How to Conjugate Strong and Weak German Verbs Like a Pro
If the idea of a “strong” verb immediately conjures images of a verb lifting heavy weights, we’ll need to clear the air.
But what does strong and weak have to do with verbs? What’s the difference?
If you’re in the beginning stages of learning German, you might be asking yourself this question. I know I did when I first started learning.
Before I moved to Germany, I tried to learn the language by myself, armed with nothing but a DaF (German as a foreign language) dictionary. Needless to say, it didn’t go very well.
So…what went wrong?
To start with, I had no clue how to conjugate any of the verbs! I ended up trying to use strong verb conjugation patterns with weak verbs and vice versa. It was a mess.
But you’re smarter than me and decided to seek out help. If you’re new to learning German, it’s possible that you’ll encounter the same conjugation problem I had when I began learning. So how exactly do you conjugate German verbs?
The answer to that question depends on whether we’re talking about a strong or weak verb. By the end of this article, you’ll be conjugating both types of verbs like an expert!
What’s the Difference Between Strong and Weak Verbs?
There are actually three “types” of verbs in German, each of which has different tendencies: strong, weak and mixed.
Most German verbs are weak verbs, which are verbs that are regular in all tenses and conjugations. An example is kaufen, which means to buy or purchase. There are a couple theories as to why weak verbs are called weak verbs, but that’s not really important unless you’re planning on studying Germanistik, the study of German language and literature, in a German university.
Even though the vast majority of German verbs are weak, many of the important ones are strong. If we were to look at a list of the most common German verbs, we’d see that eight of the top ten (as well as thirty of the top fifty) are strong.
Strong verbs are irregular, although not necessarily in every tense or conjugation. Because strong verbs are so commonly used, it’s easy to get lost in conversation if you aren’t able to recognize the spelling changes, especially because some of them can be pretty drastic!
Many German speakers will still be able to get the gist of what you’re saying even if you aren’t able to conjugate strong verbs correctly, for the most part at least. However, if your goal is to be able to speak German well, there’s simply no getting around learning strong and weak verbs.
The third category of German verb is mixed verbs, which are a mix between the other two categories (strong and weak).
In other words, a mixed verb will have a spelling change in the past tense (typically, a vowel change like strong verbs) with normal verb endings (like weak verbs). For example, take the verb brennen, which means to burn. The third person singular in all three tenses is as follows:
Learning how these verbs conjugate adds a layer of polish to your speaking and reading abilities and allows you to communicate more effectively (you don’t have to just rely on gestures).
Now that you’ve got a better idea of what each category means (and why they’re important), let’s learn how to conjugate!
How to Conjugate Strong and Weak German Verbs Like a Pro
Let’s Start with the Basics: Conjugating Weak Verbs
We’re going to ease you into the conjugation of strong and weak verbs by starting with weak verbs in the present tense. It’s not too bad, so take a deep breath and you’ll be an expert on German words and conjugation before you can say (the German word for “food intolerance”) Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit!
Weak verbs in das Präsens
German weak verbs in the present tense are important to mention because they outline the basic conjugation patterns for the rest of the German verbs. As mentioned previously, weak verbs are predictable and learning how to conjugate them doesn’t take much time.
The present tense conjugation for brauchen (to need) and other weak verbs is as follows:
ich brauche (I need)
du brauchst (you need)
er/sie/es braucht (he/she/it needs)
wir brauchen (we need)
ihr braucht (you need)
Sie/sie brauchen (you/they need)
A verb consists of two main components: the stem, or Stamm, and the ending, or Endung. In the present tense, you conjugate the –en ending of the weak verb to match the subject and that’s all there is to it!
Weak verbs in the Präteritum
The Präteritum, or simple past, is also referred to as the literary past tense in German because it’s typically used in writing. An example in English would be “I wanted.”
Conjugating the Präteritum is more or less the same as the present tense, except for two things: the 3rd person singular (er/sie/es) and an additional “t” at the beginning of all the verb endings:
ich brauchte (I needed)
du brauchtest (you needed)
er/sie/es brauchte (he/she/it needed)
wir brauchten (we needed)
ihr brauchtet (you needed)
Sie/sie brauchten (you/they needed)
Note: Verbs which have a “d” or a “t” at the end of their stem require an extra “e” to be conjugated correctly. Therefore, reden, which means to speak, would be conjugated as er redet (he speaks) instead of er redt.
Weak Verbs in the Perfekt
The Präteritum is all good and well, but in spoken German, you typically use the Perfekt tense to talk about the past. This is an important distinction between German and English: the Präteritum and Perfekt tenses are used identically, whereas the past tense and present perfect in English aren’t.
For example, if we were to directly translate “er hat geredet” into English, we’d have “he had talked,” when in actuality a German would interpret that as “he talked.”
The Perfekt is actually the easiest of the three to conjugate for weak verbs, especially if you’ve already learned how to conjugate the two auxiliary verbs haben (to have) and sein (to be):
ich habe gekauft (I bought)
du hast gekauft (you bought)
er/sie/es hat gekauft (he/she/it bought)
wir haben gekauft (we bought)
ihr habt gekauft (you bought)
Sie/sie haben gekauft (you/they bought)
As you can see, to conjugate weak verbs in the Perfekt, you just need to use the Stamm to form the past participle. You add ge- to the beginning of the verb and a -t to the end and you’re finished! (And, of course, include the correct conjugation of one of the auxiliary verbs, haben or sein.)
Note: Verbs that end in –ieren such as telefonieren (to telephone) or have fixed prefixes, such as bezahlen (to pay), only require the –t to form the past participle.
In all honesty, I shouldn’t have had as much trouble with this German verb conjugation as I did—it’s actually one of the easier conjugation patterns out there! So why did I have so many issues? Two words: strong verbs.
What You Need to Know to Master Strong Verbs
When I first tried to teach myself German, most of the first verbs I tried to learn were irregular, which made things pretty difficult (to say the least). Forget forming sentences, getting the right verb conjugation was a nightmare!
For the most part, strong verbs are something you’re going to have to practice, but there are some recognizable patterns. While we were primarily concerned about the verb endings with the weak verbs, with strong verbs we’re more interested in the Stamm.
Strong verbs in das Präsens
Irregular verbs in the German present tense only have vowel changes in the second and third person singular (du/er/sie/es) conjugations, and there are three types of changes:
“e” to “i” — ex: geben (to give) to du gibst (you give)
“e” to “ie” — ex: lesen (to read) and er liest (he reads)
“a” to “ä” — ex: fahren (to drive) and er fährt (he drives)
There are a few verbs in the present tense that fall outside of this pattern, such as haben and sein, but not many.
Strong verbs in the Präteritum
The Präteritum is where things get a little messy for strong verbs, but luckily there are still some patterns to pick out (and it’s also a great exercise in German vowel vocalization).
Strong verb Präteritum endings follow the normal conjugation pattern, except in the first and third person singular conjugations (ich/er/sie/es), where there’s no ending:
Long “e” and “i” sounds change to “o” — ex: bewegen (to move) becomes bewog.
Short “e” and “i” sounds change to “a” — ex: essen (to eat) becomes aß.
Verbs with “ei” change to either “ie” or “i” — ex: schneiden (to cut) becomes schnitt.
Verbs with an “ä” vowel change in the present tense change to either “ie/i” or “u” — ex: laufen (to work or walk fast) becomes lief and fahren (to drive or go) becomes fuhr.
Again, these are just basic guidelines and there will be exceptions!
Strong Verbs in the Perfekt
When it comes to learning verb tenses, in my experience the strong verb Perfekt tense is the most challenging.
The Perfekt tense has the most given variations, but as with the previous two tenses, there are some patterns to look out for:
Most verbs with “a” and “o” stems remain in the infinitive, ex: fahren becomes gefahren.
Verbs with “ei” change to either “ie” or “i” — ex: beißen (to bite) becomes gebissen.
Verbs with “ie” change to “o” — ex: fliegen (to fly) becomes geflogen.
Verbs with “i” infinitive change to “u” — ex: springen (to jump) becomes gesprungen.
Verbs with “e” typically change to “o” — ex: sterben (to die) becomes gestorben.
As with the previous conjugation patterns, there are going to be exceptions! It’s also worth noting that all of the strong verb participles end in -en, with the exception of tun (to do) which becomes getan.
Whether you plan on using the conjugation patterns or outright memorizing the list of strong verbs, it’s going to take practice and dedication. But if you’ve made it this far, congratulations!
Conjugating strong and weak verbs is by no means an easy task, and it’s something even advanced German learners still have trouble with occasionally.
In my experience, the best way to insure that you master strong and weak verbs is to use them! Follow this guide when you practice and you’ll be on your way to becoming a German verb conjugation pro!