German Verb Conjugation: All You Need to Know to Master the Past, Present and Future
German conjugation, well, we won’t say it’s easy, but it comes from a much more familiar place than that of other languages.
There are a handful of things you’ve got to learn, sure. And a handful of new ways to think about how German might use its tenses to convey specific meanings.
But before long, it feels natural. The patterns of German verb conjugation are smooth as butter and regular as rain.
Here’s what they look like.
- The Different Verb Groups in German
- German Verb Tense Conjugation
The Different Verb Groups in German
First, the good news. German is mostly a rule-based language.
The vast majority of verbs (over 90 percent!) follow regular patterns that can be easily memorized. Funny enough, these are called “weak” verbs in German—perhaps because they have no will of their own to stand out from the crowd, so they just follow the regular rules.
Before we get into the conjugations, it’s good to recognize the infinitive forms.
Many German verbs, even most irregular ones, end in -en in their infinitive forms. The infinitive, as you’ll recall, is the basic form of the verb, equivalent to those “to do” verbs in English.
Here are some of the most common regular German infinitives:
antworten — to answer
fragen — to ask
machen — to do, to make
The part of the verb before -en is called der Stamm (the root/stem). We’ll be dealing with verb stems quite a lot later on, so make sure you know how to separate the stem from the ending.
You can learn more about verb stems with Rocket Languages, a language learning course that combines training for all of the skills—reading, writing, listening and speaking. With a voice recognition system, you can practice your pronunciation until you sound like a native German speaker. Plus, Rocket Languages will teach you fun cultural facts with lessons that incorporate interesting tidbits about working and living in Germany.
You can also see plenty of examples of verbs used by native speakers through authentic German videos on the FluentU program. This platform has interactive subtitles which allow you to click on any word to see a definition and examples, and add it as a flashcard to custom-made lists if you want to study it later. FluentU also has personalized quizzes to hone your vocabulary.
Getting back to our verb conjugation lesson, there are only a few verbs that end in letters other than –en, and most of those end in either -eln or -ern. Again, everything before these endings is considered the root.
begeistern — to delight
basteln — to construct (arts and crafts)
And now, the bad news. German has a none-too-small number of irregular verbs as well. And, if there’s one rule that holds true across languages worldwide, it’s that irregular verbs are more commonly used than regular ones.
Since regular verbs are weak verbs, you’d think that irregular ones would be strong verbs, and you’re right! Strong verbs have different endings and different vowels in the stem when they conjugate.
Some classic strong verbs are:
gehen — to go
sein — to be
There’s one more verb group called “mixed” verbs. They’re not quite as strong.
Mixed verbs change their vowels, but they put the standard verb endings on the new roots. The most famous is haben (to have).
You’ll get a lot of practice with this one below.
German Verb Tense Conjugation
The Present: What Is Happening
The present tense in German is nice and simple, and it’s used in the same way it is in English: to describe habits that you regularly do.
However, it also conveys the meaning of the present progressive in English—describing things that are happening at the moment of description.
Remember stems and the infinitive ending –en? We’ll cut these up a little bit for the present tense.
|Pronoun||Ending||Example word: sagen (to say)|
Careful readers will see that wir sagen and Sie sagen have the same conjugation as the infinitive. This is the case with almost all strong verbs!
Now, let’s look at a weak verb, haben. The endings don’t change, but note what happens to the stem.
|Pronoun||Ending||Example word: haben (to have)|
You’d expect es hat and ihr habt to be the same, but we lost the b in the middle of the third person stem.
The Past: What Has Happened
German has two different past tenses that correspond to the one we know and love in English.
The first is the “preterite,” or “simple past.” It’s used most commonly in writing and only with certain verbs in speech. That’s just the natural development of the spoken German language for you—some verbs simply sound more natural to conjugate in the simple past.
For regular and mixed verbs, here are the verb endings you use:
So, a regular verb like sagen would become sagte, sagtest, sagte, sagtet, sagten as you run through the conjugations.
Let’s also look at haben, a very useful verb indeed.
Here’s an example sentence:
Sie hatten keine Bücher mehr. (They had no more books.)
Strong verbs usually undergo significant vowel changes in the past tense and past participle, just like English does with “swim, swam, swum,” for example.
Take a look at this:
Ich spreche Deutsch. Ich sprach Französisch. Ich habe Russisch schon mal gesprochen. (I speak German. I spoke French. I only spoke Russian.)
How do we make that “have done” tense, known as the present perfect in English?
First off, please note that it doesn’t actually have the same meaning as in English. We added schon mal to get that effect, but simply habe gesprochen just means “spoke.” It’s the oral form, whereas sprach is the literary form.
To make it, we simply take the present tense of haben and add the past participle of the verb.
Now, the past participles are hard to predict—so hard that you’ll usually just see them listed in textbooks alongside the root form so you don’t have to look them up.
Here’s one more example with that same root:
Haben sie in Japan Japanisch gesprochen? (Did they speak Japanese in Japan?)
The Future: What Is Going to Happen
This one, by contrast, is a total cakewalk.
First, we take the word werden (to become). Let’s conjugate that one real quick, as it’s a strong verb.
Now, all we do is add that conjugation to the infinitive and call it a day!
Ich werde nicht Skifahren gehen. (I will not go skiing.)
It’s actually as easy as that! If you simply know werden plus the infinitive, you can use the future tense in German.
Now remember, in your German reading you’ll certainly come across the phrases ich will and er/sie/es will. You’ve only got to remember that will is the form of the verb wollen (to want)—a totally different verb for a totally different meaning!
Er will Gitarre spielen. (He wants to play guitar.)
Er wird Gitarre spielen. (He will play guitar.)
Clearly, the worst part about learning German conjugations is memorizing the irregular verbs.
The best shortcut there is for that is to check the verb against its English counterpart. Is it a regular English verb? If so, there’s a decent chance it’s regular in German.
Is it one of those “swim, swam, swum” verbs with a changing vowel? Then, it’s almost definitely going to be irregular in German.
How do the Germans pick up these irregular patterns?
It’s all input and repetition. They listen to people speaking German, watch German cartoons and read German picture books. After a while, they’ve got it down.
Now that you’ve learned the rules, you just need to spend time with the language to make it seem natural.