You’re not just a German learner.
You’re an epic word warrior.
You wield your Sprachkenntnisse (language proficiency) like a mighty weapon.
You cleft words in twain and recombine them with your Grammatik (grammar) skill.
But there are certain foes that send fear down your spine.
Those gnarly, disorienting irregular verbs like sein.
Conjugation is one of the first bits of grammar you’ll tackle in your German quest. Since German verbs are plentiful, with enough practice, you can soon get the gist of how conjugation works on a basic level. There are even apps to help you along the way. But what about irregular verbs?
Unfortunately, irregular verbs are often the most commonly used words in a language. Sein, or the verb “to be,” is certainly no exception. So we can’t put down our swords and fight the many forms of sein some other day.
You can check out some irregular verb guides to get started, but if you’re still struggling, breaking down your memorization tasks systematically can help speed things along. This article will provide one method of mastering sein like the word warrior you are.
Boss Battle: How to Crush the Many Forms of “Sein” in German
For verbs with a normal, regular conjugation, you can learn new forms with a similar approach each time. They all follow the same conjugation patterns. But since irregular verbs like sein don’t follow set conjugation rules, you have to memorize each one separately.
As any German learner will tell you, that can get boring and confusing fast. But it doesn’t have to be.
All you need to do is treat irregular verbs like video game villains.
If you’ve ever played video games, you’re probably familiar with “bosses”—enemies you need to fight to move on to the next big section of the game. In many video games and role-playing games (RPGs), the biggest bosses often have more than one form, mutating and evolving into new and tougher enemies.
As you conjugate irregular German verbs, you’ll watch them do the same thing.
The different forms of sein are like a boss growing to its final form. As you’ll see below, sein (to be) becomes ich war (I was), which builds to ich war gewesen (I had been), which mutates into a killer form like ich werde gewesen sein (I will have been).
Many times, books and articles will suggest you approach irregular verbs in a specified order: memorizing the present tense conjugations, then past, then future and so on. In this article, though, we’ll tackle the sein monster as it mutates from form to form.
We’ll show you how the different forms relate or build on one another, so memorization is a fun quest and not a boring sea of flashcards.
The Infinitiv (Infinitive) or Dictionary Form
Sein (to be) is the first form—the Infinitiv Präsens (infinitive). This is the form found in the dictionary, and it doesn’t change at all. It just is.
As we start building on this verb below, we’ll use conjugation tables to show how to use each form with the German personal pronouns—ich (I), du (you, informal singular), er/sie/es (he/she/it), wir (we), ihr (you, informal plural) and sie/Sie (they/you, formal). We’ll also provide plenty of example sentences.
The Präsens (Present) for Everyday Use
The Präsens, or present tense, is used for sentences set in the here and now: “I am the boss, and I am here!”
This form of the sein monster shouldn’t be too scary to you. It’s used all the time for everyday statements. You’ll also encounter this verb often enough in German books or German music that its conjugations will become nearly unforgettable as you progress in your studies.
|ich bin||wir sind|
|du bist||ihr seid|
|er/sie/es ist||sie/Sie sind|
Ich bin (I am), sind Sie (are you) and bist du (are you) are the building blocks of some of the first phrases you’ll learn in German.
For example, you’ll often use Ich bin to introduce yourself or your profession: Ich bin ein Ungeheuertöter (I am a monster slayer). Likewise, you’ll use Sind Sie to politely inquire about someone else: Sind Sie auch ein Ungeheuertöter? (Are you also a monster killer?).
This little verb will also end up in later evolutions of the sein monster—for example, in the phrase Ich bin ins Kino gegangen (I went to the cinema), as a part of a verb tense we’ll cover later.
As English and German are in the same language family, you’ll notice some similarities in the conjugations of sein and “to be.” For example, “she is” is very similar to sie ist. Some of these similarities are false friends, but if they help you memorize tricky conjugations, take advantage of them.
Also, even though sein is irregular, some conjugations use typical conjugation rules. For example, du bist (you are) uses the -st ending typical for verbs involving “you” as the subject. The wir (we) and Sie (you) forms are also the same as they would be for a regular verb.
The Konjunktiv I (Subjunctive) – the “Gossipy” Form
In German, the Konjunktiv I (subjunctive) is usually used for indirect reporting. This form will mostly show up in business German or in news reports—or perhaps in a bit of idle gossip filled with suppositions.
Note how this form differs from the indicative present discussed above.
Whereas the everyday present tense of sein uses irregular conjugations, this conditional form builds on the dictionary form—it’s only used for a specific condition. The verb endings also use some of the standard conjugations.
|ich sei||wir seien|
|du seiest/seist||ihr seiet|
|er/sie/es sei||sie/Sie seien|
There’s another subjunctive tense coming up later, but just know that this form isn’t super common. The sein monster is just getting started in its shifts.
The Futur I (Future I) for Looking Forward
“But now, I will be more!” cries the sein monster.
Building up from the dictionary form, the Futur I is an oft-used future tense. For all verbs using this tense, you’ll use conjugations of werden (to be; to become) combined with the verb you’re trying to send into the future. In this case, then, sein is perfectly regular.
In practice, you’ll end up with sentences like this: Wir werden reich sein (We’ll be rich). Notice how sein stays in its dictionary form at the tail end of the verb phrase. Easy-peasy.
|ich werde sein||wir werden sein|
|du wirst sein||Ihr werdet sein|
|er/sie/es wird sein||sie/Sie werden sein|
Es wird mein Gegner sein. (It will be my opponent.)
With these combo forms and oddball conjugations, remember that you can often predict the conjugation of the wir (we) and Sie (you) forms since one usually matches the other, and that despite irregularities, many of the standard rules (-st endings with du, a -t ending for ihr) apply.
The Imperativ (Imperative) for Making Demands
This form is a command, like the cackling commands of the sein monster as it tries to trick you: “Be still! Don’t think you can win!”
For the Imperativ (imperative), use the Konjunktiv I Präsens as a scaffold.
|sei ich||sein wir|
|sei du||seid ihr|
|sei er/sie/es||sein Sie/sie|
One way to remember the forms is to think of and memorize commands: Sei still! (Be quiet!) You can reinforce these commands by using them as vocabulary on flashcards—or by barking commands at your friends and family.
The imperative form can be a bit harsh, so check out this article for a more nuanced look at ways to order people around auf Deutsch (in German).
The Partizip I (Present Participle), or the More-than-a-verb Form
“Being the boss, I am mighty.”
A participle turns an ordinary verb into something else entirely, be it a noun, an adjective or a part of an even bigger verb phrase. In English, for example, the present participle of “to be” is “being.”
Like the infinitive form, the present participle only has one form. The Partizip I evolves from the infinitive sein, transforming into seiend (being). This differs slightly from the regular conjugation rule of adding a -d to the infinitive, as seiend is a mite easier to say than seind.
The Partizip II (Past Participle), or the Building Form
As mentioned, participles transform verbs into something greater, be they adjectives, nouns or verb phrases. The Partizip II, or past participle, is mostly used for building other verb tenses and moods.
It doesn’t necessarily have an English translation, as it’s more of a building block. As the sein monster grows stronger, you’ll see this form often.
For sein, the Partizip II is very irregular. Although it starts with the ge– prefix common to this form, the –wesen seems to come out of nowhere. But you’ll see from here on out that there’ll be plenty of Ws in sein‘s conjugation.
Ich war ein Held gewesen. (I had been (was) a hero.)
The Präteritum (Simple Past), or the Literary Form
“I was just a mere verb, but now…”
The Präteritum is a vital verb tense for bookworms. Often you’ll learn the past tense of German using the Perfekt, which is used in spoken German. It can be a rude awakening to see a completely different conjugation in books, particularly since reading can be an excellent way to practice your German comprehension.
In learning this form, music and TV will be less helpful. Instead, turn to fiction. Translations of stories you read as a child are particularly good for picking up this form. Be sure to not just rely on comics or graphic novels, as the speech bubbles will often use the Perfekt, mimicking speech (more on this below).
|ich war||wir waren|
|du warst||Ihr wart|
|er/sie/es war||sie/Sie waren|
Das Sein-Ungeheuer war ziemlich gruselig. (The sein monster was pretty creepy.)
The Konjunktiv II (Subjunctive II), or the Polite Conditional Form
Although we touched on the Konjunktiv I earlier—the gossipy subjunctive, if you will—this is the more general-use subjunctive form. It’s a thoughtful, polite form, and it’s also not used in English very often.
As this article puts it, “it lets you dream.”
Although it’s a present tense form, the Konjunktiv II actually builds off the simple past: the war form, or the form with lots of Ws.
|ich wäre||wir wären|
|du wärst||Ihr wärt|
|er/sie/es wäre||sie/Sie wären|
If you note that the Konjunktiv II is conjugated like the simple past but with Umläute (umlauts), it’ll be easier to remember.
For a song that uses this form, check out “Ich wär’ so gerne Millionär” (“I’d so like to be a millionaire”).
The Perfekt (Past Perfect) for the Spoken Past
This is one of the sein monster’s final forms, as it involves combinations of other conjugations. The Indikativ Perfekt is also one of the most oft-used verb conjugations in spoken German. It’s the spoken past, and it’s one of the forms that really hammers in the grammar rule that verbs go in the second position of a phrase (and at the very end).
Thus spake the sein monster: “I had transformed into my other forms already.”
Unlike the “literary” past, this verb form is used in everyday conversation to express the idea of something being completed. When you’re reading a book, you won’t see the Indikativ Perfekt employed unless it’s part of a quotation.
|ich bin gewesen||wir sind gewesen|
|du bist gewesen||Ihr seid gewesen|
|er/sie/es ist gewesen||sie/Sie sind gewesen|
Ich bin ein Held gewesen. (I have been a hero.)
For many other verbs, you’ll see a conjugated haben (to have) in the second position instead of the present tense conjugation of sein, but there are grammar rules surrounding that, too. For now, remember your Indikativ Präsens and your gewesen.
The Plusquamperfekt (Pluperfect) for What Had Been
Learning this form is suggested as prep work for intermediate-level German classes.
The Plusquamperfekt has a funny name, but its purpose is specific. This form is used to say that you’ve done something prior to another past action. It’s often translated as “had been.”
Another combo form, the Plusquamperfekt uses gewesen and the simple past conjugation. To help you remember, think of how it has Perfekt in the name, which ties into the simple (literary) past.
|ich war gewesen||wir waren gewesen|
|du warst gewesen||Ihr wart gewesen|
|er/sie/es war gewesen||sie/Sie waren gewesen|
The Futur II (Future II) for What Will Have Been
The sein monster gives a wretched final cry: “I would have been victorious were it not for your heroic grammar!”
With both gewesen and the infinitive in the compound, the Futur II implies that, in the future, something will have had to have happened. (See? It’s complicated in English, too.)
|ich werde gewesen sein||wir werden gewesen sein|
|du wirst gewesen sein||Ihr werdet gewesen sein|
|er/sie/es wird gewesen sein||sie/Sie werden gewesen sein|
Bis morgen wird das Sein-Ungeheuer besiegt gewesen sein. (By tomorrow, the sein monster will have been defeated.)
With this truly formidable boss, you’d best learn through example sentences and memorization. Note that it does contain both elements of the past (gewesen) and the future (werde, wirst, etc.), so that might help as a memory aid.
You’ve Slain the Sein Monster
Cue the victory music! The struggle to learn German may not be over, but at least you’ve conquered the sein monster.
One benefit of studying an irregular verb like sein in such depth is that you can pick up grammar even quicker with regular verbs. If you can skillfully wield a du wirst gewesen sein (you will have been), then regular verbs will be a piece of cake.
Additionally, once you’ve gotten a sense of how you best learn grammar, you’ll be able to apply those same skills to learning other irregular verbs.
In the end, this is only one plan of attack to conquer the sein monster. Some of these forms are difficult even for advanced speakers, so don’t get discouraged. If going in this order doesn’t work for you, try approaching things from a more standardized route. Above all, keep practicing!