Learn all about German verbs in this basic German grammar lesson. This easy-to-follow guide is packed full of helpful tips and examples.
For clarity's sake, this lesson is divided into the following four sections:
1. An overview of verbs in German
2. Regular (weak) and irregular (strong) verbs
3. German verbs and tenses
4. German modal verbs
Please take one section at a time. Do not rush to complete this lesson in one day. To fully understand the concepts, you must take your time and maybe try building some example sentences of your own.
German verbs are a very important aspect of German grammar. Learn them thoroughly and you will have learned them forever. Learn them quickly and they will be forgotten in a couple of days. Remember, 'the tortoise wins the race'.
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1. An overview of verbs in German
Let's start off by simply answering some important questions which will form your basic background knowledge.
What is a verb?
A verb is possibly the most important part of a sentence as it is used to express actions and states. For example: 'drive', 'run', 'go', 'make' and 'become'.
What basic information should I know about German verbs?
First of all, you should know what is meant by the 'infinitive'.
A German infinitive is made up of a 'stem' (the main part of the verb) and will generally end with '-en'. For example: 'laufen' - to run or 'backen' - to bake. A few infinitives may end with '-n', '-ln' or '-rn'.
In English, the infinitive is most commonly preceded with the word 'to'. For example, 'to go', 'to have' and 'to run'.
A German verb is conjugated (i.e. formed) according to the following aspects:
1. ... who/what the subject is, for example, who/what is doing the action. An example in English would be 'I give' but 'She gives'.
2. ... whether it is a regular (weak), irregular (strong) or mixed verb.
3. ... what tense (i.e time period) is being used
Let's start by taking a look at the regular, irregular and mixed verbs in the present tense (i.e. things that are happening now.) We will discuss the tenses in more detail in the third section of this lesson.
2. Regular and irregular German Verbs
What are regular verbs?
Regular verbs are the most common type of verb in German. They are 'weak' verbs which do not change their stem and are formed regularly. An example of the stem of a German word is 'komm' from the verb 'kommen' (to come). All regular verbs will have the same endings and thus follow the same grammatical pattern.
Let's look at an example of these endings with the regular German verb 'kommen' (to come).
Ich komme - I come / I am coming
Du kommst - You come / You are coming (informal singular)
Er/Sie/Es kommt - He/She/It comes / He/She/It is coming
Wir kommen - We come / We are coming
Ihr kommt - You come / You are coming (informal plural)
Sie kommen - You come / You are coming (formal singular or plural)
Sie kommen - They come / They are coming
Did you notice how the stem word 'komm' itself did not change, but rather just its endings? Learn these endings and you have learned the endings for all regular German verbs.
Let's look at one more example of a regular German verb. The verb we will look at now is 'kochen' (to cook) and thus the stem is 'koch'. Keep an eye on the endings again...
Ich koche - I cook
Du kochst - You cook (informal singular)
Er/sie/es kocht - He/She/It cooks
Wir kochen - We cook
Ihr kocht - You cook (informal plural)
Sie kochen - You cook (formal singular or plural)
sie kochen - They cook
Yes, the pattern is the same once again. Easy, right?
Well, maybe. But, I am afraid, as always there are exceptions to the rule and this is no different when it comes to German verbs. These exceptions come in the shape of irregular German verbs.
What are irregular German verbs?
Irregular verbs - also known as 'strong' verbs - are conjugated irregularly (i.e. their forms do not follow the same pattern). So, yes, you have guessed it, this can make things a little more complicated.
The good news: irregular verbs are by far the smallest category of German verbs. The bad news: the only way to know the correct forms is to memorize them.
You will notice in the first two examples below that in some cases the vowel in the stem of an irregular verb will incur an 'umlaut' (two dots above the vowel) and sometimes the vowel might change completely as in the third example. These changes are typical of irregular German verbs.
1. Irregular verb - 'tragen' (to carry)
Ich trage - I carry
Du trägst - You carry (informal singular)
Sie tragen - You carry (formal singular)
Er/Sie/Es trägt - He/She/It carries
Wir tragen - We carry
Ihr tragt - You carry (informal plural)
Sie tragen - You carry (formal plural)
Sie tragen - They carry
2. Irregular verb - 'backen' (to bake)
Ich backe - I bake
Du bäckst - You bake (informal singular)
Sie backen - You bake (formal singular)
Er/Sie/Es bäckt - He/She/It bakes
Wir backen - We bake
Ihr backt - You bake (informal plural)
Sie backen - You bake (formal plural)
Sie backen - They bake
3. Irregular verb - 'geben' (to give)
Ich gebe - I give
Du gibst - You give (informal singular)
Sie geben - You give (formal singular)
Er/Sie/Es gibt - He/She/It gives
Wir geben - We give
Ihr gebt - You give (informal plural)
Sie geben - You give (formal plural)
Sie geben - They give
What are mixed verbs?
As the name suggests, mixed verbs are a 'mixture' of both weak and strong verbs. These verbs have the same endings as the weak verbs, but they can also change their vowel in the stem as strong verbs can.
The most common mixed German verbs are:
- brennen (to burn)
- bringen (to bring)
- kennen (to know)
- nennen (to name)
- rennen (to race)
- senden (to send)
- wenden (to change)
- wissen (to know)
Modal verbs, which will be discussed shortly, also belong to this category of verbs.
Are you getting frustrated because it all seems rather confusing at the moment? Don't worry.
These concepts are not easy to understand initially. As I mentioned earlier, take your time and read through this information repeatedly until you feel you have understood the grammatical concepts well enough to move to the next part of this lesson.
3. German verbs and tenses
First of all, are you wondering:
What are 'tenses' and what do they have to do with German verbs?
A 'tense' is simply grammar-speak for 'time'. In German - as well as in English and every other language - you use a tense to describe when an action took place / is taking place / will take place.
In German the verb form changes depending on which tense it is in. Before we look at some examples of German verbs in the individual tenses, here is an overview of the four tenses which will be discussed in this lesson:
1.) Present tense (Most commonly used in spoken German to describe what is happening now. Arguably the most important case to learn)
2.) Perfect tense (Most commonly used in spoken German to describe the past)
3.) Simple past tense (Most commonly used in written German to describe the past. Also known as the 'imperfect tense')
4.) Future tense I (Most commonly used to describe what is going to take place in the future)
Now, let's look at each tense in more detail to see how German verbs are formed in each one.
Present tense in German
This tense generally represents what is happening 'now'. Tip: If you are going to learn just one tense today, then learn this one. Why? Take a look at the following three reasons.
1.) The present tense in German corresponds to no less than three English forms of time:
In English this can be translated into any of the following three tenses:-
'I drive...' , 'I do drive...' 'I am driving...'
2.) It can be used instead of the future tense and is often done so, particularly in spoken German, when a clear future time period is given:
Ich gehe morgen in die Stadt - I am going into the city tomorrow
There is no mistaking it with the present tense (i.e. I am going into the city now) as it clearly states 'tomorrow'.
3.) It can be applied to describe something which happens on a regular basis or always:
'Ich fahre oft am Wochenende zu meinen Eltern' - 'I often drive to see my parents at the weekend.'
You can probably now understand why the present tense is so important to learn. Also do you realise how versatile the perfect tense is and how it can be applied to describe a variety of different situations? Use this tense often!
We have already covered the conjugation of this tense in Section 2 'Regular and irregular German verbs' with the verbs 'kommen' and 'kochen.' Scroll back up if you need a quick refresher. If not, let's continue.
Perfect tense in German
Quite simply, the 'perfect' tense enables you to talk about the past and is the most commonly used tense to talk about the past in spoken German. You can use this tense to talk about various different actions and situations which have already happened / taken place. The majority of German verbs form the perfect tense with the word 'haben' (to have).
Let's take a look at some examples.
|Er hat mir schon gesagt||He has already / He already told me|
|Ich habe deinen Bruder gesehen||I have seen / I saw your brother|
|Ich habe so viele Bonbons gegessen||I have eaten / I ate so many sweets|
|Ich habe das Buch gefunden||I have found / I found the book|
|Wir haben überall gesucht||We have searched / We searched everywhere|
You will have noticed that in English there are two ways of speaking about the past, depending on the context. The variant which includes 'have' is only used in English in certain circumstances. For example, we would say 'Yesterday, I ate so many sweets', rather than 'Yesterday, I have eaten so many sweets'. The German perfect tense, however, is used for both the English variants. At least in this aspect German grammar is simpler than English!
But, wouldn't you know it, there is something tricky just around the corner...and here it is: some German verbs require 'sein' (to be) to form the perfect tense, rather than 'haben' (to have).
How can I tell if a verb will take 'sein'?
Generally speaking, German verbs which take 'sein' involve movement or are a state-of-being.
Let's take a look at a few examples:
|Er ist zu meinen Eltern gegangen||He has gone / He went to my parents|
|Ich bin mit dem Fahrrad gefahren||I have come by bike / I came by bike|
|Seid Ihr schon angekommen?||Have you already arrived?|
|Wir sind ihm nachgelaufen||We ran after him|
|Du bist in Berlin gewesen, oder?||You were in Berlin, weren't you? / You have been to Berlin, haven't you?|
When forming a German verb in the past tense, in addition to having to know whether the verb takes 'haben' or 'sein', you need to know how to put the verb in the form called the 'past participle'.
Let's have a look at the past participle, firstly for regular verbs and then for irregular and mixed verbs.
Past participle of regular German verbs
The past participle for a regular (or weak) verb in German is formed as follows:
ge + verb stem + (e)t
(N.B. Remember, the stem is: the infinitive of the verb minus '(e)n'.)
Let's take the regular verb 'sagen' (to say), for example. The stem of 'sagen' is 'sag'. So, as the formula above tells us, we must add 'ge' before the stem 'sag' and then add a 't' at the end. The past participle of 'sagen' is thus:- 'gesagt' (said)
Past participles of irregular (strong) and mixed German verbs
The past participle for an irregular verb in German is formed as follows:
ge + verb stem + (e)n
Let's take the irregular verb 'fangen' (to catch) for example. The stem of 'fangen' is 'fang'. So, as the formula above tells us, we must add 'ge' before the stem 'fang' and then add a '(e)n' at the end. The past participle of 'fangen' is thus:- 'gefangen' (caught)
Simple past tense in German (also known as the 'imperfect' tense)
This tense is used mainly in written German to express something which happened in the past. You will see it used in newspapers and books, for example. It is less common in spoken German.
Let's look at an example with the verb 'haben' (to have).
|Ich hatte||I had|
|Du hattest||You had|
|Er / Sie / Es hatte||He / She / It had|
|Wir hatten||We had|
|Ihr hattet||You had (informal plural)|
|Sie hatten||You had (formal singular or plural)|
|Sie hatten||They had|
Important tip: 'sein' is the only verb which IS used in this tense in preference to the perfect tense in speech as well as in writing.
It is, therefore, very important to learn the conjugation of 'sein' in the simple past tense, so let's have a look at this verb as well:
|Ich war||I was|
|Du warst||You were|
|Er/Sie/Es war||He/She/It was|
|Wir waren||We were|
|Ihr wart||You were (informal plural)|
|Sie waren||You were (formal singular or plural)|
|Sie waren||They were|
The future tense I in German
In English we tend to use the future tense to talk about something which will happen in the future.
- I will see him tomorrow.
- He will be home next week.
- They will be arriving later than expected.
In German, the future tense isn't used quite as much as it is in English. Why? Because, if you remember from the present tense section above, the present tense can be used instead of the future tense in German when a clear time-frame is given.
While the Germans don't use the future tense quite as consistently as we do, it is still a tense which is often used to describe things which will take place in the future and is, therefore, important to learn.
In German the future tense is formed almost as it is in English. You must take the verb 'werden' (to become) and add an infinitive.
Let's look at several examples of sentences in the future tense:
|Ich werde dir morgen helfen||I will help you tomorrow|
|Du wirst heute Nachmittag meine Freunde kennenlernen||You will meet my friends this afternoon|
|Er/Sie/Es wird morgen da sein||He/She/It will be there tomorrow|
|Wir werden nächste Woche dort sein||We will be there next week|
|Ihr werdet im Park so viel Spaß haben||You will have so much fun at the park (informal plural)|
|Sie werden um 11.00 Uhr ankommen||You will arrive at 11am (formal singular or plural)|
|Sie werden dich zurückrufen||They will call you back|
4. German modal verbs
These German verbs are particularly important and should be learned as soon as possible. These verbs provide us with more information on the main verb which follows it. For example, does it 'have to' be done, 'should' it be done or is it 'able to' be done?
To form a sentence, modal verbs require an additional main verb. This main verb is used in the infinitive without 'zu' (to).
Let's take a look at the modal verbs and some example sentences:
(N.B. You will find a link to the conjugations of all modal verbs at the bottom of this section.)
This verb has two different meanings.
- Firstly, it can mean 'permitted' or 'allowed'. For example: Dürfen wir hier Fußball spielen? - Are we allowed to play football here?
- Secondly, it can mean 'may'. For example: Darf ich teilnehmen? - May I take part?
This verb has two different meanings.
- Firstly, it can mean 'be able to'. For example: Nächstes Jahr können wir uns ein teureres Haus leisten - Next year we will be able to afford a more expensive house.
- Secondly, it can mean 'can'. For example: Sie kann gut schwimmen - She can swim well
This verb has three different meanings.
- Firstly, it can mean 'like'. For example: Ich mag sie - I like her
- Secondly, it can mean 'want'. For example: Ich mag die Brille haben - I want to have the glasses
- Thirdly, it can mean 'may'. For example: Das mag wohl sein - That may well be
This modal verb means 'have to' / 'must'.
For example: Ich muss heimfahren - I have to/must drive home
This verb has two different meanings.
- Firstly, it can mean 'should' or 'ought to'. For example: Ich soll heimfahren, weil es dunkel wird - I should/ought to drive home as it is getting dark.
- Secondly, it can mean 'supposed to'. For example: Ich soll heute einkaufen gehen, bin aber zu müde - I am supposed to be going shopping today but I am too tired.
This verb means 'want to'.
For example: Ich will morgen Tennis spielen - I want to play tennis tomorrow
Once you have digested all of this information - it may take a while - you can progress to my German Verb Conjugation lesson.
You will learn the conjugation of the most important types of German verbs: auxiliary verbs (including modal verbs), regular verbs, irregular verbs, separable verbs and reflexive verbs.
My advice: pick out those verbs which you think you will use most often and learn them. Write them down on a piece of paper - once, twice, maybe three times - until you feel confident that you know them well enough. Then, repeat them aloud as often as possible.
Over the next few days, test yourself at regular intervals to make sure you haven't forgotten them.
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