Learning verb tenses in English is easier, than in other languages. Most other European languages are just way harder when it comes to declining them even in the present tense. So even understanding the concept of different verb endings for different pronouns might be hard to grasp in the beginning. Other native Europeans who start learning another European language, might have an easier start because they know that concept since childhood.
In short, verb tenses refer to whether something happens in the past, present, or future. In this short instruction into the German tenses, I’ll explain and provide some examples of the most common tenses you might come across.
The present tense describes what is happening or felt at the moment and what happens regularly, for example, ‘I’m a student’; ‘She works as a consultant’; ‘I’m learning German’.
There is a difference in German and English though. For example, in English, you can either say ‘I give’, ‘I am giving’, or sometimes ‘I do give’. In German, you use the same form “ich gebe” for all these. Germans also use the present for future intentions.
“Will you go/Are you going to go to the cinema tomorrow?”
“Yes, tomorrow I will go/am going to go to the cinema”
In English, that’s future tense using “will”. When talking, Germans usually use the present tenses, using future tense would sound a bit more like written or formal language, or it could emphasize a future action that you definitely want to perform, which is rather important.
“Gehst du morgen ins Kino”
“Ja, morgen gehe ich ins Kino”
If it was in German future tense, you’d say:
“Wirst du morgen ins Kino gehen?”
“Ja, morgen werde ich ins Kino gehen.”
In English, you can also use the present tense to talk about something that is going to happen in the near future. You can do the same in German.
In present tenses, the conjugated verbs end with:
I = -e | you (singular) = -st | he/she/it = -t | we = en | you (pl) = t | they = -en
“to drive – fahren”
Mostly, the conjugation for “er/sie/es” (= he/she/it) is the same as the one for “ihr” (= you plural), but it can differ as seen in the example. The ones for “wir” (= we) and “sie” (= they) are the same.
As in English, the future tense is used to express what will happen or will be true. As mentioned above, there are several ways to talk about the future in English: you can use the future tense (I won’t be working tomorrow), the present tense (I’m not working tomorrow), or ‘going to’ followed by an infinitive (I’m not going to work tomorrow). In German, using the future tenses is more formal, you can emphasize the future, express doubts, or suppose something about the future. Forget about literally saying “going to” in German, there’s no such thing as “gehen zu” to express the future, it would only be used to say “going to [a place]”.
Es wird schon alles gut. [Everything will surely be alright.]
Ich nehme den letzten Zug [I’m taking the last train.]
Das wirst du bereuen [You’re going to regret that.]
The simple past or imperfect is, you probably guessed it, past tense. In English, using “I was” (Ich war) and “I have been” (Ich bin gewesen) refer to different tenses, yet in German, they can be used more or less the same. When talking, Germans use the perfect tense (I have been) more often, than the simple past (I was). In written language, you’ll find more of a simple past.
Simple Past/Präteritum conjugated word endings:
I = -te | You (sig) = -test | he = -te | we = -ten | you (pl) = -tet | they = -ten |
“to make – machen”
Again, the verb forms for “we” and “they” are spelled the same in the German simple past, as are the forms for “I” and “he”. It’s quite easy to learn, you only need to know the simple past form for “I” and add “st” for you sng., “en” for we/they and “et” for you pl.
Ich war ganz traurig, als sie wegging. [I was very sad when she left.]
Es gab ein großes Problem mit Drogen. [There was a big problem with drugs.]
Samstags spielte ich immer Tennis. [I used to play tennis on Saturdays.]
The perfect tense consists of two parts: the present tense of “haben” (have) or “sein” (to be), and the German past participle (like ‘given’, ‘finished’, ‘been’, ‘done’ etc.). Most verbs use the perfect tense with “haben”. There are two main groups of verbs that use “sein” instead of “haben” with the perfect tense: two verbs which mean “to happen” (“geschehen” and “passieren”) and verbs that are used to talk about movement or a change of some kind, including:
gehen [to go]
kommen [to come]
ankommen [to arrive]
abfahren [to leave]
aussteigen [to get off]
einsteigen [to get on]
sterben [to die]
sein [to be]
werden [to become]
bleiben [to remain]
begegnen [to meet]
gelingen [to succeed]
aufstehen [to get up]
fallen [to fall]
Gestern bin ich ins Kino gegangen. [I went to the cinema yesterday.]
Sie ist ganz früh abgefahren. [She went/drove away really early.]
The imperative is used to give orders or instructions. Like “Don’t do that”, “Stop it”, “Do your homework” “Take the left exit” etc. There are only three imperative forms in German, as you address someone directly, you can’t order someone who isn’t present. These correspond to “du, ihr, and Sie”. When using “du” most verbs simply use the verb stem, an “–e” can be added, too. The “ihr” form adds a “–t” (sometimes “-d”) to the stem and the formal “Sie” form adds “–en”.
Fang(e)! [Fetch!] Sei still! [be quiet (one person)]
Fangt! [Fetch!] Seid still! [be quiet (more than one person)]
Fangen Sie! [Fetch!] Seinen Sie still!
Sie sagte: „Er kennt deine Schwester.“ [She said, “He knows your sister.”]
Sie sagte, er kenne meine Schwester. [She said he knew my sister.]
Sie sagte, dass er meine Schwester kenne. [She said that he knew my sister.]
The conditional verb form is used to talk about things that would happen or that would be true under certain conditions, for example, ‘I would do that if I could’. It is also used to say what you would like or need, for example, ‘Could you give me the pen?’. The conditional tense in German is made up of two parts: the “würde” form, the imperfect subjunctive of the verb “werden” (a future form of to be), and the infinitive of the main verb, which usually goes at the end of the sentence. There are other conditional verb forms in German, but this is the most common and easiest one. The other ones are mainly used for “could” (“könnte”) and “should” (“solle”).
Was würden Sie an meiner Stelle tun? [What would you do in my position?]
Das würde ich nie von dir verlangen. [I would never ask that of you.]
There are more verb tenses, those are the most important ones, and you can get along pretty easily knowing only those. If you want to become more fluent and be able to use those verb tenses more naturally without thinking, try the Readle – learn German app. You can read a story, listen to it by a native German speaker, learn useful grammar, and see the translation of every word. It’s the best way to get around German fast!