Past Participles

In English, the perfect tense is formed with the present tense of the verb “to have” and the past participle of the main verb: Have you written the report? Yes, I have written it. In German it’s the same, except that sometimes sein (to be) is used instead of haben (to have). But before we get to that, we have to learn how to form German participles.

To form the past participle of weak verbs, add ge to the beginning, then drop the en or n and add t to the end. So kaufen, for example, would become gekauft.

Strong verbs take the ge- but keep their regular (–n or –en) infinitive ending. They also often have a vowel shift. The participle is the third and last irregular form that you have to learn for each strong verb – the first two being the present-tense vowel shift (if any) and the past stem. Strong verbs are often given with all three irregular forms immediately after them, present-past-participle, like this:

halten (hält, hielt, gehalten) – to stop
riechen (riecht, roch, gerochen) – to smell
helfen (hilft, half, geholfen) – to help

(Annoyingly, some language dictionaries and textbooks leave out the present form in their list of strong verbs and just give past-participle. Try to find one that has all three, or just use our list.)

Notice that the vowel in the participle can match the infinitive (halten/gehalten), the past (roch/gerochen) or neither (geholfen). Some people find it easier to learn the strong verbs when they’re arranged in these three groups. We’ve presented them that way in our list of strong verbs, as well as in a single alphabetical list.

Mixed verbs are all of the second type, with the vowel in the participle matching the one in the past:

brennen (brennt, brannte, gebrannt) – to burn
bringen (bringt, brachte, gebracht) – to bring
denken (denkt, dachte, gedacht) – to think
kennen (kennt, kannte, gekannt) – to know (people)
nennen (nennt, nannte, genannt) – to name
rennen (rennt, rannte, gerannt) – to run
senden (sendet, sandte, gesandt) – to send
wenden (wendet, wandte, gewandt) – to turn
wissen (weiß, wusste, gewusst) – to know (facts)

As for the auxiliary verbs: the participle of sein is gewesen, for haben it's gehabt, and for werden it's geworden or just worden, depending on the context.

The only other exceptions to the above rules are a group of weak verbs that end in -ieren. These get the t but not the ge. So studieren (to study) becomes studiert in the participle (not gestudiert). In other respects these -ieren verbs are completely weak, and they are some of the easiest German verbs to remember, because you can usually just drop the ending and get pretty close to the English verb. A few more examples:

diskutieren – to discuss
installieren – to install
informieren – to inform
fotografieren – to photograph
existieren – to exist
markieren – to mark
integrieren – to integrate
realisieren – to realize / implement

Although the English forms are very similar, many of these –ieren verbs actually come to German through French, and they can occasionally come from German roots as well. Here are a few that are a little more distant from English:

buchstabieren – to spell (from the German Buchstabe, a letter of the alphabet)
etablieren – to establish (from the French établir)
jonglieren – to juggle (Fr. jongler)
regieren – to rule, govern (Fr. régir)
kaschieren – to conceal (Fr. cacher)