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Present perfect and Past prefect tense

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The English present perfect and past perfect tenses have both a habitual form and a progressive form in their conjugation.

habitual                                      They have worked here.                 They had worked here.
incomplete or progressive        
They have been working here.        They had been working here.

German has only one form for both meanings.

Sie haben hier gearbeitet.         They have worked here.              They had worked here.
Sie hatten hier gearbeitet
They have been working here.     They had been working here.

If the action of the verb began in the past and ended in the present, it is in the present perfect tense. If the action began in the past and ended in the past, the verb is in the past perfect tense.

Regular verbs

The German present perfect tense of regular verbs is formed from a conjugation of either haben or sein plus a past participle. The auxiliary haben is used with transitive verbs, and the auxiliary sein is used with intransitive verbs, verbs of motion, or verbs that show a change of state or condition. The past participle consists of the prefix ge- plus the stem of the infinitive and the ending -t; for example, the infinitive kaufen (buy) becomes ge- + kauf + -t, written as gekauft.

Let’s look at another regular transitive verb, suchen, conjugated fully in the present perfect and past perfect tenses.

                present perfect                               past perfect

ich           habe gesucht                                hatte gesucht      (have looked for, had looked for)
du           hast gesucht                                  hattest gesucht

er            hat gesucht                                   hatte gesucht
wir         haben gesucht                               hatten gesucht
ihr          habt gesucht                                  hattet gesucht
sie          haben gesucht                                hatten gesucht

If the verb requires the auxiliary sein, the formation of the participle remains the same. The only difference is the conjugation of the verb sein. But remember that the English translation of sein in the present perfect and past perfect tenses is still have or had. Let’s look at a verb of motion, reisen, conjugated fully in the present perfect and past perfect tenses.

                       present perfect                      past perfect

ich                 bin gereist                             war gereist (have traveled, had traveled)
du                 bist gereist                             warst gereist
er                  ist gereist                                war gereist
wir               sind gereist                             waren gereist
ihr                seid gereist                              wart gereist
sie                sind gereist                              waren gereist


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A large category of regular verbs have infinitives that end in -ieren. Often these words come to German from foreign sources. They are conjugated like other regular verbs in the present and past tenses. But when verbs ending in -ieren become past participles in the present perfect or past perfect tenses, they do not have the prefix ge-. Let’s look at examples with the verbs studieren and marschieren.

                          studieren (study)                    marschieren (march)   
ich                    habe/hatte studiert                bin/war marschiert
du                    hast/hattest studiert               bist/warst marschiert
er                     hat/hatte studiert                    ist/war marschiert
wir                   haben/hatten studiert            sind/waren marschiert
ihr                    habt/hattet studiert                seid/wart marschiert
sie                    haben/hatten studiert             sind/waren marschiert

Irregular verbs

The perfect tenses of irregular verbs require either haben or sein as the auxiliary, conjugated in the same way as with regular verbs. The difference is in the participle. Irregular participles are a combination of the prefix ge- plus an irregular stem and in most cases, the ending -en; for example, the verb sprechen (speak) becomes ge- + sproch + -en, written as gesprochen.

Let’s look at another irregular transitive verb, finden, conjugated fully in the present perfect and past perfect tenses.

                          present perfect                           past perfect

ich                    habe gefunden                          hatte gefunden (have found, had found)
du                    hast gefunden                            hattest gefunden
er                     hat gefunden                              hatte gefunden
wir                  haben gefunden                         hatten gefunden
ihr                   habt gefunden                            hattet gefunden
sie                   haben gefunden                          hatten gefunden

If the verb requires the auxiliary sein, the formation of the participle remains the same. The only difference is the conjugation of the verb sein. Let’s look at a verb of motion, gehen, conjugated fully in the present perfect and past perfect tenses.

                            present perfect                          past perfect
ich                      bin gegangen                           war gegangen (have gone, had gone)
du                      bist gegangen                           warst gegangen
er                       ist gegangen                             war gegangen
wir                   sind gegangen                           waren gegangen
ihr                    seid gegangen                           wart gegangen
sie                   sind gegangen                            waren gegangen

haben, sein, and werden in the present perfect and past perfect tenses.

                     haben (have)                   sein (be)                          werden (become)
ich               habe/hatte gehabt         bin/war gewesen          bin/war geworden
du               hast/hattest gehabt        bist/warst gewesen      bist/warst geworden
er                hat/hatte gehabt            ist/war gewesen            ist/war geworden
wir             haben/hatten gehabt     sind/waren gewesen     sind/waren geworden
ihr              habt/hattet gehabt         seid/wart gewesen        seid/wart geworden
sie              haben/hatten gehabt      sind/waren gewesen     sind/waren geworden

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Some irregular verbs change the vowel in the stem of the participle but have a -t ending like a regular verb. For example:

                    senden (send)                     nennen (name)                    rennen (run)
ich              habe gesandt                     habe genannt                      bin gerannt
du              hast gesandt                       hast genannt                       bist gerannt

er              hat gesandt                         hat genannt                          ist gerannt
wir           haben gesandt                    haben genannt                      sind gerannt
ihr            habt gesandt                       habt genannt                         seid gerannt
sie            haben gesandt                    haben genannt                       sind gerannt

Other irregular verbs that follow this pattern are:
brennen                       gebrannt              burn
bringen                       gebracht               bring
denken                        gedacht                think
kennen                        gekannt                know, be acquainted
wenden                      gewandt                turn
wissen                        gewusst                 know

Modal auxiliaries

The modal auxiliaries all use haben as their auxiliary in the present perfect and past perfect tenses. Also, they form their participles from the stem of the infinitive without an umlaut and unlike most other irregular verbs, end their participles in -t. For example:

dürfen                            gedurft
können                           gekonnt
mögen                            gemocht
müssen                           gemusst
sollen                              gesollt
wollen                            gewollt

Used in sentences a modal in the present perfect tense looks like the following:

Er hat Englisch gekonnt.                            He knew English.
Wer hat das gewollt?                                  Who wanted that?

Just like the modal-auxiliary participles, the participles of all regular and irregular verbs stand at the end of the sentence.

Ich habe ihm ein Fahrrad gekauft.                                 I bought him a bike.
Sind sie in die Schweiz gefahren?                                 Did they travel to Switzerland?

The present perfect tense is the preferred tense for making statements in the spoken language about things that have occurred in the past. The simple past tense is used more often in the written language.

written language         Er kam nach Hause.                 He came home.
spoken language
Er ist nach Hause gekommen.         He came home.

However, when stating that something has been occurring for a period of time or since a point in time, the present tense is used to convey this meaning, but the English translation is in the present perfect tense. For example:

Ich wohne seit zehn Jahren in Bonn.           I have been living in Bonn for ten years.
Er ist seit zwei Wochen sehr krank.           He has been very sick for two weeks.

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