Monday, 22 October 2007

Past Tenses: How to Use The Perfect

The perfect tense is one of three German past tense forms. It's also the one that's most commonly used in spoken German, so very useful to learn. The perfect tense is a compound tense. This means it uses two verbs: an auxiliary (or helper) verb and a main verb. Most of the time, the auxiliary verb is haben, which means to have. But for some verbs, especially intransitive verbs of motion and intransitive change-of-state verbs, the auxiliary verb is sein, which means to be. The main verb then shoots along to the end of the clause and appears in the form of a past participle. As a rule of thumb, you create the past participle of a verb from its infinitive by adding a ge- on the beginning, and sometimes you switch the or the on the end for a . Two examples of how you make a perfect tense sentence are:

Ich habe ein Eis gegessen - I have eaten an ice cream
Ich bin in die Schule gegangen - I've gone to school

You can listen to this podcast directly on your computer by clicking here.

While I was researching this podcast, I found a couple of particularly useful websites. Here are the English ones:

A description of when to use the different German past tenses:

A description of how to use the German perfect tense:

Exercises (particularly suitable for beginners) to practise using the perfect tense:

And here are the German ones (two descriptions of when Germans say you should use the perfect tense and when the simple past (also known as the imperfect tense or the preterite)):


Anonymous said...

Hi Laura!

Just thought I'd drop by and congratulate you for your brilliant podcasts! I've been listening for a few months now (I noticed your mention in LinguaSIG!!)

Anyway, I'm doing an A Level in German, and have applied to do it at uni! So hopefully I'll be having the wonderful experiences that you've had one day!! It helps that I find the German grammar particularly fascinating.

There are a couple of things that I'd love for you to help with, if you can squeeze them in. Firstly, what's the difference between 'machen' and 'tun'? I know set expressions will use one, such as 'mein Kopf tut weh', usw. but apart from that, are they pretty much interchangeable?

Also, the subjunctive! I've not gone into it in too much detail before, but I need to know it!

Thanks once again for these podcasts. I feel like a bit of a nerd enjoying German grammar as much as I do, but your podcasts are a well-structured and well thought out facility to accommodate my nerdishness!

Keep it up!


Anonymous said...

Thank goodness for your podcasts. I am learning German after many years break from a couple years of it in college, and you are direct and clear in explaining concepts that I've been figuring out on my own. So good to have your reinforcement.

Please do more podcasts!

Laura said...

Hi Jonny,

I've got a good link for a website on the whole machen and tun thing. I agree with everything they say about it (except they seem to have left out weh tun which means to hurt or to ache, as in mein Kopf tut weh - my head hurts/I've got a headache).

Anyhow, here's the link:

In fact, the site is pretty excellent in general. I haven't looked at it all, but I agree with almost everything I have seen so far, and on most topics I find their style of explanation really simple and to the point. Having said that, the reason I included caveats in that statement is that I'm not so keen on their explanation of the subjunctive. I prefer Wikipedia for that:

The conditional (subjunctive II) is on my list of topics to do after I've finished the past tense and had a bash at conjunctions and word order. It may take a while before I get around to subjunctive I (reported speech), because this is a lot less common; although it really all depends on the direction I find the podcast heading in when I start writing. It often surprises me what I end up deciding needs to be included.

I strongly recommend that you buy yourself a copy of Hammer's German Grammar & Usage. I've looked on Amazon and there seems to be a new edition out:
but for some reason you can get the third edition a lot more cheaply in hardback:

I think my own copy may even be a second edition (it's certainly not the most up-to-date one).

German grammar doesn't change much over the course of a few years (all languages are changing constantly, but the rate of change, particularly in grammar, is quite slow in most languages). On the other hand, our understanding of it can change in that period of time, so there may be some advantage in buying the latest edition. Also, if you know which university you're going to already, then it might pay to check with them if they use Hammer and which edition they use. Because if they give you page references to go with topics on their courses, then those will be specific to that edition and it's probably worth the extra few quid to have the edition with the matching page numbers.

If they don't use Hammer, I recommend you get a copy of it anyway, as it is fantastic on most topics and well worth having. I read the whole thing from beginning to end in my third year (not that I managed to remember half of it), and it makes a great reference book. I know I keep plugging it, but they don’t pay me to do it. I just really like the book.

Anyhow, have a fantastic time at university.


Sara said...

Hi Laura,

I just wanted to drop by and say how much I appreciate your podcast. For some reason I always need to take a 'grammar based' approach to learning a language.. I need to think about why things go together the way they do and your podcast answers my questions nicely.



Anonymous said...

Thanks Laura! is a good site I agree, I've come across it before for French, but never for German. I'll check it out for sure...

As for the book you mentioned, my teacher actually has a copy, and I'll definitely think about picking one up for myself, certainly for when I go to uni.

Thanks once again for your podcasts/response.

Laura said...


If you send me an email so I have your email address, I can send you a copy of my transcript for my next podcast (on word order) for your comments before I record it.

Right now, the only way I can contact you is to guess that you're going to be leaving a comment on this post soon and to hope you read this comment.


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This is really declarative and well explained lesson. Thanks for sharing such a nice post about The Past Perfect Tense.

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