In German, we are learning present perfect tense. According to the book, typically a past tense is used with the auxiliary verb haben, as so:

Du hast das gut gelernt. (You have learned that well.)

However, some verbs use sein instead; to be so the book states it must be intransitive and express a change of place or condition, like so:

Wir sind nach Hause gegangen. (We went home.)

Er ist müde geworden. (He got tired.)

However, something that always confused my teacher is the past tense of bleiben (to remain/stay). This seems to be expressing the opposite of the rules because it is not changing.

My theory on this is that it's similar to how sein is in the way that it's talking about state. Also, because it's past tense, it displays change in condition in the sense that though the subject was staying in the past, they are no longer now. However, I'm not sure if this is the true reason for it since I'm not a native speaker. Could someone more acquainted with the language explain why this is so?

(Excerpts are taken from the textbook "Wie geht's?", ninth edition.)

  • For questions on verbs that allow both, sein, or haben see this Q & A
    – Takkat
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 11:24

4 Answers 4


I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the “state” change/lack of change. It’s a state of being, similar to sein itself.

According to Martin Durrell in Using German: A guide to contemporary usage, the rules are “simple” but a little more than what your textbook lists.

Sein verbs:

  • intransitive verbs which express a change of place
  • intransitive verbs which express a change of state
  • verbs meaning to happen, to fail, to succeed
  • the verbs sein and bleiben (It gets its own bullet point … nearly!)
  • regionally, some other words get sein that would normally get haben (North: anfangen/beginnen, South: liegen/sitzen/stehen)

Haben verbs:

  • transitive verbs
  • reflexive verbs
  • intransitive verbs expressing continuous action
  • impersonal verbs (He gives the example, Es hat geregnet.)

So for the intransitives, you could perhaps really simplify it by saying “intransitive verbs that don’t express continuous action” get sein, which covers discrete movement, state change and “state of being” verbs.

  • An important note: many, many verbs express changes of state and take haben, e.g. zerstören. What seems important is: is it a change of state of the subject?
    – jona
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 19:01
  • Zerstören is transitive, that is, it takes a direct object. It seems that all transitive verbs use haben.
    – NadjaCS
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 22:00

The best way is to learn together with the verb if it needs haben or sein, like you have to learn the gender of every noun separately (i.e. which article to use with it).

To learn the auxiliar verbs for full verbs it is a little bit easier than learning the articles of nouns, because they are a little more systematic, but if you ask a typical German native speaker about those systematics, most of them will answer that they don't know any of them. This is because a native speaker knows for every individual verb which auxiliary it needs.

One rule of thumb is:

Verbs of movement (gehen, laufen, fliegen, ...) need »sein«:

Ich bin nach Hause gefahren. (I drove home.)
Wir sind im Meer geschwommen. (We swam in the sea.)

But watch this:

Andrea hat das Auto gefahren.

Here fahren is not used in the sense of changing position (= movement), but in the sense of operating a machine (i.e. a car). So it can't be treated as a verb of movement here.

It also makes a difference, if you use a verb transitive or intransitive:

  • intransitive:

    Der Henkel ist abgebrochen. (The handle has broken.)

  • transitive:

    Der Benutzer hat den Vorgang abgebrochen. (The user has canceled the operation.)

Some verbs also have two or more different meanings, which sometimes also go with different auxiliary verbs:

Dieser Stab ist unbrauchbar. Er ist gebrochen. (This rod is unusable. It is broken.)
Hans hat zu viel Bier getrunken. Er hat gebrochen. (Hans drank too much beer. He vomited.)

Also know, that for some words there are regional differences. Prominent examples are the verbs »stehen«, »liegen« and »sitzen« (to stand, to lie and to sit):

  • In the middle and north of German speaking area

    Ich habe an der Haltestelle gestanden.
    Ich habe im Bett gelegen.
    Ich habe auf dem Stuhl gesessen.

  • In the south (specially in Austria)

    Ich bin an der Haltestelle gestanden.
    Ich bin im Bett gelegen.
    Ich bin auf dem Sessel* gesessen.

The geographic border between those two versions is not exactly the border between Germany and Austria. Very often you find variations that are typical for Austria also in Bavaria.

* Stuhl and Sessel also have different meanings in Germany and Austria.

  • There are only very few verbs where you need to know they take sein. For the rest there are fairly simple rules. Native speakers 'know' when to use sein or haben, but for German-learners it makes sense to learn those rules
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 15:34

"Sein" is used as an auxiliary verb:

  • for the verbs "sein", "passieren", "bleiben", "werden".
  • for intransitive verbs and non-reflexive verbs that indicate movement or a change in state e.g.: rennen, springen, laufen, fallen, gehen, sterben, schmelzen

"Haben" is used in all other cases.

Some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on context, so they can have sein or haben as an auxiliary verb e.g.: fahren, biegen, verderben, brechen, fliegen, treten, schneiden, reiten


If you move somehow you have to use sein, else you have to use haben.

So the answer is no, Wir sind im Meer geschwommen und wir haben Musik gehört, because to swim is a movement.

Other examples:

Ich bin gerannt - I was running

Ich habe gelesen - I was reading

Ich bin gefahren - I was driving

Ich habe gespielt - I was playing

But there are a lot of tricky ones, some examples:

Ich habe getanzt - I was dancing

Ich bin gestorben - I was dying

  • Ich habe mich bewegt. – Most verbs of movement use sein but it's still only a rule of thumb. There's often a difference in transitive vs. intransitive: Ich bin gefahren. vs. Ich habe ihn gefahren.
    – Janka
    Commented Dec 26, 2018 at 8:01

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