How do I use a modal verb (e.g. sollen) in the perfect tense? As the perfect tense already changes the word order, does the modal push the haben/sein to the back of the sentence? i.e.

Ich solle es habe gemacht — I should have done it

Or does it go after/before the haben/sein

Ich habe solle/Ich solle habe

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    Keyword: Ersatzinfinitiv
    – chirlu
    Feb 11, 2016 at 20:10
  • It is unclear what you mean with "perfect tense". In English there are "future perfect tense", "present perfect tense" and "past perfect tense". German has other tenses which are quite similar to the English tenses, but not exactly the same. One of them is "Perfekt" (Uppercase P, k instead of c, only one word, i.e no "tense"). Do you mean this? Feb 11, 2016 at 20:26
  • Also keep in mind, that the tense names »Perfekt« in Germany is a mixture of present and past tense (»vollendete Gegenwart« as well as »zweite Vergangenheit«), while in Austria it is used only as a past tense (»Vergangenheit«). In Austria - in contrast to Germany - Perfekt is used as the main tense to describe things that happened in the past. (In Germany, the first choice of tenses to talk about events in the past is a tense called »Präteritum«. Its German name in Germany is »erste Vergangenheit« or »unvollendete Vergangenheit, while it is named »Mitvergangenheit« in Austria.) Feb 11, 2016 at 20:40
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    @HubertSchölnast Präteritum as a first choice in Germany? I would always prefer Ich bin nach Hause gegangen over Ich ging nach Hause.
    – adjan
    Feb 11, 2016 at 21:04
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    @HubertSchölnast The English name for the tense called Perfekt in German is perfect tense. No ambiguity possible. Also, prevalence of preterite (Präteritum) in Germany is limited to the North and not extendable to all verbs. (And even the South, probably even Austria uses the preterite form for the past of sein.) It is true, however, that Northerners will use preterite for a lot of verbs that Southerners would use perfect tense for (‘Ich stand da …’).
    – Jan
    Feb 11, 2016 at 23:40

2 Answers 2


First, remember that there are two possibilities for conveying past tense and modal verbs: Either one puts the modal verb into the past tense or one puts the main verb into the past tense. Compare the two English examples.

I have to work.

I had to work.

I have to have worked.

In English, the first option works with both past tense (simple past and present perfect) while the second option only works for present perfect — and of course, they differ in meaning.

Both options are also possible in German with the same general differences in meaning:

Ich muss arbeiten.

Ich musste arbeiten.

Ich muss gearbeitet haben.

And again, the first option allows the speaker to use perfect tense rather than preterite. At first glance, this works much the same way as all verb chains in German: Work yourself from the main verb outwards. So we could naively assume:

*Ich habe arbeiten gemusst.

(Note the star denoting a sentence typically considered wrong.)

The thing is that it sounds strange to have a past participle following an infinitive. I don’t know whether there is an actual etymologic explanation for the phenomenon but that sentence is what popular etymology would make of it. In any case, modal verbs usually form their perfect tense with the so-called Ersatzinfinitve (replacement infinitive) which just means that you have to use the verb’s infinitive rather than a past participle:

Ich habe arbeiten müssen.

In a nutshell:

  • second sentence fragment must be the finite verb;
  • in perfect tense, the finite verb is haben or sein (depending on the main verb);
  • all other verbs wander to the end of the sentence;
  • the order at the end is from the verb carrying the greatest meaning to that carrying least meaning;
  • if you run into infinitive + past participle, consider an Ersatzinfinitiv.

With that you can build sentences as you wish:

Ich hab(e) gestern nicht den ganzen Tag von zuhause aus arbeiten sollen.

  • So, I've read your article and some questions have come to my mind like, how to make a sentence to question? I mean I want the sentece Ich habe das nicht machen können to be a question! How is it possible? And in which situations would we use the sentence ich habe nicht essen gewollt or wouldn't we ? thanks in advance Feb 15, 2017 at 18:08
  • @SemihKöse For a yes/no question, move the finite verb to first position: ‘Habe ich das nicht machen können?’ For a question with a question word, that basically takes up first position and the normal rules apply: ‘Warum habe ich das nicht machen können?’
    – Jan
    Feb 20, 2017 at 10:19

Unlike in English, expressions like "I should have done it" in German are not formed with a participle of the non-modal verb, but with the infinitive. It is a special form called Ersatzinfinitiv which uses both infinitives of the modal and the non-modal verb:

I should have done it.

Ich hätte es machen sollen.

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