German Verb-Tenses Overview
There are 6 basic tenses in German. The two ‘simple’ tenses are present and simple past. They use just one, conjugated verb. The four ‘compound’ tenses are present perfect, past perfect, future, and future perfect. They use two verbs: a conjugated ‘helping’ verb and an infinitive or past participle.
Those same 6 tenses are in the ‘indicative mood’, which is what we use to talk about real things happening.
The ‘subjunctive mood’ is split into what’s called ‘Konjunktiv I & II’ in German. Konjunktiv I is used to report indirect speech. Konjunktiv II is used to express wishes or possibilities (things that aren’t happening in real life).
The ‘Imperative’ is the third and final mood, used only to deliver commands or mild exhortations.
All of these tenses and moods so far have been in the ‘active voice’, which means that the subject of the sentence is the one taking action. There is also the ‘passive voice’, which is what we use when the subject of the sentence is having action taking on it vs. taking action himself (He will be heard.)
Finally understand hard-to-grasp German grammar concepts.
Konjunkiv I & II
The Konjunktiv I is used to report (but not verify) indirect speech. The Konjunktiv II is used to express an unreal situation such as a desire or possibility.
Der Präsident gehe nächste Woche in Urlaub.
(It´s said that the Preisdent is going on vacation next week.)
Ich wäre mitgegangen, wenn ich die Zeit dazu hätte!
(I would have gone with if I had had the time!
Past participle forms of main verbs are used to make the perfect compound tenses (present perfect, past perfect, future perfect). Present participles function as adverbs or adjectives.
Ich habe gesungen. / Ich hatte gesungen. / Ich werde gesungen haben.
Das Kind läuft singend die Strasse entlang.
Das singende Kind läuft die Strasse entlang.
The 6 German Verb Tenses:
The present tense is formed by taking the stem / root of the infinitive and adding the appropriate conjugation onto it:
ich mache — wir machen
du machst — ihr macht
er macht — sie machen
If the infinitive verb is ‘strong’, there may also be a stem-vowel change for the 2nd & 3rd persons, singular:
ich helfe — wir helfen
du hilfst — ihr helft
er hilft — sie helfen
Simple Past Tense
Similarly, the simple past tense is formed by adding the conjugations onto the past-form of the infinitive’s stem / root if it’s a strong verb. Notice the stem-vowel change from ‘e’ to ‘a’ for all persons:
ich half — wir halfen
du halfst — ihr halft
er half — sie halfen
However, if the infinitive verb is ‘weak’, then the simple past tense is formed merely by inserting a ‘t’ in between the stem/root and the conjugations:
ich machte — wir machten
du machtest — ihr machtet
er machte — sie machten
NOTE: in the simple past, the 3rd person singular (er, sie, es) has the same -e conjugation as ‘ich.’
Present Perfect Tense
This tense corresponds to have + past participle constructions in English (I have gone. You have sung. He has eaten). However, the usage of this tense in German is different! The Present Perfect is the preferred tense for putting a statement into the past tense whereas in English, we prefer the simple past tense (I went. You sang. He ate).
In German, the Present Perfect tense is formed by combining a helping verb (either haben or sein) with a past participle. The helping verb must be conjugated and the past participle is formed differently based on what type of verb the infinitive is (strong, weak, mixed, etc.).
Past Perfect Tense
It’s simple to form this tense! Just take the same past participle used for the present perfect tense, but change the tense of the helping verb (haben or sein) into its simple past form.
The Past Perfect tense is used to describe something that happened in the past before another past event: I had already changed my clothes before you arrived.
The future tense in German is also pretty straightforward (as in English). Simply use the present tense forms of ‘werden’ combined with an infinitive verb:
ich werde singen (I will sing)
du wirst kochen (you will cook)
er wird gehen (he will go)
wir werden einkaufen (we will go shopping)
ihr werdet einschlafen (y’all will fall asleep)
sie werden lachen (they will laugh)
NOTE: even though ‘werden’ is used to formulate the future tense, it does NOT translate to ‘will’. It actually means ‘to become’ and is also used in the present tense to say, for example, Er wird Arzt (He ‘becomes’ [a] doctor, a.k.a. He’s studying to be a doctor.)
As the name suggests, the Future Perfect Tense combines aspects of the Future Tense and the Perfect Tenses. The conjugated verb is still ‘werden’, but now it must be combined with TWO additional verbs: a past participle and then either ‘haben’ or ‘sein’:
Ich werde das Buch gekauft haben (I will have purchased that book … )
The Future Perfect Tense is used to describe something that will happen in the future before another event that will also happen in the future: He will have gone by the time you arrive.
The Konjunktiv I is used to report indirect speech. As such, it doesn’t factor into conversational German very frequently, but you’ll hear it a lot in news reports, usually in the 3rd person.
Statements such as “President X says the bill will be passed by next week”, the ‘says’ would be in the Konjunktiv I in German. We don’t have this option in English.
Thus, German’s Konjunktiv I is useful for making neutral reports. So-and-so says X, but the person reporting that isn’t making any claim as to whether X is actually true.
In contrast to German’s Konjunktiv I, this version of the subjunctive is highly useful in everyday speech.
With just a handful of exceptions, there are really only 4 options that you need to know:
Future: Ich würde spielen (I would play) —— würden (conjugated) + infinitive
Past: Ich hätte gespielt (I would have played) —— hätten or wären (conjugated) + past participle
Future: Ich würde gehört werden (I would be heard) —— würden (conjugated) + past participle + werden
Past: Ich wäre gehört worden (I would have been heard) —— hätten or wären (conjugated) + past participle + worden
Use this mood to give commands to one or more people, in the informal (du / ihr) or formal (Sie):
Schlaf! (du) / Schlaft! (ihr) / Schlafen Sie!
Iss! (du) / Esst! (ihr) / Essen Sie!
Note: there are stem-vowel changes for the ‘du’ commands if it’s a strong verb.
So-called ‘mild exhortations’ can be given in the 1st person, plural:
Gehen wir! OR Lass uns gehen! — Let’s go!
The only passive voice tenses that are truly useful to know are the present, simple past, and perfect past:
Ich werde verletzt. (I am being hurt.) — ‘werden’ (conjugated) + past participle
Ich wurde verletzt. (I was hurt.) — ‘wurden’ (conjugated) + past participle
Ich bin verletzt worden. (I have been hurt.) — ‘sein’ (conjugated) + past participle + worden