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Essential English Tenses for German Speakers


German speakers very typically make frequent errors when using English tenses. In this post (and subsequent linked materials) we will look at why this often happens, and work through some essential exercises to help you to overcome these errors.


For context, around 95% of written and spoken English is done using 5 tenses. Their frequency is as follows;

  1. Present Simple (55%)

  2. Past Simple (20%)

  3. Future Simple (8%)

  4. Present Perfect (6%)

  5. Present Continuous (5%)

This means that being able to masters these tenses error free will enable you to communicate almost everything that you will want to communicate in English. The remaining 7 tenses (there are 12 in total) are worth learning at some point, but given the frequency of their use, the priority should always be the main 5.


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Why do errors occur?

There are, in my experience, two main reasons why German speakers make errors with English tenses;


Firstly: the German tense das Präsens gets translated into 5 different tenses in English, this inevitably leaves a lot of room to use the wrong tense and we end up with common errors such as “I send the document tomorrow… we are speaking English in the office… I work here since 5 years” which are all understandable, yet incorrect.

Secondly: the German tense das Perfekt when used to describe finished actions (ich habe gestern ein Buch gelesen) looks very similar to the Present Perfect (“I have read a book yesterday”) but should actually be translated into the past simple (“I read a book yesterday”).


This means that when the German speaker is presented with any uncertainty as to the correct English tense to use, the brain’s automatic response is to recall a grammatical structure based on German grammar that is potentially incorrect in English. Added to this is the reality that the errors usually don’t cause any great difficulty to the listener to understand what is really meant, and so are very frequently challenged in communication.


Let’s look at the different sources of errors in more detail;

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Firstly: Errors caused by difficulty correctly translating from the German Präsens tense:

Although the German language contains some very complex grammatical rules it is relatively efficient with tenses; the German present tense, das Präsens, is used where the English language uses five (yes five…) different tenses.

Notice that for each of the German sentences given, the use of a time expression is what tells us whether we are talking about something that happening now, that happens in general or will happen in the future… and it’s this awareness of which tenses get used for what, and with which time expression that will help us to overcome the majority of errors.


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Overview of the English tenses stemming from das Präsens and their uses.


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Present Simple - This is the tense that we use for states, facts, routines, characteristics or other things that are always true.

For example:

  • "I drink coffee every morning.

  • We don’t work on weekends”.

  • Do you come from Germany?”.

Key time expressions:

  • always, usually, often, sometimes, rarely, never, monthly, weekly, twice yearly, every day/week/month/year, on Mondays/Tuesdays/etc. in the morning/afternoon/evening.

  • immer, gewöhnlich, oft, manchmal, selten, nie, monatlich, wöchentlich, zweimal jährlich, jeden Tag/Woche/Monat/Jahr, montags/dienstags/etc. morgens/nachmittags/abends.


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Present Continuous - used to describe actions that are happening right now, or around now.

For example:

  • "I am currently typing on my computer",

  • “You are not learning French now”,

  • Are you wondering why English is so complicated?”

Key time expressions:

  • now, at the moment, currently, right now, this minute/hour/day/week.

  • jetzt, im Moment, derzeit, genau jetzt, in dieser Minute/Stunde/Tag/Woche.


The Present Continuous is also used to talk about plans for the future that exist in the present, usually in the form of “going to”;

For example:

  • "I am going to go to the cinema tomorrow".

  • We are not going to work tomorrow”,

  • Are you going to meet with the client tomorrow?”.

Key time expressions:

  • Tomorrow, later, next week, basically anything that represents a point in time in the future.

  • Morgen, später, nächste Woche, einfach alles, was einen Zeitpunkt in der Zukunft darstellt.


Other uses of the Present Continuous: We also use the present continuous at the start of a lot of formal correspondence:

  • I’m writing to you with regards to the complaint you sent”.

  • I’m contacting you in connection with our conversation last week”.

  • I’m calling about the complaint you made”.

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Present Perfect – used to say how long something has been true or happening for.

For example:

  • We have known each other for ten years”.

  • I have not seen him since last year”.

  • How long have you worked here?”.

Key time expressions:

  • Since (+ starting point), for (+ duration).

  • Seit.

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Present Perfect Continuous – this tense is also used to say how long something has been true or happening for. In almost all cases the Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuous mean exactly the same thing when talking about how long the action has been happening for, however, we can’t use this tense for stative verbs which are verbs related to;

  • thoughts and opinions: agree, believe, doubt, guess, imagine, know, mean, recognise, remember, suspect, think, understand

  • feelings and emotions: dislike, hate, like, love, prefer, want, wish

  • senses and perceptions: appear, be, feel, hear, look, see, seem, smell, taste

  • possession and measurement: belong, have, measure, own, possess, weigh.

For example:

  • We have been living here for ten years”.

  • I have not been waiting for very long”.

  • How long have you been working here?”.

Key time expressions:

  • Since (+ starting point), for (+ duration).

  • Seit.

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Future Simple - used to describe actions that will happen in the future, most usually this is used to make promises or predictions (similar to the German Futur 1).

For example:

  • I will send you the document tomorrow”.

  • I won’t be in the office tomorrow”.

  • will you have time tomorrow to meet?

Key time expressions:

  • Tomorrow, later, next week, basically anything that represents a point in time in the future.

  • Morgen, später, nächste Woche, einfach alles, was einen Zeitpunkt in der Zukunft darstellt.

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Secondly: Errors stemming from the German Perfekt tense:


The German tense das Perfekt, when used to describe finished actions (ich habe gestern ein Buch gelesen), looks very similar to the English Present Perfect (“I have read a book yesterday”) but should actually be translated into the Past Simple (“I read a book yesterday”). If we are using a time reference to say when something happened in the past then we automatically have to use the Past Simple. The Present Perfect can only be used to described completed past actions when they are being used to illustrate that the completed action has an immediate connection to the present conversation.


Overview of the Tenses stemming from das Perfekt and their uses:


Past Simple: used to describe any completed action that happened in the past. This is the tense that is used most frequently to describe the past and is always used when giving any information about when something happened.

  • They went bankrupt last year”.

  • We didn’t go to the trade fair this year”.

  • Did you send me the document?

Key time expressions:

  • earlier, yesterday, ages ago, ten years ago…. Anything related to a time point in the past.

  • früher, gestern, vor langer Zeit, vor zehn Jahren.... Alles, was sich auf einen Zeitpunkt in der Vergangenheit bezieht.

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Present Perfect: We use the Present Perfect to describe completed actions that have an impact on the present. The impact on the present comes from the action being completed, it is not relevant when it happened.

For example:

  • I have just paid the invoice”.

  • I haven’t finished work yet”.

  • Have you ever been to Munich?

Key time expressions:

  • already, yet, just, ever, never, before.

  • bereits, noch, gerade, jemals, nie, vorher.

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Having briefly looked at the main usage and related time expressions for each tense, it would be a good idea to work through some excercise that are aimed at developing your ability to accurately recall and use the correct tenses - links to all further exercises related the tenses, as well as exercises related to other frequent sources of errors for German speakers can be found here - https://www.joelwhiteenglish.com/post/english-exercises-for-german-speakers


If you need exercises related to actually forming the verbs correctly, ie, gap filling exercises, then a brilliant resource for this is the website https://www.perfect-english-grammar.com/ , and specifically the page with the exercises is here - https://www.perfect-english-grammar.com/grammar-exercises.html

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