Language is all about expression.
What’s the use of speaking if you can’t say how you feel?
Whether you’re trying to say, “I’m tired,” “I’m stressed,” or “I’m having a bad day,” you need the verbs “to be” and “to have.”
Arguably two of the most common verbs used in the English language, “to be” and “to have” work similarly in German.
Haben is the German word for “to have,” and sein is the German equivalent of “to be.”
Just like in English, these two words are crucial to know and are, in many ways, the first step to comprehending and mastering the German language.
Keep haben and sein in mind as we work through why we use these two verbs, what we use them for and some common conjugations of each verb to memorize for daily use. By the end of this lesson, you’ll be able to express your state of being, as well as what you have, with ease!
Why Learn the Forms of Haben and Sein?
Sein and haben are almost always the first verbs you learn if you want to speak German.
Sure, you might want to know how to say “Ich heiβe (insert name here)“ to introduce yourself.
But how do you tell the person you’re speaking to your age, your state of being or that you have a question?
It’s simple: Use haben and sein!
Memorizing and recognizing forms of haben and sein will allow you to comprehend reading passages and help you in writing as well. You’ll learn that verbs must be conjugated to match the subject of the sentence, so being able to identify the verb will point you in the direction of the subject. By understanding this relationship, you’ll be able to read and write better German.
The last characteristic to understand about the verbs haben and sein is that haben is a regular verb, and as such, it follows a regular pattern in terms of conjugation. Sein, on the other hand, is an irregular verb that has very specific conjugations that you’ll need to memorize.
Let’s work through the forms of each verb to help contextualize the differences.
What Are the Forms of Haben and Sein?
We’ll begin by discussing haben first, as it follows a very specific regular verb conjugation pattern. When we say haben, we’re using the infinitive of the verb. That means we’re essentially saying the English “to have” phrase, but in German.
To identify the subject of the sentence, we must change the infinitive of haben accordingly.
1. The first step in conjugation is to begin with your infinitive: haben.
2. Then, we drop the -en ending that typically denotes the infinitive form. Now we have hab. In some cases, you’ll need to lose the b too.
3. Next, we have to consider our subject, and choose the appropriate ending.
Here are the common regular verb endings for each subject:
ich (I): -e
du (you): -(e)st
er/sie/es (he/she/it): -t
wir (we): -en
ihr (you all): -t
Sie/sie (You (formal)/they): -en
As you can see, there are some identifiable patterns to keep in mind. The wir and Sie/sie forms always use the infinitive ending (-en), so conjugation for these subjects is simple.
In the case of haben, the du and the er/sie/es forms lose the b.
haben → du hast, er/sie/es hat
Sein is a verb all its own, much like the English “to be.” Forms of sein are usually memorized by German speakers and kept fresh in the mind with frequent use.
Choosing Between Haben and Sein
As a general rule of thumb, expressing or translating instances of “to be” correlates to sein in German.
Similarly, using haben for the English “to have” is most often appropriate.
There are, as goes for any language, exceptions to this rule. You might consider these exceptions to be idioms of a certain sort, as they’re most often characterized by the German way to express a certain thing.
Some exceptions include saying “I am thirsty,” which translates to Ich habe Durst. As you can see, we use haben to express this desire for liquids, even though in English we use “to be.”
You might also use haben instead of sein when expressing, “I am scared” as Ich habe Angst in German. Most often these exceptions work in this way, with haben standing in for “to be,” but as you learn German, you’ll become familiar with these outliers.
How to Conjugate Haben and Sein: Past, Present and Future
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Since most of our everyday speech is spoken in the present tense, you’ll see haben and sein most often in the following forms.
Remember that we discussed the formulation of the present tense conjugation for haben—and regular verbs—previously. We begin with the infinitive, drop the -en ending and use the appropriate endings based on our subject:
The conjugations for sein are as follows. Again, these forms should be memorized since they’re irregular.
Let’s put what we’ve learned into action. I want to say, “I have a cat” in German. Since we are using “have,” we’ll choose haben. Our subject is ich, so the corresponding conjugation is habe. Last but not least comes eine Katze (a cat) to form:
Ich habe eine Katze.
What if you want to say how old you are? For this instance, we use sein, and since our subject is the same (I), we use ich bin. If you’re 13 years old, you would use dreizehn Jahre alt. Putting it all together, we have:
Ich bin dreizehn Jahre alt.
Simple Past Tense
After you’ve familiarized yourself with the present tense, take a look back in time to focus on the past. The simple past tense is a quick way to describe the past, much like the conversational past tense, which we’ll discuss next.
Haben and sein become hatten and waren in the simple past tense. Hatten follows the same rules of regular verbs:
And so does waren!
Wait a minute, you say! How can the ich and the er/sie/es form be the same? Isn’t that why haben has different forms in the present tense?
The trick of simple past is that the ich and er/sie/es forms are identical, no matter if the verb is regular or irregular. It just means you have one less verb form to memorize!
If you want to say, “We had a meeting yesterday,” choose the wir, past tense form of haben and you get:
Wir hatten gestern ein Treffen.
Or to say, “She was at home today,” choose the sie past tense form of sein and you get:
Sie war heute zuhause.
Conversational Past Tense
In many ways, the simple past and the conversational past tense do the same job.
However, the conversational past is constructed in a different way: haben and sein act as helping verbs to the main verb. Both of these verbs are conjugated in the present tense, with the past participle of the main verb occurring at the end of the sentence.
Here’s what the conjugations for haben look like:
ich habe gehabt
du hast gehabt
er/sie/es hat gehabt
wir haben gehabt
ihr habt gehabt
Sie/sie haben gehabt
Sein works the same way:
ich bin gewesen
du bist gewesen
er/sie/es ist gewesen
wir sind gewesen
ihr seid gewesen
Sie/sie sind gewesen
If you want to say, “She has been (was) glad,” you’ll need to use sein twice in the German sentence: (1) sein conjugated as sie ist and (2) the past participle of sein, gewesen.
Sie ist froh gewesen.
As you can see here, we use “to have” in English to produce a sentence like “We have but “to be,” or sein, in German. If you say:
Wir haben eine Party gehabt.
You mean, “We had a party.”
We talked about haben and sein being regular and irregular respectively, but verbs can be transitive or intransitive as well.
Transitive verbs show motion from A to B, and when main verbs are transitive, they take haben as a helping verb in the conversational past tense.
Intransitive verbs—those that don’t show motion—take sein. As you can see from the examples above, haben and sein take themselves as helping verbs when they are also the past participle.
As you might already guess, the future tense describes an event that will happen. The German verb for “will” is werden and is conjugated in the following way:
Along with werden, we also need the verb that express what will happen. We say, “You will be a doctor” in German by using werden twice:
Du wirst Doktor werden.
How about, “You will be invincible”? Try this German line using sein:
What if you want to spread the good news and say, “They will have a child”? Use haben and say:
Sie werden ein Kind haben.
We use the corresponding conjugation of werden for the subject and the infinitive of either haben or sein.
There are many other tenses you’ll learn as you work with German, but what if you want to say, “I would be” or “I would have”?
We call this the conditional tense and form it using wären and hätten which are forms of sein and haben respectively.
Haben is conjugated in the present tense via regular verb rules:
The same rules apply to wären:
“I would be late” translates to Ich wäre spat and “He would have a test” becomes Er hätte eine Prüfung.
Alternatively, you can also use würden (“would” in English) plus an infinitive form of your verb:
The two examples above become:
Ich wäre spät sein.
Er würde eine Prüfung haben.
As with all things language, your skills will only improve if you continue to use the language.
Speak, read and write with haben and sein, and soon you’ll be on your way to understanding and mastering the German language!
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