gefrühstückt?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Was hast du zum Frühstückt gegessen?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Was hast du am Vormittag gemacht?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Was hast du am Nachmittag gemacht?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Wie war das Wetter?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Was hast du gekauft?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Hast du jemanden getroffen?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Hast du etwas interessantes gesehen, gehört oder gelesen?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Wo warst du um 18 Uhr?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Was hast du am Abend gemacht?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Was hat dein Freund/ deine Freundin den ganzen Tag gemacht?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Wann bist du ins Bett gegangen?

____________________________________________________________________________________

Related Posts:

  1. lifeinzurilifeinzuri11-05-2012

    Past perfekt is always the one that gets me! Thanks for reminding me to practice!

  2. Twan LaanTwan Laan11-07-2012

    Thanks for this extensive introduction! For the Swiss and Vorarlberg dialects, “das Perfekt” is even more important, as there is no such thing as “past tense” in Swiss and Vorarlberg German. A Swiss who wants to say “ich war”, will simply use the perfect, saying “ich bi gsy” (ich bin gewesen). As there is no past tense, the “Plusquamperfect” in Swiss German uses two “Partizip II”: the High German “ich war gegangen” becomes “Ich bi gange gsy” (*ich bin gegangen gewesen)

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