German Irregular Verbs: 5 Tips to Conjugate Them

If you’ve been studying German for a while, it should come as no surprise that the language has some wacky irregular verb forms.

And chances are that you’ve been getting some of them wrong.

“Great,” you’re probably thinking. “There are already more than enough ways to embarrass myself in German.”

But don’t worry! Just study our list below of five ways to get those irregular verbs right, and you’ll be talking flawlessly about eating in the past in no time.


What Are German Irregular Verbs?

To understand what German irregular verbs are, you need to understand their opposite: regular or “weak” verbs. These verbs follow a simple conjugation pattern.

Let’s use  sagen (to say) as an example. Here’s how you’d conjugate it:

Simple, right? Just take the stem sag- and change the succeeding letters (or preceding letters, as in the case of the Partizip II) according to the pronoun or tense you’re using.

Now, imagine you really want to tell some friends a story in German. Let’s say this story is about a character who had ordered some food and was eating it.

You know that essen means “to eat” and you need the Präteritum to describe that action.

So…sie esste? Is that right?

If only. It’s actually, completely illogically,  sie aß (she ate).

Essen is an example of an irregular German verb (also known as a “strong” verb). It’s “irregular” because it doesn’t follow the simple and straightforward conjugation rules that regular verbs do.

Remember our “to eat” example? In English, the past tense of “eat” is “ate” rather than “eated.” So “eat” is also an irregular verb in English!

That’s the good news: the concept of German irregular verbs isn’t that much different from its English counterpart. The bad news is that the conjugation rules for irregular verbs in German can be just as confusing as the English ones (for non-natives, anyway).

So how do you conjugate irregular German verbs? Without further ado, let’s dive right into the tips.

5 Ways to Get German Irregular Verbs Right

1. Learn the conjugations for the present tense.

Remember how, when conjugating verbs like sagen, the stem (sag-) remained the same in all the tenses? Unfortunately, the stem of many irregular verbs changes based on the conjugation, as well as in the two past tenses.

Some of these stem changes in the present tense simply involve adding an ä or ö in place of an a or  o. Other stems in the present tense undergo a complete change.

A good way to tackle these verbs is to remember that they don’t all follow different rules. The verbs with vowel changes often follow similar patterns, for example, and the more you study German, the more you’ll develop a sense for how these verbs actually change.

Check out this helpful list for a study guide.

Let’s take a look at  fahren (a verb with a vowel change) and  geben (a verb with a complete stem change).

Pronoun fahren
to go
to give
Ich fahre
I go
Ich gebe
I give
Du fährst
You go
Du gibst
You give
Er fährt
He goes
Er gibt
He gives
Wir fahren
We go
Wir geben
We give
You (all)
Ihr fahrt
You (all) go
Ihr gebt
You (all) give
Sie fahren
They go
Sie geben
They give

2. Learn the conjugations for the past tense.

All right, so you studied the pattern-following irregular verbs and memorized the really wacky ones. Present tense is no problem for you.

Then you realize you still want to tell that story about that character who ate something. You learned the irregular stem for essen (to eat): isst . Is the past form isste? No! The past tense of essen is , remember? How are you supposed to learn all of these forms?

Unfortunately, verbs like essen break the rules for Particip II and Präteritum as well.

But you’ll be glad to know there are still some patterns you can remember! The past participles of irregular verbs almost always end on -en rather than -t: essen (to eat) becomes gegessenfahren (to travel) becomes gefahren. Many irregular verbs also have a vowel change in the past participle too: singen (to sing) becomes gesungen and trinken (to drink) becomes getrunken

It helps to start by learning the most common ones that’ll serve you in many situations like bleiben (to stay), essen (to eat), fahren (to travel), gehen (to go), lesen (to read), schreiben (to write), sehen (to see) and trinken (to drink). You’ll soon start to get an innate sense of when to expect a vowel change, so they won’t shock you so much when you come across them!

Something I found helpful when memorizing unpredictable past tense stems is a little song. My German teacher played this tune for my class, and its gentle but persistent chant helped me slowly but surely stick these forms into my mind. You can find the lyrics here and follow along.

In general, listening can really help in hammering home verb forms, whether it’s listening to music or really any kind of audio material

Let’s look at common verbs like essen (to eat), lesen (to read) and rufen (to call).

VerbParticip IIPräteritum
to eat
Ich habe gegessen 
I ate
Ich aß
I ate
to read
Ich habe gelesen
I read
Ich las
I read
to call
Ich habe gerufen
I called
Ich rief
I called

3. Understand what a mixed verb is.

All right, so there are regular and irregular verbs.

Some verbs fall into an in-between category. If you’ve been saying Ich habe gedenkt instead of  Ich habe gedacht (I was thinking), you’ve stumbled across the mixed verb problem.

Almost all mixed verbs are regular in the present tense, but in the past tense, they combine the ending t for Particip II, and te for Präteritum with the vowel change of an irregular verb.

The good news? There aren’t too many mixed form verbs. Look at the examples below to find out about the most common.

VerbPräteritumParticip II
to have
to know
to know
to think
to bring
to run
to call
to burn

4. Know how –ieren verbs work.

An ieren verb is, as its name suggests, one of a handful of verbs (many of which came to German through French) that end in –ieren. They follow the pattern of regular verbs, except in one way.

In the Particip II form, instead of putting ge- at the beginning, you simply put a –t on the end.

VerbParticip II
to discuss
Ich habe diskutiert  
I discussed
to exist
Ich habe existiert
I existed
to take pictures
Ich habe fotografiert
I took pictures

You also need to watch out for verbs with non-separable prefixes like beginnen, vergessen or verlieren. These verbs just take the irregular past participle ending of -en as well as any vowel changes, but don’t need a -ge at the beginning: beginnen – begonnen, vergessen – vergessen, verlieren – verloren

5. Learn how to conjugate modal and auxiliary verbs.

Here’s the thing about modal and auxiliary verbs—they’re all irregular.

Unfortunately, they also show up frequently in German.

For example, the modal verbs include:

As you can imagine, modal verbs are used in a wide variety of contexts. For example:

Meanwhile, the following auxiliary verbs are all used as helping verbs, which means you’ll need them a lot:

You use haben and sein to form the Particip II, which is the past tense most commonly used in spoken language. You use werden to form the passive tense, as well as for a panoply of other purposes. And, of course, these three common verbs are all irregular.

Luckily, you can read all about conjugating German modal and auxiliary verbs here.


German irregular verbs are a wild excursion into uncertainty and vowel changes, that’s for sure!

But once you’ve figured out how to conjugate all types of German verbs correctly, you’ll be well on your way to never making a conjugation mistake again.

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