The English language has 170,000 words in current use.
German only has 135,000.
Each and every one is a key that unlocks new German expressions and grammar patterns.
“Great!” says the innocent German language learner. “I have less vocabulary to learn! I’ll be fluent in no time.”
Not so fast, my friend. Many German vocab words have a plethora of uses and meanings. Understanding the language requires an understanding of context.
For example, context is what helps you know whether someone’s talking about their boyfriend (Freund) or their friend (also Freund). You also need to note inflection (übersetzen means to translate, while übersetzen means to travel by ferry across a river, but only when given a different syllabic emphasis).
And then there’s werden.
Sometime at the beginning of B-levels, you’ll start to see this word cropping up everywhere. You’ll learn that it’s used for passive constructions. Then you’ll learn it’s used for future tense. And subjunctive. And…the list goes on.
But never fear. Master the 7 distinct uses of werden below, and you’ll open the door to seven brand new grammatical forms and seven new methods of self-expression in German.
How Do You Conjugate Werden?
Let’s start with the basics: Conjugation. Werden is used in various tenses, depending on its grammatical function, and it’s important to get those straight before we go any farther.
Conjugation of werden in present tense
Here’s how you conjugate werden in the present tense:
Conjugation of werden in literary past tense
Here’s how you conjugate werden in the literary past tense, also known as das Präteritum:
Conjugation of werden in subjunctive
Here’s how you conjugate werden in subjunctive, also known as Konjuntiv II:
Got all that?
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And now, let’s move on and learn how we use these different forms.
7 Distinct Uses of the German Verb Werden You’ve Got to Master
1. Werden as a Vollverb
What does werden mean when you use it in its normal, present tense form? Werden means “to become.”
The incautious German student might think that bekommen means “to become,” but be careful!
Bekommen is a falscher Freund (false friend). It actually means “to receive.”
If you want to indicate that something’s in the process of becoming something else, werden is the word for you. If you want to say you’re getting sick, use werden.
Ich werde Krank.
I’m getting sick.
If you want to say someone’s starting a new career, say, becoming a doctor, use werden.
Er wird Arzt.
He’s becoming a doctor.
If you want to talk about something that became something else in the near past, you can use the Particip II of werden to create the present perfect tense (Perfekt): geworden.
Ich bin Journalistin geworden.
I became a journalist.
Since werden is a word that involves a change, make sure to use sein, not haben to form the present perfect tense.
If you want to talk about something that became something else in the simple past (which is often used in literary forms or history books), use the Präteritum forms above.
Goethe wurde Schriftsteller.
Goethe became a writer.
2. Passive constructions of Werden
Have you figured out how to use werden to mean become or became? Good. Now let’s move on to using werden to construct passive sentences.
Remember, a passive construction is a construction where the subject of the sentence is acted upon by something else, rather than the subject of the sentence performing an action. An English example: The house was built.
To form a present tense passive construction in German, use the present tense of werden plus the Particip II version of a verb. For example:
Das Haus wird gebaut.
The house is being built.
To form a past passive construction in German, you could use either Perfekt or Präteritum. In Perfekt, use the Particip II of the verb plus worden. For example:
Das Haus ist gebaut worden.
The house was being built.
In Präteritum, or literary past tense, you would use the Präteritum version of werden plus the Particip II. For example:
Der Song wurde von den Beatles gesungen.
The song was sung by the Beatles.
3. Werden in Konjunktiv II form
Now let’s talk about how you can use werden to express subjunctive, or conditional, forms.
Remember the Konjunctiv II conjugations in the first section of this post? Refresh your memory on those, because you’ll need them to create the Konjunctiv.
Basically, these constructions are used to express something that isn’t real: a wish, a hope or an unreal situation. How do you form these constructions? There are eight verbs that have their own Konjunctiv II forms, but the rest of the time you use the Konjunctiv II form of werden, plus the infinitive of a verb. (You can read more about those verbs with their own Konjuntiv II forms them here.) Here are some examples:
Wenn ich das machen würde…
If I did that…
Ich würde Sie ja gerne mitnehmen, wenn Sie Zeit hätten.
I would gladly bring you with me, if you had time.
Wenn ich Geld hätte, würde ich einen Kaffee trinken.
If I had money, I would drink a coffee.
Werden can also be used with the infinitive form of a verb to create four different structures. The first is not very important:
4. Talking about the future with Werden
To talk about the future (Zukunft), Germans use werden plus the infinitive form of a verb.
Im August werde ich in den USA Urlaub machen.
In August, I am going to the USA for a vacation.
Why is the future tense the least important use of werden plus infinitive? Because Germans don’t actually use the future tense all that often. It’s much more common for Germans to simply use present tense and imply future using context clues, such as in the following example:
Morgen koche ich etwas.
Tomorrow, I’m cooking something.
But it’s still important to know the future tense and to know how to differentiate it from the other forms of werden plus infinitive.
5. Implying attitudes about certainty with Werden
Werden plus infinitive can also be used to talk about guarantees—also known as Sicherheit (security).
Sie wird garantiert krank sein.
She’s definitely sick.
So how do you distinguish a sentence that’s talking about a certainty from a sentence that’s talking about the future? It’s all about the context words, words that mean “definitely” or “for sure.” Look for the following words as indicators of certainty:
auf jeden Fall
6. Implying probability with Werden
Just as you can use werden plus infinitive to talk about guarantees, you can also use it to talk about probabilities. For example, if you wanted to say,
Maria wird gerade am Strand liegen.
Maria is probably lying on the beach right now.
A sentence construction that’s used for probabilities and certainties. Sounds confusing, right? But don’t panic! Look for these context words that mean probably, and you’ll be able to spot a sentence like this in no time.
7. Giving commands with Werden
Finally, werden plus infinitive constructions can be used to give someone a command.
Du wirst jetzt sofort kommen!
You need to come now!
This form of command is stricter and more official than an Imperativ command.
Werden has a lot of uses, and it can be confusing to try to figure them out. But with some studying and a lot of practice, you’ll be well on your way to knowing all these different forms.