- 01. The Infinitive of German Verbs
- 02. Learn How to Form the Present Tense in German
- 03. Ways to Express the Future in German Grammar
- 04. Learn German Past Tenses With These Simple Conjugations
- 05. When To Use Which German Auxiliary Verb
- 06. How German Participles Work
- 07. The Imperative Mood of German Verbs
- 08. Learning German Irregular Verbs
Unless you want to spend your time speaking in nominative sentences - "Me Tarzan, you Jane" - at some point in your German grammar lessons you will be confronted with German verbs.
Verb conjugation, in German as in many other languages, consists of taking the verb stem - the “core” of the verb - and adding suffixes to it (and prefixes in the case of the past participle). In so-called “irregular” verbs, the stem itself is modified in certain tenses, and the endings not always conform.
To call them an exception, however, belies the fact that there are a great many of them, and that they include some of the most commonly used words in the German language.
You can find lists of verb stems on this site (look at the sidebar for further lists.)
The Infinitive of German Verbs
The infinitive is what you might call the “default setting” of a verb. In English there are many differences, infinitives are preceded by “to “ (”to do”, “to come”). In German, they are made up of the verb stem and the ending “-en” (”machen”, “kommen”).
Learn How to Form the Present Tense in German
The simple present of German verbs
The German present tense is used:
- to indicate actions taking place in the present.(”Ich gehe jetzt ins Kino.” I am going to the cinema.)
- to indicate actions taking place in the near future. (”Morgen gehen wir ins Kino.” Tomorrow, we will go to the cinema.)
- to indicate something that happens constantly or is a universal truth. (”Das Kino ist ein beliebtes Freizeitangebot.” The cinema is a popular pastime. "Die Erde dreht sich um die Sonne.” The earth circles around the sun.)
They correspond to the English present (”Wherever I go, I run”) or the present continuous (”I am going to the movies”), which explains why Germans have so much trouble with the latter form, which does not exist in German at all.
The simple present in German is formed with the verb stem and the following endings:
”machen”, to do:
1st Person Singular: Ich mache
2nd Person Singular: Du machst
3rd Person Singular: Er macht
1st Person Plural: Wir machen
2nd Person Plural: Ihr macht
3rd Person Plural/2nd Person Singular formal: Sie machen.
This was the easy part. Irregular verbs (see below) are sometimes modified slightly to enable the conjugation, and, as in most languages, the verb “to be” (”sein”) is as irregular as it gets, but the present is pretty straigthforward.
In fact, many of the other tenses are crafted from an auxiliary verb in the present followed by the main verb as an infinitive or a participle.
Ways to Express the Future in German Grammar
As we have seen, German sometimes use the simple present to express future actions. However, the German language does possess future tenses.
Conjugating the simple future in German
In some cases, you will want to use the actual future tense, rather than the present tense, to express the future. The future is used:
- to express intent (”Ich werde meine deutsche Grammatik verbessern.”)
- to express actions in the far future (”Eines Tages werden wir auf dem Mars leben.”)
- to express actions in the near future in a context where the present tense would lead to confusion.
The future tense is crafted with the auxiliary verb “werden” +the infinitive of the verb.
It is conjugated thus:
Ich werde machen
Du wirst machen
Er wird machen
Wir werden machen
Ihr werdet machen
Sie werden machen.
“Werden” as the conjugated verb takes second place in main clauses, with the infinitive at the end of the sentence (”Ich werde morgen ins Kino gehen.” I will go to the cinema to-morrow.). In subordinate clauses, “werden” comes at the very end of the clause, after the infinitive (”Du sagtest, dass er morgen ins Kino gehen wird” You said that he will go to the cinema to-morrow).
The Future Perfect: a German future tense
The future perfect is used to show an action that is finished, either when talking of future events (”Irgendwann wird man den Mars besiedelt haben” Someday, we will have colonized Mars) or of events one suspects are over at the time of speaking. (”Er ist nicht gekommen, es wird ins Kino gegangen sein.” He hasn't come, he will have gone to the cinema.) AS you can see, the English equivalient is crafted with "will have".
The German future perfect tense is formed by:
“werden” (conjugated) + participle of main verb + infinitive of “haben” or “sein”:
Ich werde gemacht haben Ich werde gegangen sein
Du wirst gemacht haben Du wirst gegangen sein
Er wird gemacht haben Er wird gegangen sein
Wir werden gemacht haben Wir werden gegangen sein
Ihr werdet gemacht haben Ihr werdet gegangen sein
Sie werden gemacht haben Sie werden gegangen sein
Verbs that take direct objects use the auxiliary “haben”, verbs of motion, existence or expressing change take the auxiliary “sein”.
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Learn German Past Tenses With These Simple Conjugations
How to conjugate the simple past in German
In the German language, the simple past is used to show things that have happened and are finished at the time of speaking. It is becoming ever rarer in spoken German, but is still used in the written language.
It is conjugated by adding a “t” to the verb stem, followed by the suffixes we know from the simple present:
The simple past is the one of the tenses where German irregular verbs show their irregularities (see below).
The present perfect as a German verb tense
In German, the present perfect is used in everyday speech to express actions that are over at the time of speaking. Generally, where English would use the simple past, German now uses the present perfect.
The present perfect is formed using by conjugating the auxiliary verbs “haben” or “sein” in the present and adding the past participle:
Ich habe gemacht Ich bin gekommen
Du hast gemacht Du bist gekommen
Er hat gemacht Er ist gekommen
Wir haben gemacht Wir sind gekommen
Ihr habt gemacht Ihr seid gekommen
Sie haben gemacht Sie sind gekommen
Using the past perfect tense in German grammar
As in English, the past perfect is used in the German language to indicate a past action taking place before another past action:
"Ich hatte die Kinokarten online gekauft, bevor du mir von der Party erzählt hast." I had bought the movie tickets online before you told me about the party.
The past perfect is formed with the auxiliary verb “haben” or “sein” in the PAST tense (simple past) + the past participle:
Ich hatte gemacht Ich war gekommen
Du hast gemacht Du warst gekommen
Er hat gemacht Er war gekommen
Wir haben gemacht Wir waren gekommen
Ihr hattet gemacht Ihr wart gekommen
Sie hatten gemacht Sie waren gekommen
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When To Use Which German Auxiliary Verb
When conjugating your verbs for your German lessons, remember:
Use the auxiliary verb "werden" for the the future tense and conjugate it in the future perfect.
Use the auxiliary verb "haben" in the perfect tenses for verbs with a direct (accusative) object in German.
Use the auxiliary verb "sein" with German verbs expressing motion, existence or change.
How German Participles Work
The present participle and its uses in the German language
The present participle can be used in one of two ways:
It can function as an adjective, giving additional information about a NOUN: “eine tanzende Ratte” “a dancing rat”, “ein denkender Mensch” (a thinking person). A whole little participle clause can be built around it: "eine den Waltzer tanzende Ratte" (a rat who dances the waltz), "ein über die Politik dekender Mensch" (a person who thinks about politics).
You will notice that the adjective function can be translated with the English participle ending in “-ing” while the participle clauses need a subordinate clause in English to make sense.
It can function as an adverb, giving additional information about the predicate (generally the verb) WHILE indicated simultaneous action: “Er ging tanzend die Straße runter.” He went down the street, singing.)
The present participle is made by adding the ending “-end” to the verb stem. You will notice it generally corresponds to the English participle ending in “-ing”:
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How to craft the German past participle
Most past participles are made by adding the PREFIX “ge-” and the SUFFIX “-t”to the verb stem:
Du machst. Du hast gemacht.
Es schneit. Es hat geschneit.
Ich kaufe. Ich habe gekauft.
However, irregular or strong verbs can form past participles differently (see below).
The Imperative Mood of German Verbs
Before starting your German language course, the most German you heard was probably the bad guys in TV series and movies, and they probably used the imperative a lot. The imperative is used when giving orders or directions: “Gib mir die Fernbedienung!” (Give me the remote!”) “Nimm die nächste Straße rechts, dann fahre gerade aus.” (Take the first left turn, then continue straight on.)
Generally, the imperative is made up of the bare verb stem for the 2nd person singular, and the ending “-t” for the 2nd person plural. Because of its nature as an order, there is no first or second person in the imperative:
2nd Person Singular: Mach! Komm!
2nd Person Plural: Macht! Kommt!
If the verb ends in a single consonant, the 2nd person singular takes an “-e”:
Gehe! Reite! Singe!
Geht! Reitet!* Singt!
(*and if the last letter of the verb stem is a “t”, and extra “e” is added between the two “t”s in the 2nd person plural.)
When addressing someone formally, you can use the formal “Sie”. The verb then takes the ending “-en”:
Machen Sie! Kommen Sie!
You can also give commands in the infinitive, in which case the verb comes at the end of the sentence:
“Stifte fallen lassen!”
This is especially common in signage.
Learn more about German sentence structure in this dedicated blog.
Learning German Irregular Verbs
German irregular verbs (as you'll discover when learning german online), also called “strong verbs”, are verbs that, in certain tenses, change their stems.
They usually do so in:
- The imperative
- The simple past
- The past participle
- the subjunctive (not covered by this post)
As a matter of fact, we have those in English grammar, too:
I drink, I drank, I have drunk. Drink!
Ich trinke, ich trank, ich habe getrunken. Trink!
Many strong German verbs change the vowel in the verb stem and add a suffix in “-en” instead of “-t” for the past participle, but some are so totally irregular that you just have to learn them by heart. Oddly (or not, as the German and English languages share the same root), many verbs that are irregular in English are irregular in German grammar, too.
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