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Introduction to German Verbs

This text serves to provide an overview of German verbs. It describes what verbs are, what kinds of verbs there are in German, and attempts to inform the reader as to some of the difficulties he or she might encounter when learning German verbs. Readers should remain aware that while much of what is discussed is applicable to many different (especially Indo-European, and particularly Germanic) languages, our interest here is standard High German. Furthermore, the information is presented primarily for language learners, and so takes certain liberties regarding linguistic terminology.


What are Verbs?

Verbs describe actions and states of being. Examples of the former include to smile, to kiss, to eat, and to think, whereas examples of the latter include to be and to become. Some verbs seem either to be between these categories, or part of both of them: is to stay an action, or a state? What about to live? In general, they are considered actions.

Actions are performed by people or things, so verbs have subjects, that is, a person or thing that performs the verb. For example I go, he goes, we go all indicate different different "persons" (I, he, we) performing the action "to go". In many languages, and German is (like English) such a language, the subject and the verb must agree, which is to say, one must use the appropriate form of the verb to go with the subject. Thus, we say I am, not I is in standard American English. Similarly in German we say Ich bin and sie ist, but not Ich bist or wir bin.

In German, as in English, verbs have a tense, that is, a "time" when they happen. Is the action part of the present? Did it happen in the past? Similarly we speak of verbs having aspect, which describes whether the action (regardless of its tense, but it generally applies to past tense verbs) is on-going or completed. Aspect is not as important in German as it is in Slavic languages or even Spanish, for example, but there is a third verb "characteristic" that does play an important role in German: mood. Mood describes, one could say, the relationship between the subject and the action: does/did it really a happen? Is it conditional or a possibility? Finally, we also have voice—is the verb done "actively" or "passively" (other languages, such as ancient Greek, have other "voice" possibilities).

The above categories describe rather abstract grammatical concepts—subject, tense, aspect, voice, and mood. There are more concrete considerations that often give learners of German difficulties, particularly the ways in which many verbs radically change in form/spelling depending on the subject, tense, and mood. Similarly there are a variety of helping verbs used in German, the choice of helping verb can at times be confusing—we'll also address these questions.

Basic Conjugation: Subject-Verb Agreement

The subject can either be first-, second-, or their-person, and either singular or plural, giving us six possible types of subject. In addition, in the second person German distinguishes between formal and informal modes of address. The first person singular is "I" in English and "ich" in German - it refers to the "speaker". The plural version is "wir" ("we") and refers to the speaker and his/her group, or multiple speakers. The second person singular informal "du" ("you") is a person the speaker addresses; the plural informal "ihr" ("you all") is a group of addressees; and the formal "Sie" (singular or plural) is used for addressing strangers, people of a high or higher social standing, etc. Finally, the third person (singular "er" ["he"], "sie" ["she"], "es" ["it"] and plural "sie" ["they"]) conists of people or things being talked about.

In German each person-number combination requires a different verb form (specifically: verb ending) and there are relatively consistent rules as to how this works. Note the following:

The ich form consistently ends in an "e" in the present (with the exception of "ich bin"), and either "e" or no ending in the past ("ich war" and "ich wollte"). The "du" form takes an "st" ending, and in some tenses/moods also has an "e" inserted. The "er/sie/es" form takes a "t" in the present tense and either an "e" or no ending in the other tenses/moods. The "ihr" form consistently takes a "t" ending (sometimes with an "e" before it). Finally, we notice that the "wir", "sie" plural, and "Sie" (formal) forms are always identical, and always take an "en" ending, except with the present tense of "sein" (wir, sie, and Sie sind).

Drawing a final set of connections and rearranging this information a bit, we notice the following: "du" and "ihr" are very conistent—"du" always takes "st" and "ihr" always takes "t". Likewise, across all tenses, the "wir", "sie" plural and "Sie" forms are identical and always take an "en". Thus the only complicated part of learning verb endings concerns the first person singular ("ich") and the third person singular ("er" "sie" and "es"), but this, too, can be summarized:

Verb Tenses

If we say that a verb tense must have its own form, then there are only two grammatical verb tenses in German: present and past. All other verb forms are "paraphrastic" and made with "helping verbs".



ich sehe

ich sah

er hat

er hatte

sie spielt

sie spielte

es gibt

es gab

wir wollen

wir wollten

ihr könnt

ihr konntet

Sie wissen

Sie wussten

sie gehen

sie gingen

Because there are only two basic tenses in German, they both take on a very flexible or broad range of meanings. Observe:

Note: If you want to say "I am doing something", you use the simple present - you do not use the verb "to be" (sein) plus another verb.

This following list summarizes the differences between the forms of the present and past tenses:

  1. Often there is a vowel or other spelling change (gehen - gingen)
  2. If there is no spelling change in the stem, then a "t" is added to the stem (spiele - spielte) and an "e" is added in the 1st and 3rd person singular
  3. In some verbs there is both a stem change and the addition of a "t" (wissen - wussten)

These differences outline the differences between the three categories of verbs in modern Standand High German ...

Three Verb Categories

We categorize verbs in German as being either strong, weak, or mixed.

Strong verbs are in general the "original" verbs that go back thousands of years in the history of German. They are characterized by a vowel change in the stem between the present and past tense. They also often show a vowel change in the present tense in the 2nd and 3rd person singular. As to "why" this happens, the reason is pretty simple: the main (only) way to mark subject and tense changes in German used to be through vowel changes—this is called "Ablaut".


Weak verbs are a more recent addition to the language (though still a couple thousand years old!). Weak verbs tend to be very "regular" and don't have vowel changes, either within the present tense, or between the present and past. To make the past tense from the present, just add a "t" (or "et") at the end of the stem and add the proper ending: ich arbeite—ich arbeitete, wir spielen—wir spielten. New verbs in German are almost guaranteed to be weak verbs, and when *you* create a new verb in German, it should be weak.

The third category is called mixed because they mix characteristics of both strong and weak verbs. In particular, they add a "t" in the past tense, but they also have vowel changes: ich kenne—ich kannte, du denkst—du dachtest. There are many fewer mixed verbs than strong or weak verbs, and you must just memorize them.

In some languages you refer to "regular" and "irregular" verbs—in German we generally don't. Weak verbs could be the "regular" ones, but strong verbs also fall into well-defined categories ... they aren't irregular. Mixed verbs are often called "irregular weak verbs". German does have a few truly "irregular" verbs ... ones that don't seem to really follow the rules, and the best example is sein ... what is the logic to "ich bin, du bist, es ist, wir sind, ihr seid, sie sind"? The only comfort I can give is that the verb "to be" is irregular in basically all Indo-European languages.

Participles and Infinitives

Before we continue, a slight digression to participles and infinitives is necessary because they are used in the "compound" or "paraphrastic" verb tenses.

If a verb is conjugated it has a tense—either past or present—which means it is limited to a specific time. Thus, it is finite. The infinitive has no tense and isn't limited. In English it is the "to" version of the verb—to kill, to smoke, to fly. In German the infinitive is the verb stem with an "en" ending (except in a few exceptions)—töten, rauchen, fliegen. The verb "to be" is irregular, and its German infinitive is "sein".

The infinitive is used in three different ways in German: in such constructions as "in order to" (example: um das Gebäde zu sehen), along with a helping verb in a compound tense (especially the "future" and the "subjunctive"), and as a neuter noun ("das Rauchen" = "smoking", as in "smoking is bad for you").

In German participles come in two types: present and past—in this way, they mirror the verb tenses. The present participle is the same as adding "ing" to a verb in English, and the past participle is the same as added "ed" to a verb in English.

In German the present participle is constructed by adding a "d" to the infinitive (or more appropriately: adding "end" to the stem, but since the infinitive already adds the "en", we just need to add a "d"):

In German the present participle is never used alone. It is used as an adjective, and as such takes adjective endings:

The past participle is usually created by adding a "ge" to the stem, and either an "en" at the end if the verb is strong, or a "t" if it is weak. The exceptions are "sein", mixed verbs, and verbs with an inseparable prefix. The past participle of "sein" is "gewesen", the past participles of mixed verbs add a "ge" and a "t" but have a vowel change (we generally include the modal verbs here), and "ieren" verbs and verbs with inseparable prefixes do not add a "ge". Many strong verbs also have vowel changes in the past participle:

Past participles are used both as adjectives (just like present participles) and take adjective endings, and in compound tenses. In particular they are used in the "conversational past" (aka the "present perfect"), the "past subjunctive", and the passive.

Helping Verbs

There are a handful of verbs that can be used on their own, but which are commonly used to produce other "tenses" or "moods", and we call these helping verbs. They fall into three—related!—categories:

  1. haben and sein (used to form past tenses)
  2. werden (used to form the future and the subjunctive, and to form the passive)
  3. modal verbs (können, wollten, sollen, dürfen, mögen, müssen)

We can think of these verbs as changing the way we think of the verb (as an infinitive or past participle) they are paired with.

When haben and sein are used with a past participle, they indicate that the action of the other verb has already happened:

Werden as a verb means "to become" and thus indicates something that has not yet happened. When used as a helping verb with an infinitive, it indicates that the other verb has not (yet) happened:

Werden is also used to make the passive voice: a present or past form of werden is combined with the past participle of a transitive verb (one that can take a direct object):

The modal verbs by themselves indicate ability, desire, and obligation, and when combined with an infinitive they indicate one's desire, obligation or ability regarding the other verb:

Moods: the Subjunctive

German has two "moods"—indicative and subjunctive. The indicative tells of an action that really happened (or happens). Thus, "I speak, you go, we eat"—"ich spreche, du gehst, wir essen". This mood is used to describe what we do, what we did, and even what we will do. Notice the similarity to the word indicate. The present and past tenses are both indicative.

The subjunctive show possibility, doubt, and "what ifs". It is most commonly used in its "past tense form", known as "Konjunktiv II"—the "II" indicates that it is the 2nd subjunctive—the 1st subjunctive, more rarely used, is the "present subjunctive" (and will be discussed at a later date).

The subjunctive (Konjunktiv II) is formed from the simple past tense. To summarize its formation:

  1. The subjunctive for weak verbs is identical to the past tense
  2. The subjunctive of strong verbs takes the past tense stem (that is, without endings), adds an umlaut if the stem contains an a, o, or u, and adds the "subjunctive endings"
  3. The subjunctive of mixed verbs is the same as the past tense, but the vowels are umlauted (as above), except that "e" is often used instead of "ä"

Thus, if you know the past tense, you know the subjunctive. Examples:

The subjunctive can also be formed by combining the subjunctive form of "werden" (würde, würdest, etc.) with the infinitive. Thus, "ich würde kommen" means the same as "ich käme". We translate them the same: "I would come", and we almost always translate the subjunctive form as "would + verb".

The following guidelines for use should be kept in mind:

  1. The subjunctive of weak verbs is rarely used because it can be confused with the past tense; the würde + infinitive construction is much preferred
  2. The subjunctive of strong and mixed verbs is not usually used, except with certain high-frequency verbs: kommen, geben, gehen, wissen, lassen, and a few others; the würde + infinitive construction can also be used
  3. The subjunctive form of the helping and modal verbs is used; the würde + infinitive construction is not used

Compound Tenses

As stated above, there are only two "real" tenses in German. As a result, if one knows the present, the simple past, and the past participle, one can form all the verb tenses in German.


The "future" tense in German is made by combining the present tense of werden with an infinitive. Thus, all one really needs to know in order to make the future tense of any verb in German is how to conjugate werden: ich werde, du wirst, er/sie/es wird, wir werden, ihr werdet, sie/Sie werden.

The future tense in German is not used as regularly as the "will + verb" construction in English. Most of the time the present tense is simply used with an expression of time. In English we sould say "I will play basketball tomorrow"; in German one says "Ich spiele morgen Basketball".

Note: one does not regularly encounter the "future" tense of werden, though it is possible (ich werde werden = I will become).

Conversational Past / Present Perfect

The "conversational past" is the most common past tense in German because, as its name suggests, it is used in spoken (conversational) German. It is formed by combining the present tense of haben or sein with the past participle of the verb under consideration. It means either "I have done" or "I did"—in German this distinction is not really made.

The choice of haben or sein is usually very simple:

  1. If the verb takes / can take a direct object, use haben:
    Wir haben Basketball gespielt.
    Ich habe ein Kleid gekauft.
  2. If the verb cannot take a direct object—meaning it is usually a verb of motion or state—use sein:
    Er ist in die Stadt gegangen.
    Sie sind mit dem Auto gefahren.

Why is the tense called the "present perfect"? It uses the present tense of haben or sein along with the past participle. The past participle indicates a completed action, which in "grammatical" terms means it is perfect. Thus, the "present perfect" indicates a completed (perfect) action/situation as seen from the present. ("Ich habe gepielt"—I have played, meaning I am not playing now [the present], but I did before, and I am done [completed or "perfect" action]). Since verbs are either present or past in German, there is also a "past perfect"—it simply uses the past tense form of haben or sein along with the past participle, and it indicates a perfect/completed action as seen from some perspective in the past ["Before I went home I had already done my homework at the library"—I "went home" in the past, but before that "past" action, I had already completed another action].

Note: one does not use the conversational past for haben or sein, one just uses the simple past (say "ich hatte" not "ich habe gehabt"; say "er war" not "er ist gewesen").

würde + infinitive

As mentioned in the section on the subjunctive we can form the subjunctive forms by using the subjunctive of werden (würde, würdest, etc.) with an infinitive. Readers should note that this construction, which means "would + verb" (would eat, would kill, would play) is just like the future ("will + verb" [will eat, will kill, will play]) but employs the subjunctive form of werden.

This is the most common way to form the subjunctive, and it is the preferred method except when dealing with the helping verbs (werden, sein, haben) and the modal verbs (können, wollen, sollen, dürfen, mögen, müssen).

Further Compound "tenses"

German has two simple tenses (present, past) and two moods (indicative, subjunctive). We saw how we can combine helping verbs with infinitives and past participles to create other verb "tenses". The "present perfect" (or "conversational past"), the "future" and the "würde + infinitive" subjunctive are the most common. However there are other possibilities, and although they are less frequent, they are correct German and are to be found. The most common are:

  1. Past perfect - past tense of haben or sein with the past participle, meaning "had done"
    ich hatte gegessen
    du warst gekommen
  2. Past-time subjunctive - subjunctive of haben or sein with the past participle, meaning "would have done"
    sie hätte gegessen
    ihr wäret gegangen
  3. Future perfect - present tense of werden along with haben or sein as an infinitive, and a past participle, meaning "will have done" (thus "future" because it hasn't yet happened, and "perfect" because by the time the "future"comes around, it will be completed)
    er wird gekommen sein (he will have come)
    wir werden gegessen haben (we will have eaten)

Voice: Active versus Passive

We usually talk about a subject performing a verb (action). Often the action is performed upon an object. What if we wish to stress the object (that was acted upon) rather than the subject? What if we know the action, and what was acted upon, but not who did it? Then it is a good time to use the passive voice instead of the active voice.

We have the same distinction in English between the passive and the active, but the construction is a little different:


In English we use "to be + past participle"; in German we use "werden + past participle". You don't use sein to form the passive in German.

The subject of a passive sentence is the direct object of an active sentence; the subject of an active sentence becomes the "agent" of a passive sentence, and usually can be left out. Because every sentence needs a subject, verbs that do not take direct objects cannot be used in the passive. In short, any passive sentence can be turned into an active sentence; an active sentence with a direct object can be turned into a passive sentence.

Most of the time the active voice is preferred to the passive (just as in English), but there are times when the passive is the better, or even only choice. If you do not know who performed the action, you use the passive. In some cases, it makes no sense to use the active. For example, you almost always use the passive and "was born"—"sie wurde 1810 geboren". It is quite unusual to say "in 1810 so-and-so bore a child named XYZ" (in either English or German!).

Finally, since active sentences can be in a variety of "tenses" (present, past, present perfect, future, etc.) and "moods" (indicative, subjunctive), so can the passive: