Fixing German Tense Overviews / Zeitformenübersichtsgenesung

Jörg Frohberg
2 min readMar 4, 2021


This problem haunted me for years, so I’m going to do something about it, finally. (I know, everyone has different demons.)

The basic question is as follows: “Why is the “Perfekt” tense in German classified as a form of past tense while in English “present perfect” is always said to be (as the name indicates) a present tense?”

You can find illustrative examples for German and English quite easily:

But, while doing research on the topic, I found out that it’s mostly German textbooks or language learning websites that try to fit the English tense system in the unified single time beam model which is taught at German schools. If you search for mother tongue overviews of English tenses you will find quite readily many sources (for grade schools as well), which paint a more complex picture:

In these charts you will always find the three tenses “past”, “present” and “future” which each is in turn divided into four forms “simple”, “progressive”, “perfect” and “perfect progressive”.

So “perfect” doesn’t have to do anything (or hardly anything) with tenses but whether an action has been performed, that is, if it is finished or not. I think the error stems from the fact that there is no clear cut progressive form of the verb in the German language, thus disguising this easy distinction or tricking everyone into thinking that “Perfekt” is a form of a tense.

To be fair, this finding isn’t completely new (as it is called “Vollendete Gegenwart” in Hyse: “Theoretisch-praktische deutsche Grammatik” 1827), but I can’t wrap my head around the fact, that this simple insight is neglected in German schools, making it harder for the students to understand that with “Perfekt” and “Plusquamperfekt” it is not so much about tense but the continuity or completion of an action in regard to the orator.

So, a simple two-dimensional chart would be much superior for understanding and intellectually grasping the tenses of the German language (with the advantage of not having to make it as complicated as the 12 field variants of English):

It’s really that simple!