I mentioned previously (in Lessons from the Top German verbs list) that the 3 most common verbs in German are the ones also used as auxiliaries: sein, haben and werden. Let’s take a look at how they function in the context of German verb tenses.
German has 6 tenses: 2 finite tenses, i.e. tenses that are formed using just the main verb, and 4 compound tenses, i.e. tenses that are formed using the main verb plus one or more auxiliary verbs.
The finite tenses:
- Present tense = Based on the infinitive form, perhaps with a present tense stem change.
- Simple past tense = Created from the simple past stem.
The compound tenses:
- Future tense = werden + infinitive of main verb
- Present perfect tense = present tense of haben or sein + past participle of main verb
- Past perfect tense = simple past tense of haben or sein + past participle of main verb
- Future perfect tense = werden + past participle of main verb + the infinitive haben or sein
In addition to their active voice usage, these same 6 tenses can also occur in the passive voice, though only the present, simple past and present perfect tense occur very frequently in German. The passive voice requires the combination of the auxiliary werden + a past participle in addition to whatever else a given tense requires.
- Present tense = present tense of werden + past participle of the main verb
- Simple past tense = simple past tense of werden + past participle of the main verb
- Present perfect tense = present tense of sein + past participle of the main verb + passive past participle variant worden
So in addition to understanding how auxiliary verbs figure in each of the tenses, it is also necessary to know the various parts of the main verb that are used in the formation of the tenses. Let’s examine the principal parts of German verbs that are used in building all of the verb tenses:
- the infinitive – The basic form of any verb, as it appears in a dictionary entry. The infinitive stem = the infinitive minus -(e)n.
- (present tense stem change)- Some strong and mixed verbs change some letters in their stem in some or all present tense singular forms. Most verbs do not have this change — none of the weak verbs have it — but many of the verbs that do have the change are very common words.
- simple past stem – The simple past stems of all weak verbs are predictable and can be formed from the infinitive stem. But the simple past stems of strong and mixed verbs are unpredictable and need to be learned.
- past participle – The past participles of weak verbs all follow the same pattern. The strong and mixed verbs have unpredictable past participles that must be learned.
Thus, the principal parts of any weak verb look similar to this:
machen, machte, gemacht
sagen, sagte, gesagt
arbeiten, arbeitete, gearbeitet
handeln, handelte, gehandelt
Strong and mixed verb patterns have some commonalities but also many differences. Stem changes are marked in red:
kommen, kam, gekommen
gehen, ging, gegangen
laufen (läuft), lief, gelaufen
sprechen (spricht), sprach, gesprochen
geben (gibt), gab, gegeben
können (kann), konnte, gekonnt
wissen (weiß), wusste, gewusst
kennen, kannte, gekannt
Clearly, the weak verbs can be recognized in any tense if you know just the infinitive form. On the other hand, because the strong and mixed verbs have unpredictable stem changes, knowing the principal parts of the most common strong and mixed verbs can be a useful tool in understanding German sentences.
Let’s pull it all together now with some examples. In the following sentences, you can see how the principle parts and the auxiliaries work together to produce German verb tenses.
|weak verb||strong verb|
|Present:||Er sagt …|
He says (is saying, does say) …
He gives (is giving, does give) …
|Simple past:||Er sagte …|
He said …
|Er gab …|
He gave …
|Future:||Er wird … sagen.|
He will say …
|Er wird … geben.|
He will give …
|Present Perfect:||Er hat … gesagt.|
He said (has said) …
|Er hat … gegeben.|
He gave (has given) …
|Past Perfect:||Er hatte … gesagt.|
He had said …
|Er hatte … gegeben.|
He had given …
|Future Perfect:||Er wird … gesagt haben.|
He will have said …
|Er wird … gegeben haben.|
He will have given …
|Present:||Es wird … gesagt.|
It is said …
|Es wird … gegeben.|
It is given …
|Simple past:||Es wurde … gesagt.|
It was said …
|Es wurde … gegeben.|
It was given …
|Present perfect:||Es ist … gesagt worden.|
It has been said …
|Es ist … gegeben worden.|
It has been given …