The Grammar Behind German Verbs

By OptiLingo • 10 minutes read

Learn German verbs easily

Learn How to Conjugate German Verbs

Nobody likes learning grammar. It’s a dreaded, but necessary part of learning a language. You’ll be relieved to hear that learning about the grammar of German verbs is relatively easy. The rules are simple and easy to follow. Discover everything there is to know about German verbs and conjugate them confidently when you’re speaking to a local.

How Do German Verbs work?

Verbs are the words that signal the action in a sentence. You use them every day. And you need to know how German verbs work to speak German fluently.

German verbs have more endings and conjugations than English. While in English you use the same version of the verb for one tense (I learn, you learn, he learns), German has a different ending for each pronoun. Luckily, these endings are the same throughout the German language. Once you learn them, you know them for life.

German Verb Tenses

German verbs fall into one of six different tenses. These include the following:

  1. Present: The present tense is the most commonly used tense in German.
  2. Present perfect: This tense shows that an action in the past has been completed. This tense is used when the speaker wants to focus on the result of the action.
  3. Simple past: The simple past tense is used to express facts and actions that took place in the past. This tense is often used in stories and reports, usually when writing.
  4. Past perfect: With the past perfect, a speaker can express actions that took place before a certain point in the past.
  5. Future: This tense is generally used to express an intention for the future, or an assumption about the present or future.
  6. Future perfect: The future perfect expresses the assumption that an action will have been completed by the time of speaking, or by a particular point in the future.

Note that in German, the present perfect and the simple past have equivalent meanings. They differ in usage and style: the perfect tense is used more in spoken German, whereas the simple past is more common in writing. A further explanation of each tense is provided below.

Learn German verb tenses

Conjugating German Verbs in the Present Tense

The present tense is the most commonly used tense in German. This tense is generally used to talk about the present and the future. To construct this tense, we remove the infinitive ending en and add the following endings:

Person

Ending

Example

1st person singular (ich)

-e

ich lerne

2nd person singular (du)

-st

du lernst

3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man)

-t

er lernt

1st person plural (wir)

-en

wir lernen

2nd person plural (ihr)

-t

ihr lernt

3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie)

-en

sie/Sie lernen

The German verbs for “to be” (sein) and “to have” (haben)

These two verbs are irregular, but they’re very often used. Here’s how you conjugate them in German present tense:

Person

sein

haben

1st person singular (ich)

ich bin

ich habe

2nd person singular (du)

du bist

du hast

3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man)

er ist

er hat

1st person plural (wir)

wir sind

wir haben

2nd person plural (ihr)

ihr seid

ihr habt

3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie)

sie sind

sie/Sie haben

The Present Perfect Tense

This tense shows that an action in the past has been completed. This tense is used when the speaker wants to focus on the result of the action.

The auxialiary “haben” is used in most cases, “sein” is used for main verbs that indicate movement from a to b. Exceptions are a few verbs such as “bleiben” stay/remain, which are stationary, but use “sein” anyway.

In order to form this tense, the present-tense form of sein or haben is required, as demonstrated in the table below:

Person

sein

haben

1st person singular (ich)

ich bin

gegangen

ich habe

gelesen

2nd person singular (du)

du bist

du hast

3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man)

er ist

er hat

1st person plural (wir)

wir sind

wir haben

2nd person plural (ihr)

ihr seid

ihr habt

3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie)

sie/Sie sind

sie/Sie haben

Past tense in German

Simple Past German Verbs

The simple past tense is used to express facts and actions that took place in the past. This tense is often used in stories and reports, usually when writing. This tense is constructed by removing the infinitive verb ending and adding the following:

person

weak verbs

 

strong/mixed verbs

1st person singular (ich)

–te

ich lernte

ich sah

2nd person singular (du)

–test

du lerntest

–st

du sahst

3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man)

–te

er lernte

er sah

1st person plural (wir)

–ten

wir lernten

–en

wir sahen

2nd person plural (ihr)

–tet

ihr lerntet

–t

ihr saht

3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie)

–ten

sie lernten

–en

sie sahen

The verbs sein/haben are special cases:

person

sein

haben

1st person singular (ich)

ich war

ich hatte

2nd person singular (du)

du warst

du hattest

3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man)

er war

er hatte

1st person plural (wir)

wir waren

wir hatten

2nd person plural (ihr)

ihr wart

ihr hattet

3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie)

sie/Sie waren

sie/Sie hatten

German Verb Conjugation in Past Perfect

With the past perfect, a speaker can express actions that took place before a certain point in the past. In order to construct this tense, again, we need the helping verbs “sein” and “haben”:

person

sein

haben

1st person singular (ich)

ich war

gegangen

ich hatte

gelesen

2nd person singular (du)

du warst

du hattest

3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man)

er war

er hatte

1st person plural (wir)

wir waren

wir hatten

2nd person plural (ihr)

ihr wart

ihr hattet

3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie)

sie/Sie waren

sie/Sie hatten

Future Tense

This tense is generally used to express an intention for the future, or an assumption about the present or future. In order to construct the future tense, we need the infinitive form of “werden” and the infinitive (basic form) of the main verb:

person

form of “werden”

 

main verb

1st person singular (ich)

ich werde

gehen
lesen
sehen
gewinnen

2nd person singular (du)

du wirst

3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man)

er wird

1st person plural (wir)

wir werden

2nd person plural (ihr)

ihr werdet

3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie)

sie/Sie werden

Future Perfect

The future perfect expresses the assumption that an action will have been completed by the time of speaking, or by a particular point in the future. To table below demonstrates how this tense is constructed:

person

form of “werden”

 

main verb + sein/haben

1st person singular (ich)

ich werde

gegangen sein
aufgewacht sein

gelesen haben
gedacht haben

2nd person singular (du)

du wirst

3rd person singular (er/sie/es/man)

er wird

1st person plural (wir)

wir werden

2nd person plural (ihr)

ihr werdet

3rd person plural/polite form (sie/Sie)

sie/Sie werden

German Verb Types

By their function, verbs express the action in the sentence. But, how that action happens also defines the verb. Here are a few German verb types you should know to understand how they relate to the sentence:

Modal Verbs

The modal verbs are dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen and wollen. We can use these verbs to change the content of a statement – for example, there’s a difference between “you must do this” and “you may do this”.

Reflexive Verbs

Reflexive verbs are verbs that have a reflexive pronoun. True reflexive verbs always have a particular meaning when used with a reflexive pronoun. We can recognise these verbs by the fact that the reflexive pronoun cannot be replaced by another word.

Example: Sie kennen sich >They know each other.

Separable Verbs

In German, we can add prefixes to many verbs and thereby create verbs with a different meaning. This is very similar to English, e.g. schauen, anschauen, nachschauen >look, look at, look up.

In the finite form, some verbs get separated from their prefix – we call these “separable verbs”. Certain other verbs keep the verb and prefix together, even in the finite form – these are “inseparable verbs”. The pronunciation of the prefix determins which group a verb belongs to.

Passive Verbs

We use the passive voice to emphasise an action (processual passive) or a condition (statal passive). Who or what caused the action or condition is unimportant, unknown, or assumed to be generally known.

Imperative Verbs

We use the imperative for demands and orders addressed to one or more people directly. Therefore, the imperative exists for the forms du, ihr, wir and the polite form of address Sie.

Subjunctive Verbs

We use the subjunctive for reported speech and situations that have not (yet) taken place. There are two forms of the subjunctive: Subjunctive I and the Subjunctive II.

Subjunctive I: We primarily find the Subjunctive I used in newpaper articles and reports, when statements are repeated as indirect speech, also known as “reported speech”. But the subjunctive I is also used in certain idiomatic expressions.

Subjunctive II: We generally use the subjunctive II when we imagine or wish something that isn’t currently possible. The Subjunctive II is also used in indirect speech or with particularly polite questions or statements.

Types of German Verb Endings

There are three different types of German verb endings: regular, irregular, and mixed. You’ll notice the change in their endings signals which group they belong in.

Regular German Verbs

These are the verbs with no stem-vowel changes in any tense. They take –te endings in Simple Past and Subjunctive II, and -t endings for their past participles: sagen, sagte, (habe) gesagt; einkaufen, kaufte ein, (habe) eingekauft; wandern, wanderte, (bin) gewandert.

Irregular German Verbs

These are the verbs that have stem-vowel changes in one or more of the tenses. In the Simple Past, they take the same endings as modal verbs such as “müssen”, “können”, “dürfen” (i.e. in particular no endings for 1st and 3rd person singular); their past participles end in -en: gehen, ging, (bin) gegangen; sehen, du siehst [stem-change in present tense], sah, (habe) geseh en

Mixed German Verbs

These are verbs with weak verb endings, but they are not regular, i.e. they do have vowel changes. The following mixed verbs (and their compounds) are very common:

  • haben, du hast, hatte, gehabt (to have)
  • kennen, kannte, gekannt (to know someone)
  • wissen, wusste, gewusst (to know something)
  • denken, dachte, gedacht (to think)
  • bringen, brachte, gebracht (to bring)
  • nennen, nannte, genannt (to call – in the sense of naming)
  • brennen, brannte, gebrannt (to burn)

Learn German Verbs Naturally

Learning German verbs doesn’t have to be difficult. Since every sentence in German contains German verbs, you can learn them quickly through everyday speech. Just listen to the most common German phrases to find out how you conjugate them in practice. And if you want the list of the most useful German phrases on a silver platter, all you need to do is download OptiLingo.

OptiLingo is the language learning app that gets you to German fluency. By giving you the most essential vocabulary, it fast tracks your fluency. You’ll learn exactly how real locals talk. Boost your German verb knowledge naturally with OptiLingo!

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