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Getting to Know German Verb Tenses

"Tense" is the grammarians' preferred word for "time." Depending when the action that you're talking about is taking place, you pick a tense. The ways to look at the concept of time differ slightly from one language to the next, so the way tenses are used sometimes differs, too.

Looking at the present

The present tense is a very useful tense in German. You can get a long way with just this one tense. The German present tense corresponds to three forms in English. For example, ich denke (îH dên-ke) can be used as the equivalent of "I think," "I do think," or "I am thinking" in English. And depending on the context, German present tense may even be rendered with another tense, future or past, in English.

The present tense is used to describe what's happening now:

  • Was machst du gerade? (vâs mâHst dû ge-rah-de) (What are you doing right now?)
  • Ich lese die Zeitung. (îH leh-ze dee tsy-tûng) (I am reading the newspaper.)

The present tense can also describe what happens sometimes, usually, or always:

  • Freitags gehe ich oft ins Kino. (fry-tahgks geh-e îH ôft îns kee-nô) (On Fridays, I often go to the movies.)

The present tense can also describe what's going to happen:

  • Morgen fährt meine Freundin nach Dänemark. (môrgn fehrt my-ne froyn-dîn nâH dehne-mârk) (Tomorrow my girlfriend will drive to Denmark.)
  • Nächste Woche fahre ich nach Bremen. (naiH-ste -He fah-re îH nâH breh-men) (Next week I am going to drive to Bremen.)

This is a very common way of talking about future events in German, particularly if there's a time expression in the sentence that anchors the action clearly in the future — for example, nächste Woche (naiH-ste vô-He) (next week) or morgen (môrgn) (tomorrow).

And finally, the present tense can also describe what's been happening up to now:

Ich bin seit drei Tagen in Hamburg. (îH bîn zyt dry tah-gn în hâm-bûrg) (I have been in Hamburg for three days.)

Note that English uses present perfect tense to say the same type of thing.

Talking about the past: Using the perfect tense

Perfect tense is the main past tense used in spoken German. It is very versatile: You can use it to talk about most actions and situations in the past. Contrast this with the English perfect tense (I have gone, I have read, and so on), which can only be used in certain specific contexts. For example, "I have seen Anna last week" would be incorrect English, but Ich habe Anna letzte Woche gesehen (îH hah-be ânâ lêts-te -He ge-zehn) is a correct German statement.

Most verbs form the perfect tense with the verb haben (hah-ben) (have):

  • David hat mir geholfen. (dah-veed hât meer ge-hôlfn) (David has helped me / has been helping me / helped me.)
  • Gestern haben wir ein Auto gekauft. (gês-tern hah-bn veer ayn ow-tô ge-kowft) (Yesterday we bought a car.)
  • Anna hat die Zeitung gelesen. (ânâ hât dee tsy-tûng ge-lehzn) (Anna has read the newspaper. / read the newspaper.)
  • Ich habe den Film gesehen. (îH hah-be dehn fîlm ge-zehn) (I have seen the film. / I saw the film.)

Certain verbs require sein (zyn) (to be) instead of haben (hah-ben) (to have) to form the perfect tense. These verbs often describe some form of movement or a state. Here are a few examples:

  • Meine Freundin ist nach Dänemark gefahren. (my-ne froyn-dîn îst nâH dehne-mârk ge-fah-ren) (My girlfriend has gone to Denmark / went to Denmark.)
  • Ich bin in Hamburg gewesen. (îH bîn în hâm-bûrg ge-vehzn) (I have been to Hamburg. / I was in Hamburg.)
  • Du bist mit dem Auto gekommen. (dû bîst mît dehm ow-tô ge--men) (You came by car. / You have come by car.)
  • Wir sind letzte Woche ins Kino gegangen. (veer zînt lêts-te -He îns kee-nô ge-gân-gen) (We went to the movies last week.)
  • Seid ihr durch den Park gelaufen? (zyt eer dûrH dehn pârk ge-low-fen) (Have you run through the park? / Did you run through the park?)

German verbs fall into two categories: weak and strong verbs. Regular verbs, known as weak verbs, form the largest group of German verbs.

Forming the past participle of a weak verb

Here is the formula for forming the past participle of a weak verb:

ge + verb stem (the infinitive minus -en) + (e)t = past participle

For example, for the verb fragen (frah-gen) (to ask), here's how the formula would play out:

ge + frag + t = gefragt

Forming the past participle of a strong verb

Here is the formula for forming the past participle of a strong verb:

ge + verb stem (the infinitive minus -en) + en = past participle

For the verb kommen (-men) (to come), the past participle would be:

ge + komm + en = gekommen

Writing about the past: Using simple past tense

Simple past tense is used all the time in newspapers, books, and so on, but it is less common in speech. One exception is the simple past tense of sein (zyn) (to be). This is often used in preference to perfect tense in both speech and writing. Table 1 shows you the various forms of the simple past tense of sein.

Table 1 Simple Past Tense Forms of sein

Conjugation

Pronunciation

Translation

ich war

(îH vahr)

I was

du warst

(dû vahrst)

you were (informal)

Sie waren

(zee vah-ren)

you were (formal)

er / sie / es war

(ehr / zee / ês vahr)

he / she / it was

wir waren

(veer vah-ren)

we were

ihr wart

(eer vahrt)

you were (informal)

Sie waren

(zee vah-ren)

you were (formal)

sie waren

(zee vah-ren)

they were

Talking about the future

In German, the future tense is not used as consistently as it is in English. In many situations, you can use the present tense instead. When talking about things that are going to take place in the future, you can, of course, use future tense. The way to form future tense in German is pretty similar to English. You take the verb werden (vehr-den) (to become) and add an infinitive.

Table 2 shows you the forms of werden in the present tense.

Table 2 Present Tense Forms of werden

Conjugation

Pronunciation

Translation

ich werde

(îH vehr-de)

I will

du wirst

(dû vîrst)

you will (informal)

Sie werden

(zee vehr-dn)

you will (formal)

er / sie / es wird

(ehr / zee / ês vîrt)

he / she / it will

wir werden

(veer vehr-dn)

we will

ihr werdet

(eer vehr-det)

you will (informal)

Sie werden

(zee vehr-dn)

you will (formal)

sie werden

(zee vehr-dn)

they will

And this is how you incorporate future tense into sentences:

  • Ich werde anrufen. (îH vehr-de ân-roo-fen) (I am going to call.)
  • Wir werden morgen kommen. (veer vehr-dn môr-gn -men) (We will come tomorrow.)
  • Es wird regnen. (ês vîrt rehg-nen) (It will rain. / It's going to rain.)
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