German Past Tense 2 – Spoken Past

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German is Easy – Online Course.
And today we’ll continue to look at

The German Past Tense.

And let’s start with a quick recap of what we learned in part one:

There are 2 forms of past: the spoken past (perfect) and the written past (preterit).
Every verb has both forms but which one is used depends on two things:

  • which verb do we have (and which meaning)
  • in which „mode“ of language are we using it.

Sounds complicated but luckily most verbs follow the same pattern:

Spoken past in spoken language (including chat and email),
and written past in written language (novels, essays, etc).

And by most verbs I really mean like 98 percent or more. Like it’s a communist country’s election result or something.
Seriously though, only a few verbs use the written past also in spoken language, but these few verbs happen to also be some of the most common verbs.
But anyway, if you want to check out part one or you want to rewatch (e.g. reread), you can find it here:

German Past Tense – Part 1 – Preterit and Perfect in German.


Now, today we’ll learn all about how to build the Spoken Past (the perfect), so we’ll learn about the ge-form, how it works with prefix verbs, the word order and of course how to pick the right helper verb in German. Because yes… we have choices. Thanks capitalism.
Here’s the quick links so you can jump around.

And now, let’s dive right in :)

  • Ich habe mir gestern einen neuen Schlauch für mein Fahrrad gekauft.
  • I bought a new inner tube for my bike yesterday.

As we can see we need 2 things for the spoken past: a helper verb and what I call the ge-form of the verb. Now you’re like „Gee… what form??“ so let’s talk about this first and find out how it is built and also WHY it is built that way.

The Ge-Form (Past Participle)

In official grammar-jargon the ge-form is called past party symbol. It is not entirely clear to me why it is called that but I have to say that it is a surprisingly modern sounding name in the otherwise so Latin-heavy linguistic terminology. Unfortunately, it sounds too much like past participle and this might be confusing so we will call it the ge-form. Ok seriously, the name past participle is actually one of the grammatical terms worth knowing and it is a really tremendously useful form. In German it is used for the spoken past.

  • Ich habe ein paar Eier gekocht.
  • I have boiled some eggs.

It can be an adjective.

  • Ich mag gekochte Eier lieber als Rührei.
  • I like boiled eggs better than scrambled egg (lit.)

And it is also used for passive.

  • Die Eier werden gekocht.
  • The eggs are being boiled.

So… you can do a lot with this form. And this is not only the case in German. The past participle is equally useful in many other languages including Finnish and the rules how to build this form is one of the first things that I look up when I learn a new language. By the way… if you’re wondering what the past participle is in English: it is the third form of this 3-form verb scheme…

  • go – went – gone
  • see – saw – seen
  • download – downloaded – downloaded

Alright…  I will call it ge-form from now on because it is just a little more intuitive how is it done in German? Well… the standard rule is simple: remove the en-ending of the verb, add a ge in the beginning and a t at the end. And sometimes you have to remove the umlaut.

  • machen (to make)                – ge + mach + t
  • kaufen (to buy)                     – ge + kauf + t
  • können (to be able to)        – ge + konn + t

Now, before the 15th century, the spoken past didn’t exist. It was then, that people started “inventing” it for whatever reason. The past participle back then had no ge yet. The ge  actually used to be a “normal” non-separable prefix just like ver or ent. The meaning of the ge as a prefix was very broad and I can’t really wrap my mind around it but it did have of a notion of completion. So, just as Germans started to use the previously unheard of spoken past they also started adding the ge  to the past participle of basic verbs that didn’t … maybe just to give them said notion of completion. Over time the ge-form developed as a rule and the original prefix-meaning of ge almost disappeared. It is still visible in words like gefrieren (to freeze) or gelingen (to turn out as a success).

  • Das Wasser gefriert.
  • The water is freezing.
  • Das Projekt gelingt.
  • The project turns out a success.

So … the ge-form is somewhat of a coincidence and it could have been another prefix as well. The main thing it does anyway is adding an extra unstressed easy to pronounce syllable to the word. Like an up beat in music. It gives the following stress more impact because it had build up.

  • ge –kauft
  • “dit  DUNNNNt”

Kids hear and produc    e this rhythmical change before they actually realize the ge. They say things like:

  • Ich bin hin –ne-falln
  • I fell down.
  • Mamma hat die Tür auf-fe-macht.

Keep this rhythm aspect in mind. We’ll get back to it laterrrrr. Alright… so adding ge in front and t to the end is the default way to construct the ge-form of a verb and this rule applies for a large part of all German verbs but there are exceptions. Of course. The bad thing is that the irregular forms are the ones you will use most in daily conversation so to you as a beginner it will seem like EVERY verb has an irregular ge-form.  There are 2 main deviations of the rule. Some verbs end in –en instead of t.

  • essen (to eat)                          – ge + g + ess +en (the second g is ust a filler so as to not have double e)
  • lassen (to let, to leave)     – ge + lass + en
  • geben (to give)                    – ge + geb + en

The second thing that makes irregular forms irregular is a change of the stem-vowel, with occasional “adjustments” of the surrounding letters… and boy oh boy are there possibilities.

  • nehmen (to take)                  – genommen
  • ziehen (to pull)                      – gezogen
  • riechen (to smell)                 – gerochen
  • denken  (to think)                – gedacht
  • trinken  (to drink)                – getrunken
  • wissen (to know)                   – gewusst
  • kennen (the other, different to know)   – gekannt

So is there a system that helps with this? Well for a “systematic” approach if you want you can look into the whole over-hyped “weak verb – strong verb” nonsen… uhm theory (which no German knows about). That won’t save you from having to learn for EACH verb whether it is weak or strong and which vowel-change happens (there are half a dozen tables for this). I think the benefit of those additional very abstract rules t be very marginal and I would recommend to just accept it as random and learn the ge-forms by constant repetition. I mean they are ones you will see all the time in the beginning anyway. I will give you an exercise at the end of this post. There are 2 rules of thumb that I can give you however… if there is a vowel change in English (see-saw-seen) there is a fair chance that it is irregular in German too. But regular English doesn’t imply regular German. And then, if there is a vowel change in German there is a good chance for it to end with -en. But not always. Bottom line of this… most German verbs have a regular ge-form and they will look like this

  • verben – geverbt

Many of the most important verb have irregular forms, stem change, -en-ending or both and you should just learn those without trying to make too much sense of it. But learn them you should. Anyway… if you can’t think of a ge-form or you have actually never seen it before then: Use the Rule!!!

  • Ich habe gedenkt.

This is wrong but every German can understand it and it is better to just say this with confidence than to stop and search for the correct form. “gedenke.. no gedank uh..gedunken???”  Instead of interrupting the conversation for half a minute and turn your statement into an unrelated language question just say it wrong! It is fine; no one will laugh. The other person will probably find it cute. And then later that night you will get the chance to find out more about the German crot.. uh culture while having hot steaming se… uh servings of coffee (oh my… that was close). So… when in doubt just say it wrong and when the other person corrects you, repeat the corrected version so as to train your brain. The ge-forms have to come out automatically and they will. Just give it some time and make an effort learning. Alright… now before we can get to the helper verb we need to talk about another thing.

The Ge-Form and Separable Prefixes

Many German verbs consist of a basic verb like nehmen and one of our 1.762.431* prefixes (* number is an estimate by a level A1 student). And as you may know there are weakly linked and strongly linked prefixes (if you need to brush up on that read this).
Now… let’s deal with weakly linked verbs first. Their ge-form looks as follows:

prefix + ge-form of the basic verb

  • Ich habe mein Kind vom Kindergarten abgeholt.
  • I picked up my child from the kindergarten.
  • Ich bin am Montag umgezogen.
  • I moved on Monday (to a new flat).
  • Ich habe den Herd ausgemacht.
  • I have turned off the stove.
  • Ich habe mein Bier noch nicht ausgetrunken.
  • I haven’t finished my beer yet.

And now you ask .. whyyyyyyyy? Why isn’t it geaustrunken and geabholt? Why do I have to fit the ge in the middle of the word? Well, this actually makes perfect sense and it is an example for a principle that you will see over and over in German… the second to last jump. You know that if your verb has more than one part in German the first part goes in position 2 and all the rest goes to the end of the clause.

  • Ich mache den Herd aus.
  • I turn off the stove.

So here our verb consist of the parts mache and aus because ausmachen has a weak link, which breaks easily. Now, if we want to put this into spoken past we need to introduce a helper verb – in this case haben. Haben now kicks mache out of position 2 while slapping a ge to it.  So we have

  • Ich habe den Herd aus.    and a kind of homeless  gemacht

Now where does this gemacht go? It goes to the very end of course. Note, that I am not touching anything else in the sentence. Nothing moves except for machen.

  • Ich habe den Herd aus     gemacht.   becomes
  • Ich habe den Herd ausgemacht.

And it is just by convention that it is now again written as one word. As if there is magnetic force between aus and macht. I don’t want to get too much into that right now but this ausmachen-example is not much different than this:

  • Abwaschen macht mir  Spaß.
  • Doing dishes is fun to me (lit).
  • I enjoy doing dishes.

Spaß machen is never written as one word and yet it is kind of a fixed expression. Now if we put this in past we get

  • Abwaschen hat mir Spaß gemacht.

Just as before the haben kicked the machen from position 2 and turned it into the ge-form. Gemacht then had nowhere to go so it goes where all the verb leftovers go… to the end. It is not written as one word this time but the reason is simply a convention. Sometimes even Germans don’t know what to do.

  • Ich habe viele Leute kennengelernt.
  • Ich habe viele Leute kennen    gelernt.
  • I met many people.

Both versions are correct according to out current writing “law” because there are arguments for and against writing it as one word. So … as you can see, having the ge between the weakly linked prefix and the rest of the basic verb is completely natural while geabholt wouldn’t be. And to bring back the idea of rhythm… a separable prefix is always stressed –  even more than is the stem syllable.

  • AUFmachen
  • MITbringen

Having the ge in between yields a nice stressed-unstressed-stressed-pattern… something very common for German.

  • AUF – ge – MACHT
  • “DUNN dit DUNNN”

The other version would be

  • ge-AUF-MACHT
  • dit DUNN DUNN

and that is just not feeling as smooth and groovy. So .. ge in the middle makes sense logically and on top of that it sounds nice :).

Ge-Form and Inseparable Prefixes

Now let’s move on to the strongly linked prefixes – the ones that don’t split.

  • Ich verkaufe mein altes Handy.
  • I sell my old sell-phone (pun intended).

The spoken past of this is:

  • Ich habe mein altes Handy verkauft.
  • I sold my old cell-phone.

Or some other exaples…

  • Thomas hat Marias Geburtstag vergessen.
  • Thomas forgot Maria’s birthday.
  • Die Werbung hat nicht zuviel versprochen.
  • The ad has not promised too much.
  • Ich habe gestern einen 3-Jahres-Vertrag unterschrieben.
  • I signed a 3 year contract yesterday.
  • Thomas hat den Text auf Deutsch übersetzt.
  • Thomas has translated the text into German

The glaring question here is … why is there no ge??? Well… I don’t exactly know but here is my theory. Unlike the weak-ly linked ones the non-separable prefixes are never stressed.

  • ver – GESS – en
  • ent – SCHEI – den
  • ver –KAUF– en

A direct comparison:

  • ver SCHREI ben  (prescribe)
  • AUF schrei ben   (write down)

And an even morer, directer, comparisoner (is that right??):

  • um STEL len     (surround… for instance police a building)
  • UM stel len          (put from one place/setting to another place/setting)

So for the non-separable verbs we already have this groovy up beat feeling that the ge added to the other verbs.

  • dit DUNNN (dun)

We have also established that the ge used to be a non-separable prefix too and it had a meaning, which it just lost over the centuries. So I can see why people back then would not add a prefix with a meaning to another strongly linked prefix with a different meaning… that would have been confusing back then. And it is not needed for this nice ge-form rhythm after all. Let’s look at this in practice one again, with the stress indicated by like THIS (and blinking).

  • Die Polizei hat das Gebäude  umSTELLT (“dit DUNNN” .. nice dramatic finish)
  • The police has surrounded the building.
  • Ich habe meine Uhr auf Sommerzeit UMgeSTELLt (“DUNN dit DUNNN”… just epic)
  • I set my watch to summer time.

As I said before, this is just my personal theory so if you happen know anything about this, please share it with us here. Now, what about verbs that have a separable prefix AND a non-separable prefix? What? Oh you didn’t know those existed? Oh I am soooo sorry :)… they do…

  • Erst wollt eich einen Kaffee, aber ich habe mich umentschieden. Ich nehme Tee.
  • First I wanted a coffee, but then I reconsidered. I go for tea.
  • Thomas hat 3 Karten für die Oper vorbestellt.
  • Thomas has reserved 3 tickets for the opera.
  • Ich habe meine Wohnung untervermietet.
  • I sublet my flat.

I think you get it without further explanation…

So… wow… that was a lot already. Let’s quickly summarize all of it.

if the verb has a separable prefix  the ge is between prefix and the rest
(aufgemacht, eingekauft, vorgestellt)

if the prefix is not separable then there will be no ge. Just the prefix and the ending
(verstanden, verkauft, bestellt)

And I should probably also mention:  if you know the ending and vowel change of a basic verb this will be the case for ALL prefix versions. For denken we have dacht as a stem

  • Ich habe nachgedacht.
  • I have done some thinking.
  • Ich habe das bedacht.
  • I did take this into consideration.

What did I take into consideration you ask? Well this…

Ge-Form and boring Latin Verbs

There is one group of verbs that has no prefixes and doesn’t take a ge anyway… all the ones ending in –ieren. Those are somehow all based on Latin and I am sure you understand many of them without having seen them before.

  • fotografieren, probieren, transportieren, echauffieren, parlieren, kopieren

The ge-form on those should actually be called the ”  -form” because they just get a t at the end and that’s it.

  • Ich habe den Baum fotografiert.
  • I have taken a picture of the tree.
  • Ich habe das nicht kapiert.
  • I didn’t understand that.

And again this begs the following question: why???? We could assume that the ge-system developed before the Germans got in touch with the Roman language but this is not very likely because German is very quick with inventing ge-forms for all kinds of imported words.

  • Ich habe dein Foto geliked (we don’t know how to spell this yet… here a debate )
  • I have liked your picture (as in: on Facebook).
  • Ich habe gestern mit meiner Mutter geskyped.
  • Ich habe mich eingeloggt.

Where were we coming from? Oh right… why don’t the Latin verbs have a ge? So the reason is not, that they came into the German language too late. But rhythm is the key  – again. The main stress for those verbs is ALWAYS on the  iersyllable.

  • fotogra-FIEren
  • ko –PIE – ren
  • individuali- SIE-ren

So compared to the average basic German verb ( HAben) , all the stuff before IE is kind of one looooong non-separable prefix and it doesn’t make sense to add a ge to it. After ge a German expects a syllable with a strong stress. For the ieren-words this wouldn’t be the case. So that makes it weird sounding and ge feels out of place there. This is different for those English words we had earlier. They do have an emphasized syllable right after the ge and that’s why it is so easy and natural for a German native speaker to do it that way. So … I hope you get an impression of how important rhythm is to German and possibly to any language. Grammar rules are nice and all but people talk in a way that feels right and rhythm plays a huge role there. Ok… so now we know everything about the ge-form  all we need to do is to pick the right helper verb.

Haben or sein – pick the right helper

This question seems to bug many students of German but it really is not that hard to answer. The helper verb is either haben or sein. This can be also seen in Roman languages but the rules when to use which are a little different. Basically you must to use sein whenever you are talking about a movement of yourself that focuses on your being in a different location after than you were before. The prime example is gehen.

  • Ich bin in den Park gegangen.
  • I went to the park.

Here are some others:

  • to fly :         fliegen – geflogen
  • to swim :    schwimmen – geschwommen
  • to jump:     springen – gesprungen
  • to fall:         fallen – gefallen

And here are some less obvious ones:

  • to get up:                     aufstehen – aufgestanden
  • to rise (sun):               aufgehen – aufgegangen
  • to move (new flat):  umziehen – umgezogen
  • to travel :                     reisen        – gereist

The reason why we can’t just say “verbs of movement” is that for instance tanzen (to dance) does not work with sein although your whole body is moving.

  • Ich habe getanzt.
  • I danced.

The focus of to dance is not your being in some location before and some other after that. And if you dance from the bar to your house? Well, then it is sein of course.

  • Ich bin von der Bar nach Hause getanzt.

A similar kind of inverted example is fahren. The default fahren works with sein.

  • Ich bin gestern mit meinem Bruder nach München gefahren.
  • I went to Munich with my brother yesterday (by car).

However, if you just go to Munich to drop of your brother there and then you head right back the focus shifts.

  • Ich habe gestern meinen Bruder nach München gefahren.
  • I drove my brother to Munich yesterday.

In grammar-nerd-speak we could also say, whenever you have an accusative object it is DEFINITELY going to be haben. … and definitely as in mostly… because… you know… the exceptions. But they’re few.
Anyway… I hope you get the idea. Now, there are some verbs that are not really physical movements but rather movements of the soul. They also work with sein.

  • Ich bin eingeschlafen.
  • I fell asleep.
  • Marie ist  aufgewacht.
  • Marie woke up.
  • Maries Hund ist gestorben.
  • Marie’s dog died.
  • Ich bin gestern 30 geworden.
  • I turned 30 yesterday.

And then there is THE BIG exception to the whole idea of movement…. to stay. Yes, bleiben also needs a form of sein.

  • Ich bin gestern abend zuhause geblieben.
  • I stayed home yesterday.

This just doesn’t make any sense but we’ll have to accept it. Oh and the verb sein itself also needs sein as a helper. Why does sein need a helper verb you ask? Because, remember, EVERY verb has either form of the past – a spoken past and a written past.

  • Ich bin schon 3 mal in Paris gewesen.
  • I‘ve been to Paris 3 times already.

This doesn’t sound very nice though and I would use the written past for sein. So… for the verbs we just saw and some others that are similar, use sein and for AAAAAAALLLL the rest, use haben! So… that’s it. That is the German spoken past. You need to know the ge-form. If you don’t know it, you can ALWAYS use the default ge-verbt and be understood and corrected. And you need to know whether to use haben or sein. This seems like a lot but it is just a question of getting used to it. You just need practice. I’d say these things have to come out without thought before it makes sense to delve deeper into German and start worrying about, say, cases. Getting an article wrong is a but a glitch in comparison to a wrong spoken past. And also, the spoken past will constantly train you in the whole verb-at-the-end-concept. If I say

  • Gestern habe ich, als ich im Supermarkt war, meine Ex-Freundin ___
  • Yesterday, when I was in the supermarket I ___ my ex girlfriend.

you have NOOO clue yet as to what I actually did. Did I see her? Did I call her? Did I kiss her? You will never know. It is the ge-form that tells you what actually happened and this means that you need to pay attention to it when listening to people. Alright… so you need to practice a lot and to get you started here is an exercise where you have a lot of irregular verb forms. As always, the solutions are given on the right, so all you have to do is cover it with you hand and then read it off the page in past tense. And read out loud! And when you are done with the page… do it again! And then, again. And again. And again… until you don’t need to think anymore.

And that’s it for today… next time we’ll look at the written past and find out which verbs use it even in spoken German. If you have any questions regarding the article or the exercise or if I made a bad mistake somewhere, please leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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