German Infinitive: 5 Important Ways to Use It (with Examples and Audio)
If you’ve been learning German for more than a few weeks, you’ve probably already come across infinitives.
The German infinitive is the unconjugated form of a verb, and it usually ends in -en, like in rennen (to run) or lachen (to laugh).
German infinitives can seem pretty easy, but there are a whole range of ways to use them that you might not know about yet.
This post will teach you five essential uses of the German infinitive, but first, let’s take a peek at three things you’ll need to know.
- What You Should Know About German Infinitives
- 5 Uses of the German Infinitive
- And One More Thing...
What You Should Know About German Infinitives
Almost all of them end in -en.
As mentioned above, 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).
They 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 neuter and therefore take das as an article. (No long lists of definite articles to memorize here!)
5 Uses of the German Infinitive
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 (to be able to/can)
- müssen (to have to/must)
- sollen (to be supposed to/should)
- wollen (to want to)
- mögen (to like to).
Here are some example sentences that use modal verbs with the infinitive:
Ich will nach Berlin ziehen. (I want to move to Berlin.)
Die Kinder müssen ihre Hausaufgaben machen. (The children have to do their homework.)
Sie sollten die Tickets sofort kaufen! (They should buy the tickets straight away!)
2. Infinitive as a Noun
Unlike English, German has no present continuous form (when verbs have the -ing ending: to swim → swimming). This form has many uses in English, from describing things that are happening right now (I am dancing), to referring the idea of the action in a general sense. (Smoking is banned.)
So what do we do in German? Well, German loves its nouns, so just turn that verb into one! By just putting a capital letter on the infinitive you create a “nominalized infinitive”: rauchen → das Rauchen. We can then refer to the action in a general sense:
Rauchen tötet. (Smoking kills.)
These forms are luckily always neuter, so you’ll use the neuter definite article das before them, where needed:
Das Wandern ist in Deutschland sehr beliebt. (Hiking is very popular in Germany.)
Mein Vater hat mir das Schwimmen beigebracht. (My father taught me to swim.)
These transfigured verbs are immensely useful, often paired with prepositions like zu to explain the method, purpose or result of an action. eg:
Ich höre Musik zum Einschlafen. (I listen to music to fall asleep.)
Or bei to refer to something happening at the same time (whilst/during):
Ich höre Musik beim Lesen. (I listen to music whilst reading.)
So if you’re trying to describe an action alongside another verb and getting tangled in knots with where and how to place your action words, a capitalized noun is usually the answer:
Kannst du bitte mit dem Fotografieren aufhören? (Can you please stop taking pictures?)
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 use the infinitive in the future tense, because chances are you’ll run across it at some point:
Ich werde morgen ausschlafen. (Tomorrow, I will sleep in.)
Nächste Woche wird er seinen neuen Job beginnen. (He’ll start his new job next week.)
Wir werden dir später helfen. (We will help you later.)
4. Infinitive in Zu and Um/Zu Sentences
Um or 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:
Ich gehe in den Supermarkt, um mehr Obst zu kaufen. (I’m going to the grocery store to buy more fruit.)
Er holt mal einen Lappen, um das Wasser aufzuwischen (He fetches cloth to mop up the water.)
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 include verbs that describe the senses, movements or stasis:
- haben (to have)
- bleiben (to stay)
- gehen (to go)
- kommen (to come)
- sehen (to see)
- hören (to hear)
- lassen (to leave)
- fahren (to go)
Check out these example sentences with non-modal verbs:
Ich gehe gern einkaufen. (I like to go shopping.)
Oma und Opa kommen uns besuchen. (Grandma and grandad are coming to visit us.)
Ich sehe die beiden Turteltauben küssen. (I see the two lovebirds kissing.)
Sie hat einen Ersatzschlüssel unter der Fußmatte liegen. (She’s got a spare key under her door mat.)
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.
One tool for this is FluentU, which features authentic German native videos with interactive subtitles and quizzes. While watching, you can hover over any word to see its definition and grammar info, including tense and number for verbs. This way, you can see how infinitives work in different situations and understand new sentence structures.
So dive in and start practicing! After all, you’ll need the infinitive when talking about any exciting activity that you want to try or anything you’re passionate about (like learning German).
And One More Thing...
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