German Perfect Tense with Sein

In the following minutes, I will guide you through the German Perfect tense in an unusual literary way. Forget grammar as you know it, welcome her as your new friend. As the title suggests I will not start with Adam & Eve but jump (almost) right to its use. Because useful it is indeed.

Some language learning philosophy!

When I studied English in school, I suffered from bad teaching, today even more than in those times. Things are merely presented but rarely explained. Explaining things not necessarily means to tell why they are the way they are but rather unfold their logic, their beauty. As we are using language every day and as it is one of the core-aspects of civilization, it is ridiculous to assume that language and with it grammar is senseless, unexplainable. „You just have to learn it!“ is what I‘ve have heard too many times. These times are over. Everything follows some logic or can be learned much more efficient than most of you know. Follow me and I will show you a beautiful garden Eden. Welcome back to the Paradise.

German Perfect Tense – The Präteritum is the Perfekt

The German Perfekt-tense seems to compete against its fellow the Präteritum tense. Concluding from your English learning experience, and maybe even French language tortures you might be tempted to think that there is a complex system behind these two, explaining in ridiculous detail when to use which. You couldn‘t be more wrong.

Let me reveal the secret to you, when to use the Präteritum and when the Perfekt:

Perfekt is used whenever we speak, Präteritum whenever we write.

german perfect tense
der Schädel – the skull / Image via Pixabay

The exceptions prove the rule

That‘s it. No double bottom. Yet I feel urged to explain a bit more in detail. „Speaking“ can also mean that someone is writing in so called „direct speech“, a dialogue e.g.; adressing someone directly in a letter usually is done in Perfekt-tense.

And also the Präteritum is used for certain verbs that are listed below even if they are outspoken (or in written dialogues, see above). These are:

  • sein — war
  • haben — hatte
  • können — konnte
  • sollen — sollte
  • wollen — wollte
  • müssen — musste
  • dürfen — durfte
  • mögen — mochte

There are Perfekt forms of these words and they are also fine to be used. Although this is mainly a matter of dialects, you would be perfectly understood and still sound proper. Even the people from Lower-Saxony, whose German is considered to be High-German, would ask „Wo bist Du gewesen?“ as well as „Wo warst Du?“.

The German Indifference

So is there really no difference in using any of these two tenses? Well, to be honest, there is absolutely no significant difference. If there is one, it must be so insignificant that it would only confuse you and not improve your German at all!

Back to Shakespeare

The initial intention was to show you when to use the Perfekt with „haben“ and when with „sein“. And you might have already heard some kinds of rules like these:

„Those verbs that use „sein“ must satisfy two conditions: 1) they must be intransitive; 2) they must indicate a change of position or of condition. In the example “Wir sind nach Hause gegangen,” the verb “gehen” 1) takes no direct object and 2) describes motion from one place to another.“ [source known to the author]
After „intransi…“ my brain took a walk. Then the author also gives some examples of exceptions that are totally confusing. Let‘s take a clearer look at this…

The rule that those verbs who indicate a change of position use “sein” is a bit helpful as most of the „sein“-verbs are verbs of movement. But there are some illogical exceptions like e.g. dancing, sitting down (but not standing up), lying down (but getting up ), turning around and a few more that do not use “sein”. Also some verbs can use both „haben“ and „sein“. Depending on if you use an object yourself. Like e.g. „Ich bin mit dem Flugzeug geflogen.“ [I have flown in an airplane] but „Ich habe das Flugzeug geflogen.“ [I flew the airplane (myself).] These examples show that this matter is not too clear, therefore it would make sense to just learn those special sein-verbs by heart and be done with it for good.

Take a look at this almost complete list of those verbs that use sein. Don‘t you think that‘s manageable? But afterwards let me tell you a little story in which you follow me on a trip through Europe on the lookout for the essence of being.

List of Verbs that use „sein“ in Perfekt-Tense

“Movement from A to B”

  • gehen,laufen,rennen, joggen,wandern
  • klettern,fallen,steigen,fahren,reisen
  • fliegen, reiten, umziehen,fliehen,gleiten
  • kommen,springen,kriechen,aufstehen,sinken
  • schleichen,eintreten,schwimmen,einbrechen,rutschen


  • geschehen,einschlafen,wachsen,sterben,aufwachen
  • passieren,bleiben,werden,sein,verderben

These are 35 verbs only (not complete). From these even more verbs with sein can be derived with the help of prefixes. E.g. as „gehen“ uses „sein“, its derivates with the prefixes an-, ab-, auf-, unter-, aus-, ein-, mit-, nach-, zu-, durch-, um-, vor-, zer-, ent-, (not with über- oder ver-, be-though) use „sein“ as well.

German Perfect Tense – It’s Always the Same Story

Close your eyes after every sentence and imagine it as vividly as you can. Anyone able to remember the smell of a fish, the taste of a lemon, the look of any family member or friend with closed eyes is able to do so, so no excuses here. There is no „right“ way of imagination. You do it your way but take your time. The time invested in imagining this story is saved in plenty later on. By the way… should you not know Hamlet, don‘t worry. Wikipedia does wonders. You will figure out his profession by the end of the story.

Young Hamlet was quite a lazy bum. He always had trouble getting out of bed (aufstehen). Whenever he woke up (aufwachen) he instantly fell asleep (einschlafen) for at least two to three times. But he grew up (auf.wachsen) and a miracle happened (geschehen). Hamlet became (werden) a strong, good looking, active man. Whenever something happened (passiert) in his father‘s kingdom, he almost run (rennen) there and stayed (bleiben) until the problem was history. He even took care of the rotten (verdorben) plants in the castle‘s garden. One day though, his father broke into (einbrechen) a frozen pond on which he had been sliding (rutschen) to have some fun. Due to the cold he freezed to death (erfrieren), unfortunately he didn‘t die (sterben) instantly but was still poking along (schleichen) the castle‘s long hallways at night. When he finally died, he ascended (auf.steigen) straight to heaven or for those who don‘t like happy ends: he descended (ab.steigen) straight to hell.

In this short story there are 17 of the above verbs and mostly those that are difficult to fit into any rule. If you go through it a few more times like described above (imagination) these words will become second nature and you will naturally use them with sein as they are strongly associated with Hamlet and his world famous „to be or not to be“. Most probably he had the German Perfekt-tense in mind when he said this.

I will conclude this article here, wishing you lots of success in your endeavour to learn the beautiful German language.

Fare thee well.

18 responses to “German Perfect Tense with Sein”

  1. Also kommen and schmeltzen, sterben, wachsen, werden, and other intransitive verbs describing a change of state. Also note Ich *habe* das Auto fünf Stunden lang gefahren but “Ich *bin* 5 Stunden gefahren.”

    • That’s correct and you will pick that up as you go or when someone stirbt 😉
      The concept of “change of state” is far too abstract to be helpful as more than often it is not clear what that means.
      E.g. why is “sich verflüssigen” which is clearly a change of state not using “sein” in Perfekt? Therefore I didn’t stress this point here.
      Same with the concept of “Ich habe das Auto gefahren” or “Ich bin die Boeing geflogen” which is possibly covering less than 10% of all occurrences and therefore rather left for later. First master the basics, and the exceptions will find their way to your notebook soon enough.
      But these are valid points that at one point in late B2 or C1 will come your way.

    • The norm is “haben” so if you wonder whether a verb uses “sein” in Perfekt, ask yourself, why? There are solid markers for most verbs like e.g. a movement from point A to point B which covers 90% of all those verbs with “sein”. schenken is one of the most regular verbs out there and that includes that it uses “haben” for the Perfekt. That doesn’t mean that regular = haben. “schenken” just doesn’t offer any surprises.

  2. Thank you for a very enlightening article.
    I am trying to study German in my twilight years , but I am completely isolated from any possible German contacts.
    I’m using an online conjugator and find this:
    It shows :ich habe gegleitet
    habe umzogen; umgezogen
    habe verdorben
    habe gewardet
    habe gezogen
    Which I find confusing after doing your article.
    Which is correct?

    • It seems that the conjugator you use is rubbish. Use another one or no one at all as you don’t really need those tools if you work with a proper German course. Try lesson one of my Everyday German course and see for yourself how you tackle German grammar nicely.

  3. Thank you a lot. This is exactly what I was looking for. Yesterday I was completing fill in the blanks in German and naturally I put “Haben” form in the past tense and then things just got more and more confusing. I hate the books, cause it doesn’t describe the logics behind the grammatical rules. You saved a lot of time.

  4. Useful, but the story is full of holes. So did he freeze to death or not? You can’t freeze to death and still be alive to poke along corridors. Also, I’ve never heard that expression and had to actually check what it meant. Verdobren is not even a verb.

  5. What about umsteigen and abstürzen?
    In you intro you wrote it’s instead of “its” and “I’ve have” instead of “I’ve”

  6. Hallo !
    Mein Name ist Anushka, und diese Seite war sehr hilfreich für mich und wird auch sehr hilfreich für andere Lerner wie mich, ich glaube, mein Deutsch ist jetzt fließend, danke!

  7. The verb should be froze to death in your Hamlet story. I like this and I’ll let you know how my students do with it.

    Thanks in advance!

  8. I always have trouble with German verbs. thank you so much …but I also have another question, how do I know the adjektiv endungen to use

    • Hi Yvonne, I suggest that you take a look at this video as an introduction. There are four more elaborate videos in my A2 course (in that playlist you can find two of them) that you might want to take a look at.
      Viel Erfolg and
      lieben Gruß

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