Im Moment – the Present Tense

Im Moment regnet es in Berlin. Shot as I was writing this entry.

In German are six tenses that we may use to describe activities at different times: one present tense, three past tenses (simple past, perfect or present perfect, pluperfect or past perfect) and two future tenses (future I and future II). Don’t get tense with tenses. Let’s start with the easiest, the here and now, with the present tense.

Often, especially in opera literature, the present tense functions as a narrative mode. An opera synopsis is written in present tense. German novelists and other storytellers prefer to write in present tense because it gives the reader a feeling of immediacy and suspense.

As an expression of the actual time of an activity the German present tense differs from the present tense in the English language. When using the German present tense, we do not know if the activities are taking place in general, repeatedly, out of habit, or if they are happening right now, as we speak – or read. In English we distinguish between present continuous (or present progressive) and simple present, but in the German language we don’t.

In German there is no auxiliary verb for the continuous activity.

No “I am + verb.”

No “she is + verb.”

No “we are eating fish.”

The phrase Wir essen Fisch means both, “we eat fish” and “we are eating fish.”

Nevertheless, we can express the difference by paraphrasing the simple present. When we generally and repeatedly eat fish we can use adverbs.

Wir essen gern Fisch.


Normalerweise (normaly)…

Immer (always)…

Meistens (mostly)…

Oft (often)…

Regelmäßig (regularly)…

Manchmal (sometimes)…

Selten (rarely)…

…essen wir Fisch.

If you do not eat fish at all you can say, “ich esse keinen Fisch” or “ich esse nie Fisch.”

We have to use similar means to express an activity that is taking place right now and continues to occur. When you call German speaking friends and ask what they are doing, the answer will be the same. “Wir essen Fisch.” There is no doubt what they are doing right now (although Germans might be a little bit more hesitant to pick up the phone while they are eating). However, the present continuous can be expressed with adverbs or with the combination of bei + nominal phrase. A nominal phrase is a verb that functions as a noun.

The verb essen becomes the noun das Essen. Together with the preposition bei, it is continuous. The preposition bei precedes a dative noun.

bei dem Essen

The contraction: beim Essen.

Wir essen gerade Fisch.

The word gerade has several meanings: straight, direct, directly, just now.

Wir essen jetzt Fisch.

jetzt = now

Wir sind dabei, Fisch zu essen.

Here, the word dabei means something like “in doing so.”

Wir sind beim Essen.

There is never ever a “wir sind essen Fisch” or “ich bin essen Fisch.” Never. Ever.

Next update: Sunday, August 3rd.

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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