Sein oder Nichtsein, das ist hier die Frage.
Translation: To be or not to be, that is the question.
When I first moved to Germany, sein wasn’t just a verb I had to learn, it was the verb.
Sein, which means “to be,” is easily one of the most versatile verbs in the German language.
It’s right up there next to haben, which means “to have.”
Mastering the basics of this one verb opens up so many aspects of daily conversation.
Want to introduce yourself?
Hallo, ich bin ______. (Hello, I am______.)
Need to use the bathroom?
Entschuldigung, wo ist die Toilette? (Excuse me, where is the bathroom?)
It’s all about sein.
Seems pretty easy, right? Not so fast.
While sein might be one of the most useful verbs in the German language, it’s also the most irregular—click here for more information on what that means—which begs the question: How do you conjugate sein?
How to Conjugate the German Verb Sein in 7 Ways
1. Sein in the present tense
Using sein in the present tense is pretty straightforward—any time you’d use a conjugation of “to be” in English, you can use sein in German.
The lone exception to this rule is the progressive tense, which doesn’t have a German equivalent. With that being said, here’s how to conjugate sein in the present tense:
ich bin (I am)
du bist (you are)
er/sie/es ist (he/she/it is)
wir sind (we are)
ihr seid (you are)
Sie/sie sind (you/they are)
Remember: German has multiple words for “you.” Du is the informal singular, ihr is the informal plural, and Sie with a capital “s” can be used for both the formal singular and formal plural.
2. Sein in the literary past tense
You can use sein in the Präteritum (literary past tense) to say that something was something or somewhere.
Er war im Urlaub. (He was on vacation.)
Here’s how to conjugate sein in the literary past tense, or Präteritum:
ich war (I was)
du warst (you were)
er/sie/es war (he/she it was)
wir waren (we were)
ihr wart (you were)
Sie/sie waren (you/they were)
That being said, German dialects vary, and as a result sein, haben, and the other Modal verbs are also often used in their Präteritum forms in spoken German as well, depending on what region you’re in.
3. Sein and subjunctive II
The subjunctive II, or Konjunktiv II, isn’t a tense, but rather a mood, and it’s used to imply things such as politeness or uncertainty:
Danke, das wäre super. (Thank you, that would be great.)
Here’s how to conjugate sein in the subjunctive:
ich wäre (I would be)
du wär(e)st (you would be)
er/sie/es wäre (he/she/it would be)
wir wären (we would be)
ihr wäret (you would be)
Sie/sie wären (you/they would be)
Insider Tip: If you ever find yourself in a German-speaking country, a common question the cashier will ask you is, “Wäre das alles?” which means “Would that be all?” You can reply with something like “Ja, danke das war’s” which means “Yes, thank you, that was it.”
4. Sein and the perfect tense
A. How sein is used to form the perfect tense
One of the reasons why sein is the most important verb in German is that it’s used alongside haben to form the Perfekt (perfect) tense.
Most German speakers use the Perfekt to describe the past in both spoken German and informal writing, such as texts with friends and family.
To form the Perfekt, you need two things: an auxiliary verb (haben or sein) and a past participle, or Partizip II.
And don’t forget, the participle goes at the end of the sentence!
So, how do you tell when to use sein and when to use haben as the auxiliary verb?
A general rule of thumb is that verbs that take sein involve either motion or a change in condition:
Er ist gefahren. (He drove.)
Er ist gestorben. (He died.)
Although this seems like a pretty straightforward rule, even advanced speakers will mess this up from time to time, so don’t worry if you do as well. Just keep practicing and eventually it will become second nature.
Here’s a list of verbs that take sein. Remember that in terms of haben and sein, verbs with separable prefixes behave just like their parent verbs.
B. How to conjugate sein in the perfect tense
Sein can be constructed in the Perfekt, just like any other verb:
ich bin gewesen (I have been)
du bist gewesen (you have been)
er/sie/es ist gewesen (he/she/it has been)
wir sind gewesen (we have been)
ihr seid gewesen (you have been)
Sie/sie sind gewesen (you/they have been)
The Perfekt tense is the basic tense that English native speakers have the most trouble with initially because we tend to translate it directly. Keep in mind that the Perfekt and Präteritum don’t have different meanings in German.
Therefore, both ich bin gewesen and ich war mean “I was,” and both are likely to pop up in your Alltagsdeutsch, your everyday German.
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics with sein, let’s dive a little deeper!
More Advanced Uses of the German Verb Sein
Basics are good, but sometimes they just aren’t enough.
Particularly if you want to be considered fluent in any language!
Verb tenses such as the Futur II or the Konjunktiv I (which we’ll visit here) might be uncommon in Alltagsdeutsch, but they’re important to know if you want to move past a A2/B1 level of understanding.
The verb forms in this section are challenging, even for advanced/native speakers, so feel free to take your time learning them.
Don’t worry if you struggle at first! Because they’re more complicated, these verb forms are far more common in written German than they are in spoken German.
5. Sein and the past continuous
The Plusquamperfekt (past continuous) otherwise known as the PQP, is a verb tense used to describe actions that were occurring before the simple past:
Ich war gelaufen, als es geregnet hat. (I was running when it rained.)
Du warst entspannter, nachdem du nach Spanien gereist warst. (You were more relaxed after you had traveled to Spain.)
The PQP combines the Präteritum and the Perfekt:
ich war gewesen (I had been)
du warst gewesen (you had been)
er/sie/es war gewesen (he/she/it had been)
wir waren gewesen (we had been)
ihr seid gewesen (you had been)
Sie/sie sind gewesen (you/they had been)
When using sein as the Partizip II in the PQP, you’re essentially saying that you were somewhere or something before something happened.
Ich war schon mal im Restaurant gewesen. (I had been in the restaurant before.)
Insider Tip: Depending on what region you’re in, you may hear the PQP used in place of the Perfekt in the Umgangssprache (another word for Alltagsdeutsch). Although this is grammatically incorrect, it’s common enough to worth noting.
6. Sein and subjunctive I
The subjunctive I, or Konjunktiv I, is a mood, just like the Konjunktiv II, but its use is much more limited, and is relatively uncommon in spoken German.
Konjunktiv I is typically used in newspapers and news channels because it allows the reporters to maintain distance from what it is that they’re reporting. In Germany, this is called indirect speech, or Indirekte Rede:
Er sagte, dass er kein Kriminal sei. (He said that he isn’t a criminal.)
This is actually a more elegant solution than in English because it directly implies a certain amount of discretion/uncertainty, as opposed to repeatedly having to say “he/she said.” Unfortunately, because it doesn’t have an English equivalent, the only way you’ll be able to get a feel for it is by experiencing and practicing it!
Here’s how you conjugate sein in the Konjunktiv I:
ich sei (I am)
du sei(e)st (you are)
er/sie/es sei (he/she/it is)
wir seien (we are)
ihr seiet (you are)
Sie/sie seien (you/they are)
Insider Tip: When using either Konjunktiv I or II in the past tense, simply replace the auxiliary verb (haben or sein) with the correct Konjunktiv conjugation.
Das wäre gut gewesen. That would have been good.
Er sei nicht da gewesen. He said he wasn’t there.
7. Sein and the future
The future, or Futur, tenses are two of the least important German tense to know, to be honest.
Instead of using the Futur, Germans typically use the present tense with temporal information.
Instead of, “morgen werde ich da sein,” (I will be there tomorrow) you’ll hear, “ich bin morgen da” (I am there tomorrow).
Still, the Futur tense will come up from time to time, so it’s important to know how to conjugate it.
Here’s how to conjugate Futur I:
ich werde sein (I will be)
du wirst sein (you will be)
er/sie/es wird sein (he/she/it will be)
wir werden sein (we will be)
ihr werdet sein (you will be)
Sie/sie werden sein (you/they will be)
Even more uncommon is the Futur II, which is used to say that an event will have happened in the future:
ich werde gewesen sein (I will have been)
du wirst gewesen sein (you will have been)
er/sie/es wird gewesen sein (he/she/it will have been)
wir werden gewesen sein (we will have been)
ihr werdet gewesen sein (you will have been)
Sie/sie werden gewesen sein (you/they will have been)
Although the Futur forms are rarely used, they’re sometimes used to emphasize that something will be or will have been.
Es wird ein Krieg sein. (There will be a war.)
Das wird bis Freitag fertig gewesen sein. (That will be finished by Friday.)
This all might seem like a lot at first, but keep at it and you’ll have sein mastered in no time!
And remember, if you ever need help, wir sind für dich da!
Translation: We’re here for you!
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