German Verbs Haben & Sein in Past & Perfect Tenses

Instructor: Sandra Salajic

Sandra has a master's degree in teaching German. She has taught middle and high school German, and worked on different on- and offline courses with kids and adults.

In today's lesson, we will talk about the German auxiliary verbs 'haben' (to have) and 'sein' (to be) in the past tenses. Let's see how to make these forms of the verbs and use them in different sentences.

I was there and had a good time.

Peter had an amazing weekend. He went to the restaurant with his friends and had a delicious dinner. Later, they went to a party and had a lot of fun.

If he wants to tell you about his amazing weekend, he will have to use the verbs haben (HAH-behn), which means 'to have,' and sein (ziyn), which means 'to be,' in the past form.

Like in most languages, 'to have' and 'to be' are amongst the most used verbs and you will probably stumble upon them in every single conversation. Additionally, they will be the building blocks for many other tenses. That's why it is very important to know how to use them correctly.

Today, we will talk about the verbs haben and sein in the past forms (preterite and perfect) and also see how to use them. So let's go!

Preterite of Haben

Let's see what the verb haben will look like in the simple past tense, the preterite:

Pronoun Conjugation Pronunciation Meaning
ich hatte eeh HAH-teh I had
du hattest doo HAH-tehst you had (singular)
er hatte ehr HAH-teh he had
sie hatte zee HAH-teh she had
es hatte ehs HAH-teh it had
wir hatten veer HAH-tehn we had
ihr hattet eehr HAH-teht you had (plural)
sie hatten zee HAH-tehn they had
Sie hatten zee HAH-tehn you had (singular and plural formal)

Although haben is an irregular verb, in the preterite it uses the standard endings -te, test, -te, -ten, -tet, -ten.

Let's take a look at a few examples with this verb in the preterite:

  • Peter hatte viel Spaß gestern. (Peter had a lot of fun yesterday.)
  • Wir hatten Spaghetti zum Mittagessen. (We had spaghetti for lunch.)
  • Hattet ihr früher ein rotes Auto? (Did you have a red car before?)

Translation: He had a lot of fun.

Preterite of Sein

With sein it will get a little bit more irregular in the preterite tense. Let's see:

Pronoun Conjugation Pronunciation Meaning
ich war eeh vahr I was
du warst doo vahrst you were (singular)
er war ehr vahr he was
sie war zee vahr she was
es war ehs vahr it was
wir waren veer VAHR-ehn we were
ihr wart eehr vahrt you were
sie waren zee VAHR-ehn you were (plural)
Sie waren zee VAHR-ehn you were (singular and plural formal)

As you can see, the verb sein changes its form completely in the preterite tense and turns into war (don't confuse this with the English word!). Besides that, it will use the endings -, -st, -, -en, -t, -en, meaning that there won't be an ending in first and third person singular (ich war, er war).

At first glance, this form may seem intimidating, but just try to compare it to the English (was, were) and you will notice some resemblance.

Let's check a few examples with the verb sein in the preterite tense:

  • Meine Familie war letzten Sommer in Amerika. (My family was in America last summer.)
  • Das war toll! (This was great!)
  • War dein Bruder gestern in der Schule? (Was your brother at school yesterday?)

Translation: We were in America.

Perfect of Haben and Sein

Although the Germans generally prefer to use the perfect tense when speaking about the past, the preterite is mostly used in written text. However, there is an exception with haben and sein. With these two verbs, the preterite form is preferred for the past tense.

The perfect is formed by taking the correct present form of the verbs haben and sein and the past participle form of the verb. The past participle will be formed by adding the prefix ge- to the stem and the suffixes -t or -en. In this case, the participle of haben will be gehabt and for sein it will be gewesen.

So the perfect tense of haben will be habe gehabt.

Let's take a look at the whole conjugation:

Pronoun Conjugation Pronunciation Meaning
ich habe gehabt eeh HAH-beh geh-HAHBT I had
du hast gehabt doo hahst geh-HAHBT you had (singular)
er hat gehabt ehr haht geh-HAHBT he had
sie hat gehabt zee haht geh-HAHBT she had
es hat gehabt ehs haht geh-HAHBT it had
wir haben gehabt veer HAH-behn geh-HAHBT we had
ihr habt gehabt eehr hahbt geh-HAHBT you had (plural)
sie haben gehabt zee HAH-behn geh-HAHBT they had
Sie haben gehabt zee HAH-behn geh-HAHBT you had (singular and plural formal)

Here are some examples compared to the preterite form:

  • Er hat einen guten Job gehabt. / Er hatte einen guten job. (He had a good job.)
  • Wir haben keine Schwierigkeiten gehabt. / Wir hatten keine Schwierigkeiten. (We didn't have difficulties.)

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