Imagine you really want to tell some friends a story in German.
And let’s say this story is about a character who had ordered some food and was eating it.
All right, so you would need the Präteritum (literary past tense) to describe that action.
And you know that essen means “to eat.”
So…sie esste? Is that right?
If only. It’s actually, completely illogically, is aß (she ate).
If you’ve been studying German for awhile, it should come as no surprise to you 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 reasons why you might be getting those irregular verbs wrong, and in no time you’ll be talking flawlessly about eating in the past.
But first, let’s look at why you really need to know your irregular verbs in the first place.
Why Is It Important to Understand German Irregular Verbs?
The three auxiliary verbs are all irregular.
The auxiliary verbs haben (to have), sein (to be) and werden (to become) 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 equivalent of saying “He was singing” in English. 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. If you don’t know their forms, you’ll be in a bad place indeed.
The modal verbs are all irregular.
The auxiliary verbs are essential, yes, but so are the modal verbs. These are the verbs können (can), müssen (must), wollen (want to), sollen (should), dürfen (to be allowed to) and mögen (to like to). As you can imagine, these verbs can and are used in a wide variety of contexts, from Ich kann singen (I can sing) to Sie darf nicht in der Disco tanzen (She is not allowed to dance in the club). And they are all irregular. By learning them, you’ll drastically increase the number of sentences you can craft in German.
Plenty of other common verbs are irregular, and you’ll mark yourself as a foreign speaker pretty quickly if you mess them up.
Ich habe geholfen. (I was helping.)
Er hat gedacht. (He was thinking.)
To think, to help, to eat, to run—all of these common verbs are irregular. And unfortunately, messing up verb conjugation can mark you pretty quickly as a non-native speaker. Imagine if you heard someone say “I runned” instead of “I ran.” It would be a tip-off that this person was learning English. That’s why it’s important to learn how to conjugate these verbs.
Quick Review of Regular German Verb (aka Weak Verb) Conjugation
Almost there! But before we get started with the reasons you might not understand German irregular verbs, let’s take a second to review regular German verb conjugation. Regular German verbs are called weak verbs, and they follow a simple conjugation pattern. Let’s use sagen (to say) as an example.
Ich sage (I say)
Du sagst (You say)
Er/sie/est sagt (He/she/it says)
Wir sagen (We say)
Ihr sagt (You all say)
Sie sagen (They say)
Particip II: Ich habe gesagt (I was saying)
Präteritum: sagte ([I] said)
Simple enough, right? Make sure you’re solid on how to conjugate a regular (weak) German verb, and then let’s move on to…
5 Reasons You’re Getting German Irregular Verbs Wrong
1. You don’t understand what a “strong verb” is.
It stands to reason that in a language with weak verbs, you would also find strong verbs. But what’s a strong verb? If you’re not sure, that might explain why you’ve been saying du fahrst instead of du fährst (you go).
What’s a strong verb?
Did you notice how for the weak verb conjugation, the stem (sag-) remained the same in all the tenses? Alas, a strong verb’s stem 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 an ö in place of an a or an o. Other stems in the present tense undergo a complete change.
A good way to tackle the strong 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—it organizes the strong verbs into three general categories.
Let’s take a look at fahren (to go, a verb with a vowel change) and geben (to give, a verb with a complete stem change).
fahren (to go)
Ich fahre (I go)
Du fährst (You go)
Er fährt (He goes)
Wir fahren (We go)
Ihr fahrt (You all go)
Sie fahren (They go)
geben (to give)
Ich gebe (I give)
Du gibst (You give)
Er gibt (He gives)
Wir geben (We give)
Ihr gebt (You all give)
Sie geben (They give)
2. You’ve got the present tense down for strong verbs, but you’re lost on 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 aß, remember? How are you supposed to learn all of these forms?
How to tackle past tense for these forms
Yes, unfortunately, these strong verbs break the rules for Particip II and Präteritum as well. The good news is that all strong verbs in German use -en at the end of their stem to form the Particip II.
Ich habe begonnen. (I was beginning.)
The other good news is that no new German verbs are being added to the strong verb category—all new additions to the German language are being incorporated as weak verbs.
The bad news is that these strong verb forms are often quite unpredictable, so they often must be memorized.
Something that I found helpful when memorizing these past tense stems is a little song. My German teacher played this tune for my class, and its gentle but persistent chant helped me in slowly but surely sticking 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, audiobooks or really any kind of audio material.
Let’s look at a few common verbs:
essen (to eat)
Ich habe gegessen (I was eating)
Ich aß (I ate)
lesen (to read)
Ich habe gelesen (I was reading)
Ich las (I read)
rufen (to call)
Ich habe gerufen (I was calling)
Ich rief (I called)
3. You don’t understand what a mixed verb is.
All right, so there are weak verbs (regular) and strong verbs (irregular).
But unfortunately, there are some verbs that fall into an in-between category. If you’ve been saying Ich habe gedenkt instead of Ich habe gedacht (I was thinking), then you’ve stumbled across the mixed verb problem.
What’s a mixed verb?
A mixed verb is a verb that combines some characteristics of weak verbs and strong verbs. Almost all mixed verbs are regular in the present tense, but in the past tense, they combine the ending of a weak verb (–t for Particip II, and –te for Präteritum) with the vowel change of a strong verb.
The good news? There aren’t too many mixed form verbs. Look at the examples below to find out about the most common.
haben, hatte, gehabt (to have, had, was having)
kennen, kannte, gekannt (to know, known, was knowing)
wissen, wusste, gewusst (to know, known, was knowing)
denken, dachte, gedacht (to think, thought, was thinking)
bringen, brachte, gebracht (to bring, brought, was bringing)
rennen, rannte, (bin) gerannt (to run, ran, was running)
nennen, nannte, genannt (to call, called, was calling)
brennen, brannte, gebrannt (to burn, burned, was burning)
4. You don’t know how –ieren verbs (the one weak verb exception) work.
Remember how I said above that weak verbs are regular German verbs? Well, I didn’t mention the one tricky exception: verbs that end in –ieren. If you’ve been saying Ich habe gestudiert for “I was studying,” well, then you’ve stumbled into the –ieren trap.
What’s an –ieren verb?
Basically, an –ieren verb is one of a handful of verbs, many of which came to German through French, that end in –ieren. These verbs follow the pattern of weak 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.
Diskutieren (to discuss) is formed in the past as Ich habe diskutiert (I was discussing).
Existieren (to exist) is formed in the past as Ich habe existiert (I was existing).
Fotografieren (to photograph) is formed as Ich habe fotografiert (I was photographing).
5. You don’t know how to conjugate the modal and auxiliary verbs.
Finally, let’s talk about some of the most important verbs in the German language: the modal verbs and auxiliary verbs. If you’re saying Er habt instead of Er hat (he has), you’re confused about the conjugation of these highly important but highly irregular verbs. These verbs all fall into the category of strong or mixed verbs, but it’s important to study them separately since, as I said earlier, they are some of the most important verbs in the German language.
Conjugating these forms
Luckily, the modal verbs follow a similar pattern to each other. Let’s take müssen (must) for an example.
Ich muss (I must)
Du musst (You must)
Er/sie/es muss (He/she/it must)
Wir müssen (We must)
Ihr müsst (You all must)
Sie müssen (They must)
This table will show you how to conjugate all of the modal verbs, while this will help you out with the auxiliary verbs.
Ich bin müde. (I am tired.)
Sie müssen einen Computer finden. (They must find a computer.)
Wir dürfen ins Kino gehen. (We are allowed to go to the movies.)
German irregular verbs are a wild excursion into uncertainty and vowel changes, that’s for sure!
But once you’ve figured out why you’re conjugating incorrectly—by learning the difference between weak, strong and mixed verbs, as well as that one weak verb exception and the modal/auxiliary verbs—you’ll be well on your way to never making a conjugation mistake again.