The default setting for the past participle

Languages are governed by rules and exceptions. The rule is a bit like the default setting. Sad to say, there are sometimes too many exceptions for comfort, as with English spelling. All the same, knowing the default setting for regular verbs makes it easier in the long run to focus on the exceptions.

In German the default setting for forming the past participle is to wrap the letters ge-t around the verb stem. You could represent this as shown below:

  • ge[verb-stem]t  

               (or ge[verb-stem]et if the verb stem ends in d or t)

  • To apply this rule to machen, one of the most important verbs in German, you take off the -en ending, which leaves you with the verb stem, mach. Then all you need to do is add ge to the beginning and t to the end: gemacht!

In English we also have a default setting, which is simply to add the letters -ed, or -d. So our default setting looks like this:

  • [verb-stem]ed (though we take off e before the d if the verb already ends in an e)

Of course there are many exceptions to this default setting in both languages. In English, for instance, we don’t say goed, we say went and have gone. We don’t say speaked, we say spoke and have spoken. We don’t say drinked, we say drank and have drunk

Luckily, there are many well-behaved verbs that are entirely predictable and that follow the ge-(e)t rule exactly, like obedient students following the commands of a strict teacher. Here’s a short list, with the verb stem highlighted: 

Im Mittelalter haben die Leute schon mit einem Schachbrett und Schachfiguren gespielt.
In the Middle Ages people were already playing chess with a chessboard and chess pieces.
  • sagen (to say)
  • glauben (to believe)
  • suchen (to seek, to look for)
  • reden (to talk)
  • machen (to make, do)
  • lachen (to laugh)
  • leben (to live)
  • holen (to fetch)
  • wohnen (to live somewhere)
  • hören (to hear)
  • kochen (to cook)
  • retten (to save, e.g. a life)
  • bauen (to build)
  • malen (to paint

A recipe for concocting the past participle in German:

1. Take en off the end of the verb, leaving the naked verb stem.

2. Dress it up with ge before the stem and t after it. Add et after it if the verb stem ends in d or t.

3. Add the appropriate auxiliary verb, sein or haben, and you have the perfect tense. All of the examples above are constructed with the auxiliary haben. The auxiliary sein is used when verbs denote movement or a change of state. 

Here are a few examples from the list above:

Infinitive of the Verb Past Participle of the Verb Example of the Past Participle at Work
suchen – to seek gesucht Ich habe den Schlüssel gesucht
reden – to talk geredet Wir haben geredet
machen – to make, do gemacht Ich habe einen Fehler gemacht
holen – to fetch geholt Hast du schon deine Bücher geholt?
wohnen wohnen Er hat in Berlin gewohnt.
sagen gesagt Sie hat nichts gesagt.
bauen gebaut Wir haben ein Haus gebaut.
lachen gelacht Warum habt ihr gelacht?

 

The quiz below will allow you to use all of these rules in context and get used to the perfect tense. To complete it on the full screen, click here.

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