1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Identify and translate present-perfect and past-perfect tenses.
  • Identify and translate participles used as adjectives or as nouns.
  • Identify and translate present participles used as adjectives or adverbs.
  • Analyze and translate participial phrases.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. Present Perfect Tense

In English, present perfect tense is formed with the auxiliary verb “have” plus the past participle of the main verb, for example: “He has studied for a month.” German present perfect tense likewise relies on an auxiliary verb plus the main verb’s past particle. The three main differences are: 1) German allows for two possible auxiliary verbs: haben or sein, 2) the word order is different, and 3) their meanings are usually not the same (as discussed below).

Formation of Past Participles

German past participles are generally more instantly recognizable than English participles thanks to most of them using a ge– prefix. The participles of German regular (also called “weak”) verbs are usually formed simply by adding ge– before the stem of the infinitive and ending with –t or –et. Thus, gesagt is the past participle of sagen, gewartet is that of warten. You will not find regular-verb participles listed separately in your dictionary, so you must be able to figure out the corresponding infinitive form on your own in order to look up the meaning.

The past participle of irregular (also called “strong”) verbs usually ends in –en and also begins with ge-. Thus, geschwommen is the participle of schwimmen, geworfen is that of werfen. Note the vowel change. Irregular-verb participles are listed with their own entries in your dictionary, so you don’t necessarily need to memorize them. Your dictionary may also have a section listing a large number of irregular verbs in all their forms.

There are exceptions to these rules for verbs with:

  1. Inseparable prefixes (see Unit 4): no ge– is added. Thus, verkaufen (to sell) – verkauft (sold) and verstehen (to understand) – verstanden (understood).
  2. Separable prefixes (see Unit 4): the ge– appears between the prefix and the stem of the verb e.g., einkaufen (to shop) becomes eingekauft, aufgehen (to rise) becomes aufgegangen.
  3. Verbs ending in –ieren, e.g., studieren: all of these verbs are regular and therefore end in –t, but they never add ge-. Thus, the past participle of studieren is studiert, that of interessieren, interessiert. (Caution: the inseparable-prefix verb verlieren, the past participle of which is verloren, is not an ieren verb.)

Syntax

As mentioned, either haben and sein may appear as the auxiliary verb in German, whereas English only ever uses “to have”. Examples:

Er hat ein Buch gekauft. He bought a book.
Wir haben in München studiert. We studied in Munich.
Er ist in die Stadt gegangen. He went to town.
Wann seid ihr nach Hause gefahren? When did you drive home?

When is sein the auxiliary? Sein is the auxiliary for many intransitive verbs, i.e., verbs that do not take a direct object. These verbs are usually verbs of motion (gehen) or those depicting a change of state, such as werden (to become) or verschwinden (to disappear).

The basic law of German word order covered in Unit 1, “verb in second position,” explains why you see the auxiliary verb – the part of the verb that is conjugated to match the subject – take the second position, while the participle appears at the end of the clause.

The position of the participle is a useful reading cue that we don’t get to enjoy in English. Everything between the helping verb and the participle is the predicate of that sentence or clause. Of course, in subordinate clauses, as you learned in Unit 6, the auxiliary verb will appear at the very end of that clause, thus immediately after the participle.

Nachdem sie in den Laden gegangen ist, ist sie gleich wieder herausgekommen.
After she went into the store, she came right back out again.

Meaning

In German, unlike in English, the meaning of present-perfect tense is not different than simple past tense. Accordingly, it’s usually more naturally translated using English simple past tense: “Er hat gelernt.” > “He studied.” Other time information in the context of the text you are reading will allow you to select the best tense to use for an English translation.

Keep in mind that the term “present-perfect tense” is just a linguistic term describing how this tense is built, not what it means. The term “present-perfect tense” merely describes the technique of using a present-tense helping verb combined with the main verb’s perfect (participle) form. You may find it useful to review your English grammar to become conscious of what exactly English present-perfect tense means.

  • If an action is complete, i.e., “over and done with,” then use the English simple past tense:

    Österreich ist 1995 Mitglied der EU geworden.
    Austria became a member of the EU in 1995.

    Er ist eine halbe Stunde Richtung Norden gefahren.
    He drove northwards for half an hour.

  • Whereas if the action is still continuing from the past into the present, then use English present-perfect tense:

    Österreich hat in diesem Jahr vorläufig mehr an das Ausland geliefert als vom Ausland angekauft.
    So far this year, Austria has shipped more to foreign countries than it has purchased from foreign countries.

It may help to review the meaning of German present tense at this point. German present tense is actually closer to the meaning of English present-perfect tense, because English present-perfect tense expresses that the action is continuing from the past into the present, quite specifically including the present. Compare:

Ich bin seit sechs Jahren Student. (German present tense)
I have been a student for six years. (English present-perfect tense)

Ich bin Student gewesen. (German present-perfect tense)
Ich war Student. (German simple-past tense – exactly the same meaning)
I was a student. (English past tense)

Again, pay attention to additional time information given in the sentence when deciding how to translate German present and present-perfect verb tenses. And in the absence of additional time information, understand German present-perfect tense as English past tense.

Last revised on July 20, 2016.

3. Past Perfect Tense

German past perfect (also called pluperfect) visually differs from the German present perfect only in the tense of the auxiliary verb. The meaning of German past-perfect tense is identical to English past-perfect tense. Compare these examples:

Past perfect Present perfect
Er hatte ein Buch gekauft.
He had bought a book.
Er hat ein Buch gekauft.
He bought a book.
Er war in die Stadt gegangen.
He had gone to town.
Er ist in die Stadt gegangen.
He went to town.

The past perfect has only this one use. Just as is in the present perfect, note that the past participle appears in final position.

Last revised on March 4, 2016.

4. Word Formation from Past Participles

  1. Past participles may also be used as adjectives, just as they can in English. You will usually not find these adjectives listed separately in your dictionary; you are responsible for recognizing them as participles functioning as adjectives, and for using the dictionary entry for the infinitive form of the verb to look up their meaning.

    Das Fenster ist geschlossen.
    The window is closed.

    ein gekochtes Ei
    a boiled egg

    The first example should not be confused with the present perfect tense. Keep in mind that the verb schließen uses haben as a helping verb, not sein, to form present perfect tense. Since it is grammatically (and sensibly) impossible to read this as a verb, it is apparently being used as an adjective; it tells you the condition of the window, not what is happening to it.

  2. Past participles may also be used as adjectival nouns.

    As you learned in Unit 4, you can recognize adjectival nouns from their normal noun capitalization and syntax position, but with the addition of an appropriate adjective ending. Thus, for example, in nominative case:

    das Geschriebene (from schreiben – to write)
    [literally:] the written / [usually:] that which was written / [or:] what was written

    das Gesagte (from sagen – to say)
    [literally:] the said / [usually:] that which was said / [or:] what was said

    In the next example, you should recognize nouns formed from the verbs fangen and sagen:

    Der Gefangene entnahm dem Gesagten, daß es spät war.
    The prisoner gathered from what was said that it was late.

Last revised on August 15, 2017.

5. Present Participles

Present participles are easily recognized by the addition of a –d to the infinitive form of the verb. Thus schwimmend = swimming, laufend = running, etc.

German uses present participles primarily as adjectives and adverbs, not as verbs. Remember that English present tense, “he is running,” “she is swimming” etc., is expressed in German with the present tense: er läuft, sie schwimmt.

Examples of present participles as adjectives and adverbs:

Adjectives:

das spielende Kind
the playing child [or, more naturally in English:] the child who is playing

der singende Vogel
the singing bird

Adverbs:

Das Spiel ging enttäuschend aus.
The game ended disappointingly.

Der Hund stand bellend am Fenster.
The dog stood at the window barking.

Last revised on August 1, 2016.

6. Translating Participial Adjectives and Adverbs

As demonstrated previously, adjectives can be used as adverbs in German (Unit 4, Unit 6). When participial adjectives or adverbs are involved, it is common to see an adverb modifying an adjective, which can extend the complexity within a noun phrase.

das schnell steigende Flugzeug
the rapidly climbing airplane

das siedend heiße Wasser
the boiling-hot water

ein hart gekochtes Ei
the hard-boiled egg

die gestern gekochten Eier
the eggs boiled yesterday

mein brauner, schon gepackter Koffer
my brown suitcase, already packed

These complex noun phrases are a good opportunity to see the value in first marking off where each noun phrase begins and ends before attempting to translate a long sentence. It simplifies your task to know that everything inside a noun phrase can only be modifying the noun, not anything outside of the noun phrase. Remember that you can easily see which are adverbs and which are adjectives by simply noting which have adjective endings and which do not.

Last revised on August 1, 2016.

7. Participial Phrases

Both present and past participles are used in participial phrases.

Example using a present participle:

Im Garten spielend, sang das Kind.
Playing in the garden, the child sang.

Example using a past participle:

Immer an die Musik interessiert, ging der Student oft in die Oper.
Always interested in music, the student went to the opera often.

Note that the participle is functioning (and is located in final position) as if it were the main verb in a subordinate clause. Here’s how you could diagram the syntax of the above participial phrases:

Verb: spielend
Predicate (a prepositional phrase): im Garten

Verb: interessiert
Predicate (a prepositional phrase): an die Musik
Which is modified by an adverb: immer

This highlights a fundamental reading skill: how to mentally re-order German phrases so that they make sense to you in English. The various verb tenses covered in this unit all require you to look for a participle as marking the end of a phrase, and then to work backwards from that participle in order to find the object or predicate of the phrase. In the two examples above, see the pattern of word-order shifts between the German and English renditions of the participial phrases. You will find this re-ordering skill useful throughout this course.

Try solving this more complex example yourself:

Sein Handy in der linken Hand noch am Ohr haltend, reicht mir Thomas seine rechte Hand.

Diagram of the participial phrase:
Verb: haltend
Object: sein Handy
Prepositional phrase: in der linken Hand
Prepositional phrase: am Ohr
Which is modified by an adverb: noch

Last revised on October 26, 2017.

8. Irregularities in the Comparative and Superlative

Word Formation

These sections of the textbook help improve your speed during the skimming phase of reading and help you gradually build vocabulary.

Like English, German has some irregular forms of the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives and adverbs. Consider the irregular forms “good,” “better,” “best,” compared to the regular forms “red,” “redder,” “reddest.” (See Unit 6.)

The most common of the adjectives and adverbs with irregular forms are:

Root Comparative Superlative
gern (gladly) lieber (preferably) am liebsten (to like most of all)
gut (good) besser best-, am besten
hoch or hoh– (high) höher höchst-, am höchsten
nah (near) näher nächst-, am nächsten (next, nearest)
oft (often) öfter häufigst-, am häufigsten
viel (much) mehr meist-, am meisten
Last revised on September 9, 2014.