Saturday, 24 November 2007

When to Use the Perfect Tense

This podcast is about when to use the perfect tense. The perfect tense is the ich habe es getan tense and corresponds in form to the I have done it tense in English. But the rules on when you use the tense are rather different in German. The German one is often interchangeable with the simple past tense (the ich tat es tense), whereas in English, past tenses are usually not interchangeable with each other.

As a rule of thumb, Germans use the perfect tense to express the past tense in spoken German, except with certain verbs and except in certain situations. The verbs with which the perfect tense is usually not used (apart from for situations for which the perfect tense is the preferred tense) are the auxiliary verbs, modal verbs and, in Central and Northern Germany, also certain other common verbs. These are used in the simple past instead.

If you'd like to listen to this podcast on your computer, you can do so by clicking here.

I've put a list of which verbs aren't generally used in the perfect tense on my geocities site, where I put grammar tables and transcripts of the episodes: The website also includes a table showing the information I've given in my podcasts so far about when to use which tense.

It's always tricky to describe when a tense should be used in a foreign language, and there's a lot of seemingly contradictory information out there. To compile this episode, I mainly used German-language Wikipedia: and

which, slightly disturbingly, both seem to have been rewritten since I used them for information (although a native speaker did recommend the sites at the time I used them, so at least one native speaker did think they were supplying correct information as they were).

I also used the book Hammer's German Grammar and Usage (in my case the second edition). Here's a link to the fourth edition on Amazon: Hammer Grammar, although I recommend any edition of it that you can get your hands on.

I also liked the information in on this topic:


Anonymous said...

Vielen dank fur alles das sie tun

Jack Person

Anonymous said...


thanks for this podcast! I (as a native German speaker) never realized that I'm using the present tense when I would use the perfect progressive in English. I was also unaware of how complicated the choice between present tense and perfect tense for negative sentences is. I think one difference is that the present tense includes the present (and sometimes even the (near) future) in the statement, while the perfect tense in negative sentences often doesn't make any statement about the present. (On the other hand, the perfect tense in positive sentences often explicitly excludes the present.) For example:

"Ich habe ihn seit Jahren nicht gesehen." (I haven't seen him for years.) This sentence doesn't exclude the possibility that you are seeing him now (or will be seeing him soon). Thus, if you are on a party and see him right now, you could still say this sentence to a third person even though you are seeing him. On the other hand, if you want to emphasize that you still don't see him, you should use the present tense: "Ich sehe ihn seit Jahren nicht mehr." (It feels natural to add a "mehr" to the "nicht" here to emphasize that you don't see him anymore.) But you couldn't use the sentence in the present tense in the party situation where you see him, because the statement would contradict the fact that you are seeing him right now.

Next example: "Das Paket ist noch nicht angekommen." ("The parcel hasn't arrived yet."): The perfect tense emphasizes that this is a statement about the past; in particular it doesn't exclude the possibility that the parcel will arrive in a minute. The present tense "Das Paket kommt nicht an." can be used to express that the parcel hasn't arrived and you don't believe the parcel will arrive in the future as the present tense is also used to talk about the future. Thus, if you are still waiting for the parcel, you would use the perfect tense.

Next example: "Seit Weihnachten arbeitet er nicht mehr." ("He hasn't worked since Christmas.") in comparison to the perfect tense form "Er hat seit Weihnachten nicht mehr gearbeitet." The former emphasizes that he still doesn't work while the latter doesn't exclude this possibility. Thus, if he starts, just has started or will start a new job, the perfect tense is used. On the other hand, if you want to imply that he still doesn't work, the present tense is used.

Thus, the difference between the usage of present tense and perfect tense in these negative sentences appears to be that the perfect tense makes no statement about the present while the present tense includes the present (and sometimes even the future) in the statement. Thus, the present tense results in "stronger" statements and therefore is less likely to occur.

In positive sentences, however, the perfect tense usually explicitly excludes the present. Thus, the sentence "Ich habe sieben Jahren in London gewohnt." implies that I no longer live there. Therefore, "Ich habe seit sieben Jahren in London gewohnt." sounds strange since the perfect tense implies that I no longer live there but the "seit" implies that the action is still going on.

Well, that's the way I try to make sense out of it. But since I never learned German as a foreign language, I don't have a strong opinion about it. :)


ChristoJ said...

Wow, thanks Laura, this is great!

I also refer to Hammer but needed a why to rather than a how to when it came to this present perfect tense - your podcast really hit the spot ;)

I moved out to Germany last summer and finally am getting round to sorting out the grammar, glad I've found your blog and will be dipping in and out of it throughout the year.

Best wishes for 2011 and thanks again for the time you take with these podcasts

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