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Present Perfect (2)

In the previous lesson, we made an introduction into present perfect tense in German. In this lesson, we will see what other functions the past participles could possibly have and discuss when to use the auxiliary verb haben and when to use sein with present perfect tense.

Other uses of past participles

As we saw in the previous lesson, past participles are used to form the present perfect tense. Past participles are not only used to for the present perfect tense but they are also used to form the other two perfect tenses in German: future perfect and past perfect. We will cover these two tenses in the upcoming lessons.  

Past participles can be used as adjectives as well as adverbs.

Past Participles as adjectives

One can use a past participle as an adjective by applying the corresponding declension rules.

For instance, gekocht is the past participle of the verb “kochen” and it can be used as an adjective as well:

  • gekochtes Gemüse (boiled vegetable)

Of course, a past participle can be used as a predicate adjective with the verb “sein”. For instance getrennt (separated):

  • wir sind getrennt (we’re separated)

As mentioned above, past participles can be used as adverbs as well. Let’s take the past participle getrennt again, but this time used as an adverb:

  • wir wohnen getrennt (we’re living separate from each other)

Haben or Sein?

As you know there are two helping verbs one can use in present perfect tense: haben and sein. Some verbs must always go with one of these verbs, while some others may take both of them under certain circumstances.

First of all, it is much more common to use the verb haben than to use the verb sein. Therefore, it is a good idea to learn the verbs which are used with sein by heart. There are some easy rules which can help you when doing this.  One thing you should always keep in mind in terms of this topic is that all transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that take an accusative object, must take “haben”. Hence, it is the transitive verbs which can make the things a little difficult.

Let’s review these points with some example verbs. In the vocabulary section, more example verbs will be given.

Verbs which should be used with “sein” in the present perfect

The obvious difference between the verbs using sein and haben is that “the sein” verbs indicate some kind of movement, motion or a change in the situation.

For example, verbs like gehen, fahren, fliegen indicate motion and thus they are used with sein in the present perfect tense:

  • Ich bin mit dem Zug gefahren (I went by train)
  • Sie ist bereits gegangen (she just went)

Hence, intransitive verbs indicating motion or movement are used with sein. But, be careful. Because, if such a verb takes an accusative object, you must use “haben”:

  • Ich habe den Wagen gefahren (I drived the car)

In this respect, you should also know that the verb schwimmen (to swim) falls into this category, i.e. it can be used both with sein and haben, depending on the context:

  • Ich bin an das andere Ufer geschwommen (I swam to the other shore)

In the above sentence, the speaker expresses a kind of movement from a starting point to “andere Ufer”, therefore, sein is used. If no motion is indicated haben is used:

  • Ich habe im Fluss geschwommen (I swam on the river)

Some, again intransitive, German verbs indicate a situation change. For example; einschlafen (to fall into sleep), entstehen (to come into being). Such verbs are also used with sein.

Apart from the above point, you also know that the following important verbs are also used with sein in the present perfect tense, although they do not show any motion, movement or a situation change:

  • sein (to be) and bleiben (to stay)

Verbs which should be used with “haben” in the present perfect

As stated above, all transitive verbs are used with haben, for instance machen (to make). It’s not only correct for verbs that take accusative objects but also for verbs which take dative objects. Therefore, verbs like antworten, glauben, danken, drohen, gefallen, nützen, schaden and vertrauen are used with haben as well.

Note also that all reflexive verbs (for ex. sich bemühen) and modal verbs (wollen, dürfen, müssen, sollen, können, mögen) are used with haben too.

The trickiest point comes with some intransitive verbs. When these verbs don’t indicate a motion, movement or a situation change, as explained in the previous section, they are used with haben. In this sense, you should know that the following verbs are used with haben in present perfect: liegen, hängen, sitzen, wachen, stehen, leben, schlafen, stecken.

Another tricky group consists of verbs which characterize a specific starting and end point are used with haben as well. Such as beginnen (to begin), anfangen (to start), aufhören (to stop)


Examples of verbs used with sein in the present perfect tense                

aufstehen: to get up          

aufwachen: to wake up

begegnen: to meet

einschlafen: to fall into sleep

entstehen: to come into being

ertrinken: to drawn

fallen: to fall

fliegen: to fly

gehen: to go

kommen: to come

reisen: to travel

sterben: to die

umkommen: to die

vergehen: to die

warden: to become

wachsen: to grow