The 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. Things were merely presented but rarely explained. Explaining things doesn’t necessarily mean to tell why they are the way they are, but rather aims to 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 and unexplainable. “You just have to learn it!“ is what I‘ve heard too many times.

These times are over. Everything follows some logic or can be learned in a much more efficient way than most of you know. Follow me and I will show you a beautiful garden of Eden. Welcome back to 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.; addressing someone directly in a letter usually is done in Perfekt-tense.

The Präteritum is used for certain verbs that are listed below even if they are spoken (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 verbs; 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“.

It depends on if you use an object yourself. For example, “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 the infinitive “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 ran (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 froze 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 endings: 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 Das Perfekt tense in mind when he said this.

Key Takeaways – the Role of “sein” in Perfekt

In the perfect tenses, “sein” is used as the auxiliary verb (a helping verb) with certain verbs, primarily those describing motion or change of state, like “gehen” (to go) or “kommen” (to come).

A German Perfekt Verbs List with “sein:”

Here are some common verbs that take ”sein” as an auxiliary to form the present perfect tense:

  • 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.

There are, of course, many other verbs that are also used in everyday language.

Weak and Strong Verbs, Irregular Verbs

  • Weak Verbs: Follow a regular pattern in the past tense, often adding a “ge-” prefix and a “-t” suffix.
  • Strong Verbs: Change their stem vowel in the past tense and often use a “ge-” prefix and an “-en” suffix.
  • Irregular Verbs: Don’t follow a predictable pattern and must be memorized.

Modal Verbs in the Perfekt Tense

Modal verbs like “können” (can) and “mögen” (like) are used in the Perfekt tense. They often require “haben” as the auxiliary verb, but their usage can be nuanced based on context and meaning.

Present Perfect vs. Simple Past in German

While the Perfekt tense is used for past actions, especially in spoken German, the Präteritum or Simple Past tense is more common in written German for a completed action.

The choice between these verb tenses can be influenced by regional preferences and the formality of the situation.

Sentence Structure with “Sein” as the Auxiliary Verb

In sentences using “sein” as the auxiliary, the structure typically follows the pattern:

Subject + Sein (in the present tense) + Past Participle + Other Elements. For example, “Ich bin gefahren” (I have driven).

Learning Tips for Non-Native Speakers

Understanding the usage of the verb “sein” in the perfect tense requires practice and knowing the German verbs list of words that pair with “sein.”

Regular exposure to German through reading, listening, and speaking helps solidify these concepts until you can confidently say “Ich kann Deutsch sprechen.”

FAQs about German verbs and tenses

In this section, I answer common questions relating to this topic, as well as the present perfect tense, and irregular German verbs.

How is the Present Perfect Tense formed in German?

The Present Perfect Tense in German, also known as the Perfekt, is formed by using the present tense of the auxiliary verbs “haben” (to have) and “sein” (to be) combined with the past participles of the main verbs.

Regular German verbs typically use “haben,” while certain motion or state-change verbs use “sein.” (examples: Er hat das Buch gelesen, Er ist nach Hause gegangen, Sie sind im Hotel geblieben.)

What are weak verbs in German?

Weak verbs in German are regular verbs that follow a predictable pattern when conjugated in the past tense. They typically add a “ge-” prefix and a “-t” suffix to the verb stem to form the past participle.

What are some modal verbs in German?

Common modal verbs in the German language include “können” (can), “mögen” (may/like), “sollen” (should), “wollen” (want), “dürfen” (may/be allowed), and “müssen” (must). A modal verb typically indicates likelihood, ability, permission, request, capacity, suggestion, order, obligation, or advice.

You’ll often hear, for instance “ich mag” (mögen in the first person singular) meaning “I like”.

How do you make the past participle of German verbs?

You form the past participle of regular German verbs when you add ge- to the verb stem and attach the appropriate ending.

For irregular verbs, the past participle must be memorized as they do not follow a standard pattern.

Summing Up: The German Perfect Tense with Sein

So, I hope you were able to shift your perspective and embrace German grammar as a companion rather than a challenge and discover that the German language, like a well-crafted story, follows its own logic.

I’ve tried to demystify the role of “sein” in Perfekt, especially with verbs related to motion or change, by comparing it with the Präteritum and explaining the different verb categories.

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

Fare thee well.

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