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Lesson Transcript

"German Teachers Answer Your Questions - Lesson #12 - What Is the Difference Between Perfect and Imperfect Tense in German?


Michael: What is the difference between perfect and imperfect tense in German?
Igor: And how do I know which one to use?
Michael: At GermanPod101.com, we hear these questions often. Imagine the following situation: Karen Lee is speaking with her neighbor, Jessica Jäger, and is surprised at how well she speaks English. She asks,
"Did you live in England?"
Karen Lee: Hast du in England gelebt?
Karen Lee: Hast du in England gelebt?
Jessica Jager: Nein, aber ich lebte in den USA.
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Karen Lee: Hast du in England gelebt?
Michael: "Did you live in England?"
Jessica Jager: Nein, aber ich lebte in den USA.
Michael: "No, but I lived in the US. "

Lesson focus

Michael: You might know the perfect and the imperfect tenses from English or other languages such as French or Italian, but the way they are used differs from language to language. For instance, the rules for using these two tenses in English are very easy. While both express a similar idea, there is a small, but significant difference between them, and you can get this from the name. Let’s have a look at the perfect tense. Saying that something is “perfect” is like stating that something is complete. So following this line of logic will lead us to the function of the perfect tense, which is talking about something that has been completed in the past, present, or will be completed in the future.
Now, you can use the same logic for the imperfect tense which will then mean that it describes uncompleted actions.
In German, however, the rules for when to use the perfect tense,
Igor: Perfekt
Michael: or the imperfect tense,
Igor: Präteritum.
Michael: are different. While back in the past the function was similar to the functions discussed before, today both tenses are used to express the same thing, and the only difference lies in the level of formality. In spoken and colloquial language, we’d usually use the
Igor: Perfekt
Michael: while the
Igor: Präteritum
Michael: tends to be used in written and formal language.
But, if they express the same thing, you may wonder why we need both tenses.
[Recall 1]
Michael: To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at the dialogue.
Do you remember how Karen asks "Did you live in England?"
(pause 4 seconds)
Igor: Hast du in England gelebt?
Michael: This question is formed with the auxiliary verb
Igor: haben
Michael: meaning “to have,” and the past participle of
Igor: leben
Michael: meaning “to live.” Another way to form the perfect is using the auxiliary verb
Igor: sein
Michael: meaning “to be,” and the main verb either in its past form, if you’re referring to something that happened in the past, or future form, if you’re referring to something that will happen at one point in the future. This is actually very similar to how the English perfect tense is formed, although, while English uses “have” or “had” to form the perfect tense, German additionally has “be'' to help the verb.
There is also a rule which will help you to decide if you should use
Igor: haben
Michael: or
Igor: sein.
Michael: We combine
Igor: haben
Michael: with all verbs having an accusative object,
Igor: Er hat das Bild gezeichnet
Michael: Meaning “He has painted the picture,” and with reflexive verbs
Igor: Sie hat sich im Spiegel angeschaut.
Michael: meaning “She looked at herself in the mirror.”
And we use
Igor: sein
Michael: with verbs describing a movement, such as
Igor: gehen, laufen, fahren und fliegen,
Michael: meaning “to walk, to run, to drive, and to fly”
Let’s listen to an example sentence,
Igor: Sie sind in den Urlaub gefahren.
Michael: meaning “They went on vacation,” for verbs describing a change of state, such as
Igor: aufwachen, einschlafen, sterben und gefrieren
Michael: meaning “to wake up, to fall asleep, to die, and to freeze.”
For instance,
Igor: Meine Katze ist gestern gestorben.
Michael: meaning “My cat died yesterday.” And with the following verbs,
Igor: bleiben, sein, werden, gelingen, misslingen und geschehen
Michael: meaning “to stay, to be, to will, to succeed, to fail and happen”
Igor: Ich bin Zuhause geblieben.
Michael: meaning “I have stayed at home.”
In English, the perfect tense can be combined with either past, present or future, while in German you can use it only for the past and the future.
[Recall 2]
Michael: Now let’s have a closer look at how Jessica Jager answered "No, but I lived in the US."
(pause 4 seconds)
Igor: Nein, aber ich lebte in den USA.
Michael: In her answer, Jessica didn’t use “have” but she added the suffix,
Igor: -te
Michael: to the verb
Igor: leben
Michael: meaning “to live.”
Igor: Präteritum
Michael: is formed in German by simply adding a suffix to the verb of the sentence. For instance, the verb leben conjugated would be
Igor: ich lebte, du lebtest, er/sie/es lebte, wir lebten, ihr lebtet, sie lebten.
Michael: But—watch out—many verbs change their stem in the imperfect tense. Let’s take, for example, the sentence,
Igor: Ich renne im Park,
Michael: Meaning “I’m running in the park.” If we transform it to the imperfect past, the sentence would be
Igor: Ich rannte im Park,
Michael: meaning “I run in the Park.”
Did you notice the difference in how the imperfect is built in English? While German adds only the suffix “-te,” English is using a form of the verb “to be.”
Another thing to be careful about is the ending of the stem verbs. For example, if a verb ends in
Igor: -t, -d, -n or -m,
Michael: It's necessary to add an additional “-e” before adding the suffix, to make the pronunciation easier. So for example, if we have the present form,
Igor: Er arbeitet
Michael: meaning “he is working,” and is ending in a “-t,” the past imperfect will become
Igor: Er arbeitete
Michael: with an additional “-e.”
The last important thing is the usage of the verbs,
Igor: haben und sein
Michael: meaning “to have and to be.” Those two verbs are irregular but used very often, so it’s better to memorize the way they are conjugated. Let’s listen to the conjugations. First, “to be,” or
Igor: sein. Ich war, du warst, er/sie/es war, wir waren, ihr wart, sie waren.
Michael: and “to have,” or
Igor: haben. Ich hatte, du hattest, er/sie/es hatte, wir hatten, ihr hattet, sie hatten.
Michael: One more tip, even though we told you that perfect is usually used for spoken language, and imperfect for written language, if
Igor: sein
Michael: is used, you’d most likely use the imperfect, no matter whether it’s written or spoken.
And the last thing, while in English, you can express the past, the present and the future in the imperfect tense, you can only use it for the past in German.
Michael: In this lesson, you have learned that there is no big difference between the perfect and imperfect tenses in German, except for when to use them. While the perfect tense is used for spoken language, the imperfect tense is commonly used in written language.
Michael: There is one more thing you should know. We told you before that you should use the perfect tense for spoken language, and the imperfect tense for written language in German. However, if a statement refers to something that is happening right now, it should be formed by using the
Igor: Perfekt
Michael: Let’s have a look at some examples to make it easier for you to understand. Imagine the following situation: You’re at your friend’s home and you’re invited to eat pizza with him and his family. They ask you “Do you want some pizza?”
Igor: Möchtest du Pizza essen?
Michael: Now, you just ate before arriving at your friends, so you answer “I ate already today. I’m not hungry.”
Igor: Ich habe heute schon gegessen. Ich bin nicht hungrig.
Michael: Also, if the main verb is already “be” or
Igor: sein,
Michael: you will also use the perfect. For instance, you can use the sentence,
Igor: Ich bin Student.
Michael: In the past, it would always be
Igor: Ich war Student.
Michael: No matter whether it’s written or spoken,, in these two situations, the perfect tense has to be used.


Michael: Do you have any more questions? We’re here to answer them!
Igor: Tschüsschen!
Michael: See you soon!

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