Let’s get down to basics.
The infinitive is one of the most fundamental building blocks of any language.
Even if you never had to diagram a sentence in school, chances are you know what an infinitive is: the unconjugated form of a verb (i.e. to run, to laugh, to sing).
Now, chances are that if you’ve been learning German for more than a few weeks, you’ve already come across some infinitives.
You probably think they’re pretty easy—and sometimes they are. But there are a whole range of ways to use infinitives in German that you might not know about yet. And that’s where we come in.
This post will teach you five essential uses of the German infinitive. Because context is the best way to learn new grammar and vocabulary, you’re going to learn these grammatical principles through a story about taking a trip to the gardening store. (That’s right, since gardening, plants and flowers are integral parts of German culture.)
Before we head out on our journey, let’s first take a peek at three things you’ll need to know about German infinitives.
What You Should Know About German Infinitives
Almost all of them end in -en.
Most German infinitives have the same ending: -en. Some examples are tanzen (to dance), gehen (to go) and bleiben (to stay). If you see a non-capitalized word that ends in -en, chances are you’ve come across an infinitive verb.
Some of them end in -eln, -ern or -ein.
All right, it’s German, so it can’t be completely simple, right? A small number of German infinitives end in –eln, -ern or –ein. Examples include wandern (to wander/walk) and, one of the most important German verbs, sein (to be).
It can be a verb or a noun.
You know how in English, you can use the word “run” as a verb or a noun? “I want to run” and “I want to go on a run”? German is the same. You can transform German infinitives into nouns by capitalizing them (remember, German nouns are always capitalized).
All of these words are neutral and therefore take das as an article. (No long lists of proper articles to memorize here!)
5 Uses of the German Infinitive
Get ready to learn five important uses of the German infinitive! We’re going to practice these different infinitive functions through the lens of an attempt to plant a garden in Germany, which all starts like this:
You’ve noticed the fact that there’s a Blumen und Pflanzen (flowers and plants) store on every corner in Germany, and that from March until November, many Germans cultivate beautiful window boxes and gardens full of geraniums, marigolds and other flowers. And you’ve decided to get in on the action too.
But you’ve had a decidedly brown thumb your whole life, and you just don’t know how to buy and sustain plants throughout the summer. Let’s figure out what you’re going to do—and learn some grammar along the way.
1. Infinitive with Modal Verbs
The infinitive with a modal verb is the equivalent of saying “I can go” or “I should study” in English. This construction involves a conjugated modal verb plus the infinitive form of a second verb.
The modal verbs in German are dürfen (to be allowed to/may), können (can), müssen (must), sollen (should), wollen (want to), möchten (would like to) and mögen (like to).
So you head to the gardening store.
“Ich möchte einen Garten pflanzen,” (I would like to plant a garden), you tell the woman behind the counter at the little gardening center in the corner of Mauerpark in Berlin.
“Dürfen Sie einen Garten haben?” (Are you allowed to have a garden?) she asks you. Ah, she thinks you want to plant a garden in the ground—which you’re in fact not allowed to do in the small courtyard behind your building.
“Leider darf ich nur einen Blumenkasten haben,” (Sadly I’m only allowed to have a window box) you tell her. “Welche Blumen sollte ich für einen Blumenkasten kaufen?” (Which flowers should I buy for a window box?)
“Geranien und Blumensträuße,” (Geraniums and posies), says the woman.
You buy the flowers, and head on your way.
2. Infinitive as a Noun
This one is quite simple. All you need to do is take the exact same word, capitalize it, and stick das or ein in front of it, since all of these nouns are neutral.
So you plant the window box.
You get home, hurry upstairs and start planting your window box. You spread dirt, arrange your flowers and carefully tamp their roots down with more dirt. This is so easy! Your window box will look as beautiful as those other ones across the way, the ones that are bursting with red geraniums even in November.
You carefully sprinkle Dünger (fertilizers) on your plants’ roots—after all, they need das Essen (the food) too (Note: essen is an infinitive verb meaning “to eat,” as well as the noun das Essen, “the food”). At last, you stand back to admire your work. The buds look so lovely in the spring sunlight—and you can’t wait for them to blossom.
Just then, you feel as though you’re going to niesen (to sneeze). Oh no, you really feel das Niesen (the sneeze) coming on. Are you allergic to your new plants? But no, the feeling passes and after admiring your plants for a few more minutes, you head inside. You can hardly wait to watch them grow.
3. Infinitive in the Future Tense
The infinitive in the future tense works in the same way as infinitives with a modal verb. In this tense, you use the helping verb werden (to become) along with an infinitive.
Remember that Germans often just express the future in present tense, using indicative words like morgen (tomorrow) or später (later) to show that they’re talking about the future. But it’s still important to know how to construct the future in German, because chances are you’ll run across it at some point.
So you wait for the flowers to grow.
All night, you can’t wait to see how your flowers will have changed by the next morning. Morgen, werde ich viele schönen Blumen sehen (tomorrow, I will see many beautiful flowers), you think.
But when you wake up and go onto your balcony, you see that the flowers look… exactly the same. If not a little browner and more shriveled.
But it’s all right! You make a plan to care for them. You’re not going to lose these plants the way you lost all those other ones your mom bought for you when you lived in the United States! You decide: Morgen werde ich mehr Dünger kaufen (Tomorrow I will buy more fertilizer). Nächste Woche, werde ich jeden Tag meine Pflanzen begießen (Next week, I will water my plants every day).
4. Infinitive in Zu and Um/Zu Sentences
Um/Zu sentences are sentences with multiple clauses where you express that you’re doing something in order to have a desired effect. The second action, the desired effect, appears in the sentence as an infinitive.
So you try to save your flowers.
It’s been a week, and your flowers haven’t blossomed. Far from it. The buds are shriveled and dry. The leaves are droopy. The geraniums across the way are beautiful and yours haven’t even flowered. What’s going on?
“Ich gehe in den Laden, um meine Pflanzen zu retten,” (I’m going to the store, in order to save my plants), you tell your roommate, and hurry off to the store where you bought your plants. You tell the woman what’s been going on. “Ich habe meinen Blumenkasten befruchtet, um meine Pflanzen stärker zu machen!” (I fertilized my window box, in order to make my plants stronger), you tell the woman. But they’re dying! What’s going on?
She asks you how often you’ve been fertilizing them. Every day, you tell her. She points to the label on the fertilizer. “You’re only supposed to use this once per week,” she tells you. “Man liest Etiketten, um ein Produkt zu verstehen“ (One reads labels in order to understand a product).
You listen to her advice and stop overfertilizing, but it’s too late. The plants don’t make it.
5. Infinitive with a Conjugated Non-modal Verb
Don’t try this with every verb—but there are a handful of non-modal verbs that you can pair with an infinitive in certain contexts.
These verbs include bleiben (to stay), lernen (to learn), gehen (to go), sehen (to see), hören (to hear), lassen (to leave) and fahren (to go).
So you plant another garden.
The good news in the wake of your failure is that plants and gardening tools are quite cheap in this gardening-obsessed country. You buy another round of plants, install them in your window box, go easy on the fertilizer and wait.
Sometimes you’re tempted to overfertilize or overwater your plants, but then you think to yourself, Ich bleibe ein bisschen warten (I will keep waiting a bit). And sure enough, after a week, you tell your roommate, “Ich sehe sie wachsen!” (I see them growing!). You guess you’ve broken your brown thumb streak and finally managed to cultivate plants—for a little while, at least.
Even if you’ve never been to Germany and have no intention of planting a garden, practicing the five uses of the infinitive in context is an invaluable way to master these forms and crack this simple yet integral part of the German language.
So go out there and practice the infinitive when talking about anything that you’re passionate about or any new activity that you want to try!