Aside from orangutans, humans are the only creatures able to differentiate between the past, present and future when they communicate. Being able to talk about things that have happened in the past or will happen in the future has been essential for humans throughout history to share experiences and plan for the future.
The ability to place an action in a point in time has evolved hand in hand with human civilization and languages have adapted over time to better communicate when something has taken place or will take place.
Like every other language, German also has a system to clarify timing in the past, present and future. This system is made up of six tenses that verbs are conjugated in:
- Present (Präsens)
- Present perfect (Perfekt)
- Simple past (Präteritum)
- Past perfect (Plusquamperfekt)
- Future (Futur I)
- Future perfect (Futur II)
There are also two modes which need to be considered: the Konjunktiv I and II.
Now the question is; when do we use each of these tenses and modes? And how do you conjugate verbs when we use them?
Let’s take a quick look at each of the tenses to answer these questions. If you want also practical knowledge about the German tenses, give my German online courses a try.
How to conjugate German verbs in present tense
The present tense is used when talking about the present and the future. It is the most commonly used tense in German. When this tense is translated to English, it gives one of three meanings; the simple present, the present progressive and the future (with will or going to).
Here are some examples for when to use the present tense:
- To express a condition or a fact in the present – Das ist Felix. Felix arbeitet bei Bayer.
- To express something that happens in the present once, repeatedly or never – Jeden Dienstag geht er zum Fußballtraining.
- To express how long something has been happening – Er spielt schon seit fünf Jahren Fußball.
- To express plans for the future – Nächsten Sonntag spielt seine Mannschaft gegen den Gruppenersten.
Please don’t bother remembering any of this. You use the present tense in German like you use the simple present in EN and also for anything that you’d use the will- or going to-future for.
Now that you know when to use the present tense, let’s see how to conjugate verbs for it.
To conjugate German verbs in present tense, you simply remove the infinitive ending (-en) and add the endings shown in the table below:
|Singular||1st ich||-e||ich lerne|
|2nd du||-st||du lernst|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||-t||er lernt|
|Plural||1st wir||-en||wir lernen|
|2nd ihr||-t||ihr lernt|
|3rd sie/Sie||-en||sie lernen|
If you line up these endings you get the phantasy words: est ten ten which might help you memorize these endings quickly.
Note that the above conjugation doesn’t apply to the verbs sein because it is highly irregular.
Instead, you conjugate sein as shown below:
|Singular||1st ich||ich bin|
|2nd du||-st||du bist|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||-t||er ist|
|Plural||1st wir||–||wir sind|
|2nd ihr||ihr seid|
|3rd sie/Sie||sie sind|
It is the only verb that doesn’t take all of the usual endings. All other verbs, regular and irregular ones, use the endings you saw in the first table above.
There are exceptions to every rule, and the above rules are no different. So, let’s take a look at some examples where these conjugation rules need to be bent a bit:
- If the stem of the word ends with d or t, you add e before the st or t at the end.
Example: warten – du wartest, er wartet, ihr wartet. and not e.g. er
- If the stem ends with s/ß/x/z, you remove the s in the ending of the second person singular.
Example: tanzen – du tanzt (not:
- If the stem ends with ie, you remove the e in the end.
Example: knien – ich knie, wir knien (not:
- If the infinitive ends with –elr or –ern, you remove the e of the ending.
Example: wandern – wir wandern (not:
But please don’t bother to memorize these exceptions. First of all they are rather rarely used and secondly you’ll pick them up as you go without having to put in any extra effort.
How to conjugate German verbs in the Perfekt tense
The Perfekt tense is used to express things that have been completed in the past. It is used mainly in spoken German. “spoken” German can also mean in emails or messages, basically anywhere where you have a direct dialog with another person.
So when exactly do you use the perfect tense? Whenever you want to say something about the past. If you are a B1 or even a B2 student, you’ll only ever actively use the Perfekt and never the other past tense called Präteritum. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that there is any similarity to the English language. There isn’t.
To conjugate a verb in this tense, you will need the present form of sein or haben and the past participle of the verb as demonstrated in the table:
|1st ich||ich bin||gestürzt (fell)||ich habe||gelesen (read)|
|2nd du||du bist||gestürzt||du hast||gelesen|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||er ist||gestürzt||er hat||gelesen|
|1st wir||wir sind||gestürzt||wir haben||gelesen|
|2nd ihr||ihr seid||gestürzt||ihr habt||gelesen|
|3rd sie/Sie||sie sind||gestürzt||sie haben||gelesen|
Now you start to notice another question popping up. When do I use haben and when sein?
When do I use “sein” in the Perfekt tense in German?
“haben” and “sein” are both used as helping verbs, officially “auxiliary verbs”. The first rule is:
- In case you are in doubt, you always use “haben” in the Perfekt.
- sein you use when there is a movement from A-B like e.g. gehen, fahren, stürzen or when you deal with an existential verb like e.g. sein, bleiben, werden, sterben, einschlafen, aufwachen. I call them existential as what can be more existential than the question of “to be or not to be” and of becoming and dying. falling asleep and waking up are metaphors for dying and being born. And “bleiben”, well, should I stay or should I go?
There are only around 50 relevant verbs that use “sein” in the Perfekt tense. If you want to learn them with a neat memory technique, check out my German online course here or my free Irregular verbs wizard app. Google the name in the app store of your choice. And if you love the app, please leave a review there as it helps me a lot to share the good news that learning German doesn’t have to be a pain in the neck.
There’s only one last piece to this perfect puzzle; what is the past participle?
The past participle
To put it shortly, the past participle is the form of the verb you use to construct compound tenses like the Perfekt and Plusquamperfekt.
There are regular and irregular past participles.
Regular (sometimes called weak) verbs form the past participle by putting the verb stem between ge- and –t. E.g.: lernen – ge-lern-t
Irregular verbs (sometimes further distinguished in strong and mixed verbs) not only take a different ending but at times also change their stem. E.g.: sehen – ge-seh-en
How to conjugate German verbs in simple past
The simple past tense of the imperfekt is what you use to express facts and events that both started and ended in the past. It’s the tense that’s used to tell stories or write reports about things that happened in the past. It’s used less often in spoken German though. Instead, the perfect tense is used. When translating this tense to English, you get the meaning of the English simple past tense.
So when exactly do you use the simple past tense? There are basically two cases when this tense is used:
- To express something that was completed in the past.
Example: Im letzten Jahr machte ich Urlaub in Deutschland.
- To express a condition or a fact in the past.
Example: Die Strecke war fantastisch und ich hatte tolles Wetter.
Note: In spoken German, the simple past tense is often used with sein and haben to talk about conditions or facts in the past.
Example: Die Strecke war fantastisch und ich hatte tolles Wetter.
Now that you know when to use this tense, let’s see how verbs are conjugated in it.
The process is very simple. Much like the simple present, we only remove the infinitive -en at the end and add the endings shown in the table:
|Person||Weak verbs||Strong verbs|
|1st ich||-te||ich lernte||–||ich sah|
|2nd du||-test||du lerntest||-st||du sahst|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||-te||er lernte||–||er sah|
|1st wir||-ten||wir lernten||-en||wir sahen|
|2nd ihr||-tet||ihr lerntet||-t||ihr saht|
|3rd sie/Sie||-ten||sie lernten||-en||sie sahen|
Sein and haben are irregular here as well. And since they’re used often in spoken language, you have to pay extra attention to them here:
|1st ich||ich war||ich hatte|
|2nd du||du warst||du hattest|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||er war||er hatte|
|1st wir||wir waren||wir hatten|
|2nd ihr||ihr wart||ihr hattet|
|3rd sie/Sie||sie waren||sie hatten|
Just like the simple present tense, there are exceptions that we have to consider when conjugating in the simple past:
- A lot of strong and mixed verbs change their stem in this tense.
Example: gehen – ging, bringen – brachte.
- If the stem of a strong verb ends with z/s/ß, you either add e to the end or simply don’t add the s at the end.
Example: lesen – las – du last/du lasest.
- If the stem ends with d or t, you add an e before the end if the end begins with t or st.
Example: landen – ich landete, du landetest, er landete, wir landeten.
- If the stem of a strong verb has ie in the end, you don’t put an e in the end for first and third person plural.
Example: schreien – wir/sie schrien (not: schrieen).
How to conjugate German verbs in the past perfect
The past perfect tense is used in German to talk about things that happened before a certain point in the past. In English, it would translate to the past perfect tense. Like the simple past, this tense is also used in storytelling and recalling things that happened before a certain past event. Unlike the other tenses, this one mainly has a single use which is describing an event that took place before a certain point in the past
Example: Sie hatte sehr lange geübt, bevor sie das Stück so perfekt spielen konnte.
To conjugate verbs in this tense, you use a process that is very similar to the one you use for the present perfect. Except this time, you use the simple past form of sein and haben instead. Again, the past participle is used here after sein and haben to construct the tense like what’s shown in the table:
|1st ich||ich war||gegangen||ich hatte||gelesen|
|2nd du||du warst||gegangen||du hattest||gelesen|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||er war||gegangen||er hatte||gelesen|
|1st wir||wir waren||gegangen||wir hatten||gelesen|
|2nd ihr||ihr wart||gegangen||ihr hattet||gelesen|
|3rd sie/Sie||sie waren||gegangen||sie hatten||gelesen|
There are some exceptions that you have to consider when conjugating for this tense:
- A lot of strong and mixed verbs have changed stems for the P.P.
Example: gehen – gegangen, bringen – gebracht.
- If the stem of a weak or mixed verb has d or t at the end, we add et.
Example: warten – gewartet.
- Verbs ending with ieren form P.P. without ge.
Example: studieren – studiert.
How to conjugate German verbs in the future tense
The future tense is what you use to talk about assumptions and thoughts in the future. While it can be used to also express intentions in the future, this is usually not the case. As the present tense is used more commonly for this purpose in spoken German. The German future tense can be translated to either of two English tenses: the simple present or the future with will or going to.
The future tense has two main uses in German
- To express intent in the future
Example: Morgen werde ich die Akten sortieren.
- To express assumptions about the future or present
Example for future: Das wirst du nicht an einem Tag schaffen.
Example for present: Sein Büro wird wohl immer noch so chaotisch aussehen.
So how exactly are verbs conjugated in the future tense?
Well, it couldn’t be easier. You simply use the finite form of werden and then put the infinitive form of the verb after it like what is shown in the table:
|Person||Form of “werden”||Full verb|
|1st ich||ich werde||gehen, lesen, sehen, gewinnen|
|2nd du||du wirst|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||er wird|
|1st wir||wir werden|
|2nd ihr||ihr werdet|
|3rd sie/Sie||sie werden|
Every verb in German follows these rules in the future tense. So fortunately, there are no exceptions that you have to consider here.
Note: when making assumptions using the present tense, it’s better to use words that clarify that you are making an assumption (wohl, sicher, bestimmt).
How to conjugate German verbs in the future perfect
The future perfect is the sixth German tense. It is used to make assumptions that something will have been completed either by the time of speaking or by a certain point in the future. Now I understand that the previous sentence was a brain twister, so if you need to, go through it slowly again. Now that you understand its main use, it’s good to know that it can also be used to make assumptions about things in the past. Let’s look at a few examples:
- For assumptions about events in the past: Er wird wohl gestürzt sein.
- For assuming that something will have been completed by a certain point in the future: Bis dahin wird er das Fahrrad repariert haben.
Pretty straightforward, right? Now let’s get conjugating.
To conjugate in this tense, you use the finite form of werden, the P.P of the verb and the helping verbs sein and haben. The structure of the sentence can be seen in the table below:
|Person||Form of “werden”||Verb + sein or haben|
|1st ich||ich werde||gegangen sein, aufgewacht sein|
|2nd du||du wirst||gelesen haben, gedacht haben|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||er wird|
|1st wir||wir werden|
|2nd ihr||ihr werdet|
|3rd sie/Sie||sie werden|
Note: when you apply these rules, the same exceptions I mentioned for past perfect tense apply to this tense as well.
How to conjugate German verbs in Konjunktiv modes
The Konjunktiv I and II modes function in a different way than usual tenses; they’re used to make unrealistic wishes or imaginary hypotheses (Konjunktiv II). They’re also used to repeat what someone has said especially in newspapers and magazines (Konjunktiv I). So let’s dive deeper into these two special modes and learn more about conjugating in them.
This is what’s called the general subjunctive.
- It’s what you use to make imaginary wishes about the past.
- Or talk about unrealistic hypotheses.
- You can also use it for direct speech to ask questions politely.
- Or when you simply can’t use the special subjunctive for indirect speech.
There are two ways to conjugate verbs in this mode: one is for situations in the present and the other is for the past.
- For situations in the present you add the subjunctive endings to the simple past stem.
Strong verbs also get an umlaut, while weak and mixed verbs look the same as they are in the simple past. In this case, it’s better to use würde with these verbs especially for spoken German. You can see this well represented in the table:
|Person||Subjunctive II (present) – finden||Subjunctive II (present) – sein||Subjunctive II (present) – haben||würde form|
|1st ich||ich fände||ich wäre||ich hätte||ich würde|
|2nd du||du fändest||du wär(e)st||du hättest||du würdest|
|3rd er/sie/es/man||er fände||er wäre||er hätte||er würde|
|1st wir||wir fänden||wir wären||wir hätten||wir würden|
|2nd ihr||ihr fändet||ihr wär(e)t||ihr hättet||ihr würdet|
|3rd sie/Sie||sie fänden||sie wären||sie hätten||sie würden|
- For situations in the past, you simply use the subjunctive form of sein or haben with the P.P.
This is what’s called the special subjunctive.
- It’s what you use when you want to repeat what someone has said. It’s used in newspapers and reports to repeat something that someone has said (indirect speech).
- This mode is also sometimes used in German idioms.
In this mode, you can use the present, present perfect and future tenses. But there some notes you have to consider:
- This mode is usually used only with er/sie/es/man for all verbs except sein. And in this case, the n is removed from the infinitive.
- Sein is commonly used in all its subjunctive forms (ich sei, du sei(e)st, er sei, wir seien, ihr seiet, sie seien).
- For du/ihr, the only difference between this mode and indicative mode is that in the subjunctive form, there’s an e before the ending.
- Since there is no difference between the subjunctive I and the indicative for ich, wir and sie, you should use subjunctive II for this situation.
For the amount of bad rep German gets for being a difficult language, tenses and conjugation are surprisingly easy. Obvious similarities can be drawn between English and German tenses, which goes a long way in making the learning process much easier. You can get an understanding of all the German tenses, when to use them and how to use them simply by reading a single article. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed compiling information for this article.
Written by Abdullah