Overview of Tenses & Moods

A verb’s tense has to do with the time of the action, and its mood has to do with the reality of the action. To start with, here are some of the basic tenses and moods in English. Even if you’ve forgotten their names, the forms should look familiar:

Indicative Conditional Imperative
Present he does it he would do it Do it!
("simple past")
he did it he would have done it
Perfect he has done it
Past Perfect
he had done it
Future he will do it
Future Perfect he will have done it

And here are the tenses and moods in German. The statement is the same as above, using er (he), es (it), and the strong verb tun (to do):

Indikativ Konjunktiv I Konjunktiv II Imperativ
Präsens Er tut es Er tue es Er würde es tun Tu(e) es!
Präteritum Er tat es Er habe es getan Er hätte es getan
Perfekt Er hat es getan
Plusquamperfekt Er hatte es getan
Futur I Er wird es tun Er werde es tun
Futur II Er wird es getan haben Er werde es getan haben

Be careful: although most of the German tenses and moods look very much like their English counterparts, there are some big differences in how they're used. In particular, the present and perfect tenses (Präsens and Perfekt) account for a huge proportion of actual German speech. The Perfekt is used for almost anything that happened in the past, and the Präsens is used for much of the future as well as the present. You still need to know the other four tenses, but they’re not used as often as their English equivalents.

The moods are easier to describe, so let’s take them first:

  • The Indikativ/Indicative mood is the most common in both languages, used for describing reality: things that have actually happened, are happening or are expected to happen.
  • The Konjunktiv I serves to distance the writer from indirect or reported speech: according to his spokesman, he knows nothing about the scandal. There is no useful English equivalent, and it’s used almost exclusively in news reporting. It’s in italics in the table above because you don’t need to learn to use it actively unless you’re a journalist.
  • The Konjunktiv II is similar to the conditional mood in English. It expresses hypothetical and/or conditional actions, and it usually uses a form of werden in the same way that we use "would" ("I wouldn’t do that" --> Ich würde das nicht tun).
  • The Imperativ/Imperative mood is used for commands ("Go away!"; "Clean your room!"). It’s the easiest mood to learn in either language, because it only exists in the present tense and the second person. In German (but not in English) the infinitive form of the verb can also be used as an imperative in some circumstances.

Note: we said above that there’s no “useful” English equivalent to the Konjunktiv I. In fact, we do have sentences like “I suggest that you be careful” that are related in form, and many sources try to explain the German Konjunktiv moods in terms of these English Subjunctive/Conjunctive moods. But these comparisons are often just wrong and always more confusing than they’re worth. The terms subjunctive/conjunctive occur in multiple languages but often refer to different things, and the forms they refer to in English are complex enough that they could be a whole section on their own. So we’re not even going to consider the English subjunctive here, and neither should you. Even the conditional/Konjunktiv II comparison that we made above is not perfect. The Konjunktiv moods are one of the few concepts that you really have to learn in German to fully get them.

And now the tenses:

  • The Präsens corresponds to the simple present tense in English ("I take the bus") as well as the “emphatic” ("I do take the bus"). It can also be used to refer to future events, in which case it’s called the Futuristisches Präsens (“futuristic present”). We have a futuristic present in English too (e.g. "I get paid tomorrow" means "I will get paid tomorrow") but in German it’s more common. And like all German verb forms, the Präsens can also translate to the equivalent continuous form in English, in this case "I am taking the bus." (See V.15 for more on this.)
  • The Präteritum and Perfekt, as you can probably guess from their names, are closely related to the English preterite and perfect tenses. As described in the verb types at the beginning of this section, the Präteritum and English preterite are both formed with either a hard consonant ending (weak verbs), a vowel shift (strong verbs) or both (mixed verbs). The Perfekt is formed by conjugating the verb haben (or sometimes sein) in the present tense and adding the participle of the main verb, just the way we do with the verb "to have" in English. Again, these tenses do not translate directly between the two languages, despite their similar forms. In English we mainly use the preterite, but in spoken German the Perfekt dominates. We'll cover this in more detail in the Perfect vs. Preterite section.
  • The Plusquamperfekt is directly related to the past perfect (also called the pluperfect) in English. It’s used for an action that was already completed at some point in the past. It’s formed the same way as the Perfekt, except that it uses the past (Präteritum) form of haben or sein instead of the present form.
  • the Futur I tense is similar to our future tense; it uses werden the same way we use "will" in English: "I will read it" --> Ich werde es lesen. But note that we have other ways of expressing the future in English (like I’m going to read it) that don’t exist in German – and they also use the futuristic present tense in ways that we wouldn’t. We’ll cover this in detail in the section on Future Tenses.
  • the Futur II is similar to the English future perfect, with will + have in English and werden + haben/sein in German: "I will have read it" --> Ich werde es gelesen haben.

Finally, as in English, most of these tenses/moods also exist in a passive voice. Passive constructions in English usually (but not always) use a form of to be; in German they always use a form of the verb werden. This is the third major auxiliary usage of werden, after the Konjunktiv II and Futur usages mentioned above. We’ll cover the passive voice in V.10.