Most linguists recognize two tenses in English, present and past, although other verb forms are often mistakenly described as tenses. I walk is present tense and I walked is past tense. A form such as I am walking would be described not as the present progressive tense, but as a construction expressing progressive aspect, and made up of the present tense of be and the –ing form of walk. In other words, to qualify as a tense, an English verb form has to show inflectional variation.

Books for foreign learners of German, in my experience, describe as tenses all finite verb forms, even though only the present and imperfect show inflectional variation.

Here’s my question: Do German professional linguists also describe all verb forms as tenses, or do they recognize that Ich bin gegangen, for example, is best understood in terms of aspect?

  • Who says it's mistaken. These are called "compound tenses". I think you're confusing tense and inflection. Even languages with no inflection at all can have tense. But maybe I'm just having trouble reading what you're trying to say? Nov 21, 2011 at 9:13
  • 1
    Another point is that tense is only one property of verbs which affect inflection. Other properties are mood and voice and person and number. This is what makes inflecting languages different to agglutinating languages. For some reason though it seems very common that people misinterpret "tense" to mean "inflected form of a verb". They are related but distinct. Nov 21, 2011 at 9:15

4 Answers 4


Unfortunately I am not a linguist and thus am unable to scientifically answer your question but let me try to give you my humble understanding of the linguistic concept of aspect in German grammar.

Like in English German has only a limited morphological spectrum for flexion of verbs, these include the tenses "Präsens", and "Präteritum".

Im Deutschen werden nur einige wenige Flexionsmerkmale des Verbs rein morphologisch (d.h. in einfachen Verbformen) ausgedrückt, so beim Tempus etwa nur Präsens und Präteritum. Das Deutsche hat also kein morphologisches Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt oder Futur. Auch das Passiv wird syntaktisch gebildet.Hilbrig. Grammatik der deutschen Gegenwartssprache. Verben

According to this building other tenses, and (linguistic) aspect is done by using syntactic constructions:

Ich gehe - I go
Ich ging - I went
Ich bin gegangen - I am gone
Ich werde gehen - I will go

When buliding an aspect of a continued process like it is done in the English -ing form we may add e.g. an adverb:

Ich ging gerade zur Tür hinaus, als...

An aspect may also be generated by using a different tense but this may only be done with verbs that make such a distinction possibleP. Eisenberg: Grundriß der deutschen Grammatik

Es regnete - some indefinite time in the past
Es hat geregnet - in the past from the spoken time view

However if the verb is by meaning a self-limiting pocess like in

Der Luftballon platzte
Der Luftballon ist geplatzt

the aspectual distinction is no longer given and both tenses are interchangeable in the sense of aspect.

  • Thank you. I think that's about as close an explanation of the position as we're likely to get within the constraints of a discussion such as this. Nov 20, 2011 at 15:58
  • @BarrieEngland: There are libraries written on that matter ;)
    – Takkat
    Nov 20, 2011 at 18:01
  • I have no doubt! Nov 20, 2011 at 18:20

I'm not sure if this answers your question, because I'm not sure what you mean with "aspect" in this context. Just let me say it is handled a little bit different in German:

A tense in German is called "Zeitform" or "Tempus" (plural: Tempora).

We have the following Tempora in German:
Präsens, Präsensperfekt, Präteritum, Präteritumperfekt, Futur, Futurperfekt

Three of them are "Grundtempora" (base tenses, what comes closer to the definition of "tense" in English):
Präsens, Präteritum, Futur

The others are called "Perfekttempora". They are constructed with "haben" or "sein".

To avoid misunderstandings let me also add, that a (real) progressive form does not exist in German; neither an imperfect.

  • German linguists, then, unlike English linguists, perhaps describe tense in terms of meaning rather than form. Nov 20, 2011 at 15:56
  • @John. You can read about aspect on the Wikipedia article Grammatical aspect. Nov 21, 2011 at 9:18

I have published some papers in computational linguistics and I'm familiar with the literature on tense. First of all, you are right. There are indeed some linguists that do spend time with the distinction between primary tense represented by a word form such as "am" in "I am here" and primary tense represented by an auxiliary as "am" in "I am cooking", and treat these two representations as two different but related linguistic phenomena under the names of "tense" and "aspect". This group of linguists tends to be seen by their peers as "the formalists/structuralists", this distinction being one of many symptoms of caring more about word form and structure than about the meanings that these forms and structures represent.

Other linguists such as Halliday and Matthiessen (Halliday's Introduction to Functional Linguistics, 2014) prefer to organize the contrastive options of language as systems of options. In this sense, for relational processes such as being and having, there are three primary tenses in English: "I was here", "I am here", "I will be here". For action processes such as cooking, the primary present tense has an auxiliary that is not needed for relational processes: "I cooked", "I am cooking", "I will cook". "I cook", on the other hand, represents a habit and, as a consequence, a capability. It represents, therefore, not only a present tense, but also habitualness. "I am going to cook" and "I am about to cook" are other two ways in which the primary future tense is realized in English. There is, however, the possibility of representing a "secondary tense", that is, to represent the time of an action not directly in relation to now, but in relation to another time, that in its turn is relative to now. That is the reason why we can say "I told him, I had cooked", "I told him, I was cooking", and "I told him, I would (was going to/was about to) cook". Linguists that organize occurring wordings in terms of systems of options are known as "systemicists/functionalists" and tend to prefer the terms "primary tense"/"secondary tense" to "tense"/"aspect" in order to avoid confusion with the terminology of formalists/structuralists. But as everything in a society, these are tendencies and trends and never absolutes. You will find for sure formalists/structuralists that use "primary/secondary tense" and functionalists/systemicists that use "tense/aspect". And my short explanation above of what is discussed in linguistics includes only two of many uses of such terms.

This being said, if you want to write about tense in German, I would advise you to state the definition of your terminology either in a formal/structural or in a systemic/functional way. As a tip, if you are making a corpus study, you should pay attention to the fact that it is the past tense in German that tends to be represented by a word form for relational processes such as "war" in "ich war hier" and "hatte" in "ich hatte eine Katze" and by an auxiliary for action processes such as "war" in "ich war einkaufen" and "habe" in "ich habe eingekauft". Another tip is to notice that German has a primary past tense and a primary non-past tense. Future and present tenses are refinements of the non-past tense. In other words, the future primary tenses of "ich werde/gehe kochen" and "ich koche sofort/gleich/bald" are refinements of the non-past primary tense of "ich koche".

However, if you are just learning the language, do not let grammatical terminology get in the way of you learning what the wordings mean. And a good reason for not making a big deal out of grammatical terminology is that it is absolutely irrelevant whether "habe" in "ich habe das getan" is called "perfect tense" or "present tense + perfect aspect" or "finite primary-past auxiliary" when you speak or write in the language. Pay attention to the form/structure only for recognizing and for producing them and pay attention to their meaning for interpreting and formulating clauses. After you make the link between pattern and meaning, you can pick the grammatical theory of your choice for explaining the meaning-making process.


I can't give a qualified answer, but as I have learned English as a foreign language, I can say that in almost all books for English learners "I am walking" is considered present progressive tense, so these books may not really be good sources. On the other hand, I don't think that your example of "Ich bin gegangen" can be understood in aspect. It doesn't mean that the person is "went" in the same way in that a person can be "hit", but rather that the person did walk. This means that there is a strong semantical difference between "Ich bin gegangen" and "Ich bin geschlagen", as the first form is active and the second passive. To make the second tense active, you would have to say "Ich habe geschlagen". This subtlety of having to use "sein" with verbs connoting movement ("Ich bin gegangen") and having to use "haben" with verbs connoting anything else ("Ich habe geschlagen", "Ich habe gesagt" etc.) IMHO qualifies the German perfect as a tense.

BTW: In German class in school (I'm a native speaker), we considered it a tense, too.

  • Thank you. English linguists on the whole regard tense morphological featue, rather than syntactical one. That may not be the case with German linguists. Yes, I understand the grammatical difference between 'Ich bin gegangen' and 'Ich bin geschlagen', but with most verbs, of course, German uses 'werden' to form the passive. Nov 20, 2011 at 15:53
  • Actually from hanging out in the linguistics Stack Exchange a bit I got the impression that linguists more and more are coming to the conclusion that the line between syntax and morphology is just too fuzzy after all and they're now thinking of them together and calling it morphosyntax. Nov 27, 2011 at 13:20

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