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What Does "Perfekt" mean?
Just like English, German has two different ways to write in the past tense. What we call the "simple past" in English is called "Vergangenheit" in German. Here's an example of the same sentence in both languages, written in this simpler past tense.
English: I saw two dogs.
German: Ich sah zwei Hünde.
Now, a slightly different sentence.
English: I have seen these two dogs all day.
German: Ich habe diese zwei Hünde den ganzen Tag gesehen.
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Forming the Tense With Weak Verbs
It's a lot easier to form the perfekt tense in German than it looks. Just like English, German has two main kinds of action verbs. In English, we call them "regular" and "irregular" -- the regular verbs follow a predictable pattern, while the "irregular" ones don't. In German, they're called schwach (weak) and stark (strong).
Look at the following examples. "Break" is irregular (English) and strong (German). The participle form of "break" in English is "broken" -- in German, the participle form of brechen is gebrochen. "Collect" is regular (English) and weak (German) The participle form of "collected" in English is "collected" -- in German, the participle form of sammeln is gesammelt.
If you're dealing with German weak verbs, the pattern is always the same. Take the verb spielen (to play). To form the perfekt, just stick a "ge-" prefix on the beginning, and replace the "-en" with a "t." Example:
English: I have played soccer for three years.
German: Ich habe Fuβball drei Jahren gespielt.
Note the placement -- your helping verb goes in the normal verb position (right after the subject), and the participle, which shows the action, goes all the way to the end. This is one reason why, if you talk to a German person in English, he may say something odd like "I am to the store going" -- Germans are used to putting the action verb at the end when a helping verb appears in the sentence.
One exception -- if your weak verb ends in "-ieren," there is no prefix, but you still put in the "t." Look at this example using telefonieren (to telephone).
English: I called Brian last Thursday.
German: Ich habe Brian letzten Donnerstag telefoniert.
What if there's a separable prefix? Look at this example using aufmachen (to open).
English: I've opened the door for that stupid dog five times!
German: Ich habe die Tür fünfmal für jenen dummen Hund aufgemacht!
Notice that the "ge-" prefix goes between the separable prefix and the main verb. If there is an inseparable prefix (miss-, be-, ver-, and so on), you don't add a prefix -- just the "t." Example:
English: We've been trying all night.
German: Wir haben die ganze Nacht versucht.
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Is "Haben" Always the Helping Verb?
No. Generally, if the verb is a verb of motion, or is intransitive (doesn't take a direct object), the helping verb will be a form of sein. But the vast majority of weak verbs are transitive, so they, by and large, use haben.
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Forming the Tense With Strong Verbs
The bad news: Most of the strong verbs change the stem vowel (the one in the center of the verb) in ways that we can't guess. Take schwimmen, which means "to swim." The simple past form is schwamm, but the participle is geschwommen. There's really no way around memorizing a list of the strong verb conjugation forms. There are online tools that will show you the conjugated forms of any German verb -- for the purposes of the perfekt tense, you want to use the partizip, or participle.
The good news: the rules are pretty much the same as they were for weak verbs. The prefix "ge-" goes on the front of the verb (unless the prefix is inseparable, or unless the prefix is separable, in which case you follow the same process as with the weak verb). Instead of "-t" on the end, though, you keep the "-en."
The German verb brechen changes to gebrochen for the participle.
English: I have broken five pencils today!
German: Ich habe fünf Bleistifte heute gebrochen!
Remember what I said about helping verbs up there? Check the next sentence:
English: She has swum two hundred meters already.
German: Sie ist schon zwei hundert Meter geschwommen.
Remember -- verbs of motion, and verbs that don't take a direct object, will ordinarily use sein as a helping verb.
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Now, For the Irregular Verbs
There's no getting around it with these verbs -- you'll have to memorize a list of the principal parts of these verbs. Take sein, for instance -- the verb "to be." The simple past form is war, and the past participle is gewesen. The good part is that the rules for the prefix "ge-" remain the same -- but the rest of the form must be memorized. Below are some examples.
English: We've stayed at this hotel many times.
German: Wir sind bei diesem Gasthof vielmal geblieben.
The infinitive for "to stay" is bleiben, so the only change for the past participle is to switch the two vowels in the middle. Check this one out, though:
English: They've gone to Octoberfest every year. ("to go" in German is gehen)
German: Sie sind jedes Jahr zum Oktoberfest gegangen.
How did they go from gehen to gegangen? Then again, how did we go from "go" to "went" in English? Irregular forms are a commonality between our two languages.
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How Can I Work on This?
There are many cool websites with practice exercises for the perfekt tense. Nancy Thuleen has a great website: Here, you'll find worksheets for the perfekt, as well as many other aspects of German grammar. Viel Glück!
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For online help pronouncing German words, try LEO, a German translator with pronunciation. Just type in the word you want to hear, and click on the speaker.
Overview of the Perfekt Tense in German
Here's how to conjugate the six tenses in German.