When we talk about ‘the tenses’, what we are really talking about is time. The position in time which is occupied by the events being described is the ‘tense’, and the grammar of a sentence and indeed an entire text changes to reflect this.

So. Let’s dive in.

The ‘past tense’ is used to describe anything that happened previous to the moment when you are reading or hearing about the events described. Like, stuff wot happened in the past, innit. The past tense has a few more specific ‘sub-tenses’ (this is not an official term but helps you to place all these ideas in relation to each other in your head), which are:


The ‘perfect tense‘ refers to events which happened in the past and which we know have already been completed, such as in English: ‘I have finished my homework.’ German creates the perfect tense with a form of ‘haben’ plus the past participle: ‘Ich habe meine Hausaufgaben erledigt.’ In English, we either do it the long way with ‘have’ and the past participle just like in German, or we do it the short way, by just using the past participle on its own: ‘I finished my homework.’ In German, the perfect tense form is the most commonly used construction for the past tense.


It is easier to understand the point of the perfect tense in relation to the ‘imperfect tense’; the imperfect tense refers to events which happened in the past but were somehow interrupted – or, at any rate, where we can’t be sure whether or not they were completed or whether they might even still be going on today. For example:

‘I have finished my homework while dad was mowing the lawn.’

We know you’ve done your homework (good girl/boy) but we can’t be sure whether or not dad has finished mowing the lawn, whether he was distracted by a cheeky squirrel, or whether he’s still mowing now, several hours later (and let’s face it, your dad mowing the lawn is one of those quantum infinite-loop type things which always seems to be happening, particularly when you need him for something). So the second part of that sentence is in the imperfect tense. German does have a grammatical construction which grammar books call ‘imperfect’ because of the function it used to serve long ago in older forms of the language, but in modern German it doesn’t carry the same meaning as in the English. For this reason, I prefer to call it just the ‘simple past’. In German, both past tenses are exactly the same in terms of meaning, so in order to imply the sense of an action which is ongoing or incomplete, we have to telegraph that meaning in other ways. We’ll have a full lesson on this in the future.


The pluperfect tense is another form of the past tense which is used for events which happened before another event which was also in the past. For example: ‘I finished my homework after I had spent half an hour looking for my damn textbook.’ The pluperfect tense is particularly useful when you are writing fiction, because most fictional prose is written entirely in the past tense, and so you often need to signpost which events happened prior to the moment of narration (i.e. in the ultra-past-tense) to help the story make sense. In German, the pluperfect tense is formed with the simple past tense of ‘haben’ (i.e. ‘ich hatte’) plus the past participle. Ultra-past.


The present tense is the tense which refers to stuff which is happening right now, at the moment when you are hearing or reading about the events being described. Such as, ‘I am painting this fence and listening to the audiobook of Huckleberry Finn.’ In English we have two ways of expressing the present tense, each with slightly different senses (I could also say ‘I paint this fence and listen to the audiobook of Huck Finn’ but it sounds a bit weird in this context) while German only has one way of doing the present tense. Savour this moment, because it’s one of the very few times when German grammar has a simpler way of doing things than English grammar.


The future tense refers to events which are – careful now, this may shock you – going to happen in the future. For example, ‘She will freak out when she sees your new tattoo.’ In English, we express the future in three ways:

‘We will rock you.’

‘We are going to rock you.’

‘Next week we’re rocking you, dude.’

Well ok, that last one sounds a bit weird, but another example might be ‘Tomorrow I’m washing my hair, sorry.’ German doesn’t have this weird and sloppy ‘going to’ construction but it does have the first and third types, either using a form of ‘werde’ (will) or simply using the present tense with a future time word (‘morgen’, ‘nächste Woche’, ‘dieses Wochenende’ and so on). I call this the ‘simple future’.


Before we put the subject of tenses to bed, there is one more thing we need to look at: the conditional. The conditional is what we use to describe events which may or may not happen, such as ‘He would scream if he knew that you’d bought a pet ferret’. More often than not, you hear people talking about the conditional tense, but it’s actually a ‘mood’. By this, we mean to say that it’s a construct which doesn’t refer to the time of an event but rather the sense in which the event is being spoken about. That sounds a bit Inception-esque, but don’t worry; you don’t have to understand that part (not even grammarians really do). The most important thing to remember is that the conditional can’t be a tense all by itself because it has tenses of its own:

The conditional future = ‘I would love to go to the Ferret Museum with you.’ ‘Ich würde sehr gerne das Fretchenmuseum mit dir besuchen.’

The conditional past = ‘I would have spat out that tofu pizza.’ ‘Ich hätte die Tofupizza ausgespuckt.’

And all kinds of wild variations which we will look at in future lessons.