The two past tenses and their usage To talk about past events, German has two tenses that are almost entirely interchangable, in terms of their meaning. These are the simple past (das Präteritum) and the perfect (or present perfect, das Perfekt).
These have equivalents in English, of course, but it is very important to understand that, while in English “I was hungry” (simple past) does not mean the same thing as “I have been hungry” (present perfect), in German there is essentially no difference in meaning between the two tenses. The difference is almost entirely one of usage.
In written German, one tends to use the simple past; in spoken German, one tends to use the perfect. However, for some very common verbs, the simple past is more common than the perfect in spoken German.
This usage varies by region, education level, social situation, even personal preference. But it’s a pretty accurate generalization to say that in everyday spoken German, most people most of the time use the simple past for sein, haben, werden, and the modals; the perfect for all other verbs. Therefore, it makes sense that beginners who are being introduced to the German past tenses for the first time should learn the simple past of sein, haben, werden, and the modals, along with the perfect tense of all the verbs in their vocabulary.
The Simple Past for Some Verbs
Haben, sein, and werden are highly irregular in the simple past, and their forms should be memorized.
|er / sie / es hatte
|er / sie / es war
|er / sie / es wurde
The modals form their simple past by adding the following endings to the verb stem.
Those modals that have umlaut in the infinitive lose it in the simple past. This is quite regular, so that it should not be necessary to memorize all the forms of each modal. The full conjugation of each modal verb is given here, for your reference, however.
|er / sie / es durfte
|er / sie / es konnte
|er / sie / es musste
|er / sie / es sollte
|er / sie / es wollte
Mögen when used as modal verb has the forms möchte, möchtest, etc. These have no exact equivalent in the simple past or perfect tense. If you want to say that you wanted to do something, use the simple past of wollen.
(Simple past forms of mögen do exist, and are given on p. 285 in Neue Horizonte. But they are not relevant to the use of möchte as a modal verb, and need not concern us here.)
The Perfect Tense
The perfect is a compound tense; that is, it is formed from two parts–an auxilliary verb and a past participle.
The Structure of the Perfect
The creation of the perfect from an auxilliary and a past participle is identical in German and English. But there are two important differences. First, in German, the auxilliary appears in the usual position of the conjugated verb (it is the second sentence elelement), while the past participle is placed at the end of the sentence. Ich bin gestern Nachmittag aus Wien angekommen.
Second, while the auxilliary in English is always a form of to have, in German you have to learn rules for choosing between haben and sein as the auxilliary.
The Participle: Irregular Verbs
The participles of irregular verbs must be memorized; those of regular verbs are formed by rule. Irregular verbs may be classified as “strong” (ending in -(e)n, by far the largest group of irregulars) or “mixed” (ending in -t). German has somewhere around two hundred irregular verbs, but many of these are uncommon. A much larger number of verbs are regular. However, many of the most common verbs are irregular.
Again, the participles of irregular verbs must be memorized, but there are at least four things that can help with the memorization.
- German does not have an infinite or even an immensely large variety of possible changes in the stem. Certain patterns of change are common to several verbs. As children, native speakers use these patterns to help them learn the irregular verbs; adult learners can do it, too.
- Some of the patterns of change in German irregular verbs are identical or very similiar to patterns of change in English irregular verbs: singen-gesungen, for example, is very similar to sing – sung.
- The conjugation of a stem is always the same in all prefixed and compounded forms. If you know fahren -gefahren, you also automatically know ausfahren, einfahren, befahren, verfahren, erfahren, überfahren, and so on. (There are rules for handling verb prefixes in the perfect tense.)
- You have already learned certain verbs that have a stem change in the second and third person singular present. These are all strong verbs.
The Participle: Regular Verbs
Regular (or “weak”) verbs form their participles by adding the prefix ge- and the suffix –t to the stem. For example, the stem of machen is mach-. The participle is gemacht. Many hundreds of verbs form their participles this way.
Participles of Verbs with Prefixes
Verbs with separable prefixes add the ge-between the separable prefix and the stem; for example: aufgemacht, ausgegangen.
Verbs with inseparable prefixes do not add the ge-; for example: vergessen, befragt.
The choice between haben and sein is made according to very simple rules. If you ask yourself the following questions in this order, you will make the correct choice between haben and sein.
- Is the verb sein or bleiben? If yes, use sein. If no, go to question #2.
- Does the verb have a direct object? If yes, use haben. If no, go to question #3.
- Does the verb indicate a change of location or condition? If yes, use sein. If no, use haben.
There may be a very small number of verbs to which these rules to do not apply, but none of them are learned in the first semester.
You may approach the haben/sein choice through memorization if you prefer.
However, it is not necessary, and ultimately it does not work, since a fair number of verbs can be conjugated with either haben or sein in the perfect, depending on their meaning in a particular context.