German verbs

German verbs

German verbs may be classified as either "weak", with a dental consonant inflection, or "strong", showing a vowel gradation (ablaut). Both of these are regular systems. Most verbs of both types are regular, though various subgroups and anomalies do arise. The only completely irregular verb in the language is "sein" ("to be"). However, textbooks for foreign learners often class all strong verbs as irregular. There are fewer than 200 strong and irregular verbs, and there is a gradual tendency for strong verbs to become weak.

As German is a Germanic language, the German verb can be understood historically as a development of the Germanic verb.

Simple infinitives

The infinitive consists of the root and the suffix "-en". With verbs whose roots end in "el" or "er", the "e" of the infinitive suffix is dropped.

:"laufen" ("to run"):"lächeln" ("to smile"):"meistern" ("to master")

Inseparable prefixes

There are some verbs which have a permanent prefix at their beginning. The most common permanent prefixes found in German are "ver-", "ge-", "be-", "er-", "ent-" (or "emp-"), and "zer-".

:"brauchen", "to need" — "verbrauchen", "to consume" or "to use up":"raten", "to advise", "to guess" — "verraten", "to betray":"fallen", "to fall" — "gefallen" "to be pleasing":"hören", "to hear" — "gehören zu" "to belong to":"brennen", "to burn (intransitive)" — "verbrennen", "to burn (transitive)", "to burn completely":"beginnen", "to begin" (no form without the prefix)

The meaning of the permanent prefixes does not have a real system; the alteration in meaning can be subtle or drastic. The prefixes "ver-", "be-" and "ge-" have several different meanings, although "ge-" is uncommon and often the root verb is no longer in existence. "be-" often makes a transitive verb from an intransitive verb. Verbs with "er-" tend to relate to creative processes, verbs with "ent-" usually describe processes of removing (as well as "emp-", an approximate equivalent to "ent-" except usually used for root verbs beginning with an "f"), and "zer-" is used for destructive actions. "Ver-" often describes some kind of extreme or excess of the root verb, although not in any systematic way: 'sprechen', for example means to 'speak', but 'versprechen', 'to promise' as in 'to give ones word' and 'fallen', meaning 'to fall' but 'verfallen', 'to decay' or 'to be ruined'.

Separable prefixes

Many verbs have a separable prefix that changes the meaning of the root verb, but that does not always remain attached to the root verb. German sentence structure normally places verbs in second position or final position. For separable prefix verbs, the prefix always appears in final position. If a particular sentence's structure places the entire verb in final position then the prefix and root verb appear together. If a sentence places the verb in second position then only the root verb will appear in second position. The separated prefix remains at the end of the sentence.

:"anfangen" ("to start"):1. Root verb in second position: "Ich fange die Arbeit an." ("I start the work."):2. Root verb in final position: "Morgens trinke ich Schokolade, weil ich dann die Arbeit anfange." ("In the mornings I drink hot chocolate, because afterwards I begin the work.")

A small number of verbs have a prefix that is separable in some uses and inseparable in others.

: "umfahren":1. ("to crash into sth.") — (stress on "um"):"Ich fahre das Verkehrszeichen um." "I drive against the traffic sign, bringing it down ("um") in the process."

:2. ("to drive around") — (stress on "fah") :"Ich umfahre das Verkehrszeichen." "I drive around the traffic sign."

If one of the two meanings is figurative, the inseparable version stands for this figurative meaning:

: "übersetzen":1. Literal ("to ferry"):"Ich setze morgen auf die Insel über" "I'll ferry over to the island tomorrow."

:2. Figurative ("to translate"):"Ich übersetze die Geschichte morgen." "I'll translate the story tomorrow."

Complex infinitives

Components and word order

You can also build complex infinitives, consisting of more than the original infinitive. They include objects, predicative nouns and adverbial information. These are packed before the original infinitive.

:NOT "einen Vogel am Himmel plötzlich sehen":BUT "plötzlich einen Vogel am Himmel sehen" ("suddenly see a bird in the sky")

Pronoun objects are usually mentioned before nominal phrase objects; dative nominal objects before accusative nominal objects; and accusative pronoun objects before dative pronouns. Order may change upon emphasis on the object, the first being more important.

:normal::"Ich gebe meinem Vater das Geld" ("I give my father the money"):"Ich gebe es ihm" ("I give it to him"):"Ich gebe ihm das Geld" ("I give him the money"):"Ich gebe es meinem Vater" ("I give it to my father"):"Ich gebe das Geld meinem Vater" ("I give the money to my father"):unusual::"Ich gebe das Geld ihm" ("I give the money to him"):very strange (but still correct)::"Ich gebe ihm es" ("I give him it"):"Ich gebe meinem Vater es" ("I give my father it")

Native adverbs, like "nicht", "leider" or "gerne", are placed before the innermost verb ("see" Compound infinitives).


Objects are actually nothing more than nominal phrases or pronouns in a certain case.

Objects may only be described by native adverbs, not "normal" adverbs ("schnell", "leicht") derived from adjectives.

: "dem Gast das Messer geben" ("give the/this guest the knife"): "dem Gast das Messer nicht geben" ("not give the/this guest the knife"): "Das Messer nicht dem Gast geben" ("not give the knife to the/this guest")to be explained in a deeper way

Predicative nouns and predicative adjectives

A predicative adjective can be the positive, comparative or superlative stem of an adjective, therefore it has the same form as the adverb. You may also use positional phrases or pronominal adverbs.

:"rot sein" ("be red"):"bekannt werden" ("become well-known"):"im Rathaus sein" ("be in the town hall")

A predicative noun is a nominal phrase in the nominative case.

:"Ein Arzt sein" ("be a doctor")

Note that, if the subject is singular, the predicative noun must not be plural.

:"Der Schwarm ist eine Plage" (singular/singular) ("the swarm is a pest"):"Die Bienen sind Insekten" (plural/plural) ("the bees are insects"):"Die Bienen sind der Schwarm" (plural/singular) ("the bees are the swarm"): *"Der Schwarm ist die Bienen" (singular/plural)::but instead "Der Schwarm ist ein Haufen Bienen" ("the swarm is a load of bees")::or "Die Bienen sind der Schwarm" ("the bees are the swarm") (inversion)

3rd person pronouns are handled like any nominal phrase when used in a predicative way.

1st person or 2nd person pronouns are never used as predicative pronouns.

Normally, one makes an inversion when using a definite pronoun as predicativum.

:Der bin ich. (*Ich bin der.)("I'm the one"):Der bist du. (*Du bist der.)("You're the one"):Der ist es. (*Es ist der.)("He's the one")


One can use any kind of adverbial phrase or native adverb mentioned above.

Compound infinitives

Compound infinitives can be constructed by the usage of modal verbs or auxiliary verbs. You put a new infinitive behind the main infinitive. Then this "outer" infinitive will be conjugated instead of the old "inner" infinitive. Sometimes you have turn the old infinitive into a passive participle.

Passive infinitive

There are two types of passive forms: static passive and dynamic passive. They differ by their auxiliary words. The static passive uses "sein", the dynamic passive is formed with "werden" (which has a slightly different conjugation from its siblings). In both cases, the old infinitive is turned into its passive participle form.

:"sehen" — "gesehen sein" — "gesehen werden" ("see — be seen"):"plötzlich am Himmel gesehen sein/werden" ("suddenly be seen in the sky"):"in der Schule sein" — "in der Schule gewesen sein" ("be in the school — have been in the school"):"dem Lehrer gefallen" — "dem Lehrer gefallen haben" ("please the teacher — have pleased the teacher"):Note that a complex infinitive cannot be turned into passive form, with an accusative object, for obvious reasons. This restriction does not hold for dative objects.

: "mir den Schlüssel geben" ("to give me the key"): NOT "mir den Schlüssel gegeben werden": "mir gegeben werden" ("have been given to me")

The only exceptions are verbs with two accusative objects. In older forms of German, one of these accusative objects was a dative object. This "dative object" is removed, whereas the "real" accusative object stays.

: "Den Schülern die Vokabeln abfragen" ("test the students on their vocab"): NOT "Die Schüler abgefragt werden": "Die Vokabeln abfragen " ("the vocab be tested")

Perfect infinitives

The perfect infinitive is constructed by turning the old infinitive into the passive participle form and attaching the auxiliary verbs "haben" or "sein" after the verb.

*"sehen" — "gesehen haben" (transitive) ("see — saw/have seen")
*"einen Vogel sehen" — "einen Vogel gesehen haben" (transitive) ("see a bird — saw/have seen a bird")
*"laufen" — "gelaufen sein" (intransitive) ("walk — walked/have walked")
*"einen schnellen Schritt laufen" — "einen schnellen Schritt gelaufen sein/haben" ("walk at a fast pace — walked/have walked at a fast pace"):: (transitive! The meaning changed!)

Note that the perfect infinitive of an intransitive verb is created the same way as the static passive infinitive of a transitive verb, which can be confusing.

You can also build perfect infinitives of passive infinitives, both static and dynamic. Since the passive is intransitive, having no accusative object, you have to use the auxiliary "sein":

* "sehen" ("to see")
* "gesehen worden sein" ("to have been seen")
* "gesehen geworden sein" ("to have been being seen")

"sein" is used as an auxiliary verb, when the verb is:
* intransitive,
* indicates a movement from one place to another, or
* describes the alteration of a state

"haben" is used, when
* "actually any other case, but could be described more specifically"

Future infinitives

The future infinitive is more theoretical, because this infinite is only used in finite form. You keep the old infinitive and append the verb "werden", which in the present tense means 'to become'.

:"nach Italien fahren" - "nach Italien fahren werden" ("to drive to Italy - to be about to drive to Italy")

The future infinitive can also be built by a perfect infinitive, which is used in the future perfect.

: "den Baum gefällt haben" - "den Baum gefällt haben werden" ("to have felled the tree - to be about to have felled the tree")

Infinitives with modal verbs

You put the modal infinitive behind the old (passive or perfect) infinitive, not changing any other word. Some modal verbs in German are: können, dürfen, müssen, brauchen, wollen, mögen, lassen.

:"dorthin fahren können" ("to be able to drive there"):"nach Rom fahren lassen" ("let someone drive to Rome")::NOT the same "lassen" as in "den Agenten nach Rom fahren lassen"! ("have/let the agent drive to Rome")

Accusativus cum infinitivo

Similar to Latin, there is an aci-construction possible. You put a certain infinitive behind the last infinitive, then add an accusative object before the inner complex infinitive. This can be done in two ways:

*Simple ACI
**Subject - Verb- Object — Infinitive: "Ich sehe dich stolzieren" "I see you strutting"
*Complex ACI
**Subject - Verb- Object — Compound infinitive: "Ich lasse dich ein Haus bauen" "I let you build a house"

The Infinitive with "zu"

The infinitive with "zu" has nothing to do with the gerundive, although it is created in a similar way. You just put the word "zu" before the infinitive, maybe before the permanent prefix, but after the separable prefix.

:"zu lesen" ("to read"):"Ich lerne zu lesen" ("I learn to read"):"zu verlassen" ("to leave"):"Ich habe beschlossen, dich zu verlassen" ("I've decided to leave you"):"wegzuwerfen" ("to throw away"):"Ich habe beschlossen, das Buch wegzuwerfen" ("I've decided to throw away the book")

The infinitive with "zu" extended with "um" expresses purpose (in order to...). The subject of the main clause and the verb in the infinitive must be identical.:"Ich habe ein Meer überquert, um dich zu treffen" — "I have crossed an ocean to meet you."


There are three persons, two numbers and four moods (indicative, conditional, imperative and subjunctive) to consider in conjugation. There are six tenses in German: the present and past are conjugated, and there are four compound tenses. There are two categories of verbs in German: weak and strong. Some grammars use the term "mixed verbs" to refer to weak verbs with irregularities. For a historical pespective on German verbs, see Germanic weak verb and Germanic strong verb.

Below, the weak verb "kaufen" 'to buy' and the strong verb "singen" 'to sing' are conjugated.

*Past participle: "gehabt"

"sein" 'to be' (strong)
*Past participle: "gewesen"

Modal verbs

*"müssen" 'to be required; must'
*"sollen" 'to be supposed; should'
*"wollen" 'to want (resolve)'
*"mögen" 'to like'
*"können" 'to be able; can; to be possible'
*"dürfen" 'to be allowed; may'

Modal verbs are declined irregularly. In the present tense they use the endings of the strong verbs' imperfect. In the imperfect they use the endings of the weak verbs. In addition most modal verbs have a change of vowel in the singular.

Present tense ich darf, (soll, will, mag, kann, muss) du darfst, (sollst, willst, kannst, musst) er/sie/es darf, (soll, will, mag, kann, muss) wir/Sie dürfen, ihr dürftImperfect tense ich durfte, du durftest, er/sie/es durfte, wir/Sie durften, ihr durftet

When a modal verb is in use, the main verb is moved to the end of the sentence.

For example:

Ich "kann" das Auto "fahren". (I can drive the car.)Ich "soll" die Karten "kaufen". (I'm supposed to buy the cards.)Er "muss" der Mutter "danken". (He must thank the mother.) [note: "danken" is a dative verb which is why "die Mutter" becomes "der Mutter". For further information, please read the section about Dative case.]

Dative verbs

Some verbs are dative verbs. When used, these verbs change the case of the direct object to dative. Many have in common that they "change" the direct object. Dative verbs include (but are not limited to)::antworten:danken:folgen:geben:gefallen:glauben:gratulieren:helfen:passen

Reflexive verbs

Some verbs require the use of a reflexive pronoun.

Imperative conjugation

There is an imperative for second person singular and second person plural, as well as for first person plural and second person formal.

The endings for second person singular informal are: "-(e)", "-el" or "-le", and "-er(e)".

The endings for second person plural informal are: "-(e)t", "-elt", and "-ert".

:"Fahren (wir/Sie)!" -"Fahr(e)!" - "Fahrt!"

The imperative of first person plural and second person formal is equal to the infinitive.

This subtopic is strongly related to the construction of German sentences, so you are strongly recommended to take a look at that section.

Verbal nouns and verbal adjectives

This section details the construction of verbal nouns and verbal adjectives from the main infinitive. The processes are the same both for simple and complex infinitives. For complex infinitives, adverbial phrases and object phrases are ignored, they do not affect this process; except something else is mentioned.

Past participle

There are some irregularities when creating the past participle form.

Weak verbs form their past participles with "ge-" plus the third person singular form of the verb.

*fragen (er fragt) → gefragt
*passen (es passt) → gepasst
*antworten (er antwortet) → geantwortet
*hören (er hört) → gehört
*fühlen (er fühlt) → gefühlt

Verbs with inseparable prefixes, or foreign words ending in "-ieren" or "-eien" do not have "ge-" added to the verb.

*"probieren" (er probiert) → probiert
*"prophezeien" (er prophezeit) → prophezeit

For irregular verbs, the infinitive ending "-en" remains.

The separable prefix remains in place.


: NOTE "Ich habe den Baum umgefahren" ("I drove over - crashed into - the tree")
: NOTE "Ich habe den Baum umfahren" ("I drove around the tree")

The past participles of modal and auxiliary verbs have the same form as their infinitives. But if these verbs are used alone, without an infinitive, they have a regular participle.

:"Ich habe den Chef besuchen dürfen" ("Chef" = boss) ("I was allowed to see the boss"):"Ich habe zum Chef gedurft" (unusual) ("I was allowed in to the boss")

Present participle

To create the basic form of a present participle, you attach the suffix "d" to the infinitive of the verb.

:"laufen" - "laufend" ("walk - walking"):"töpfern" - "töpfernd" ("make pottery - making pottery"):"lächeln" - "lächelnd" ("smile - smiling"):"verraten" - "verratend" ("betray - betraying"):"aufbauen" - "aufbauend" ("establish - establishing")

Future participle or gerundive

A gerundive-like construction is fairly complicated to use. The basic form is created by putting the word "zu" before the infinitive. This is also the adverb.

:"zu suchen" ("to be looked for"):"Der Schlüssel ist zu suchen" ("the key needs to be looked for"):"zu verzeichnen" ("to be recorded"):"Ein Trend ist zu verzeichnen" ("A trend is to be recorded")

The adjective is more complicated. Instead of the infinitive, you use the present participle, then decline it corresponding to gender, number, case and article of the nominal phrase.

:"Der zu suchende Schlüssel" ("the key to be looked for"):"Ein zu lüftendes Geheimnis" ("a secret to be revealed")

Agent nouns (nomen agentis)

Agent nouns (e.g. "photographer" from "photograph" in English) are constructed by taking the infinitive, removing the ending and replacing it by "-er", "-ler" or "-er(er)". If the person is a woman, the endings have an extra "-in" on them. Please note, that in the female form a second syllable "er" is omitted, if the infinitive ends on "ern" or "eren".

*infinitive: "fahren" "to drive"
**agent noun, masculine: "Der Fahrer" "the (male) driver"
**agent noun, feminine: "Die Fahrerin" "the (female) driver"

*infinitive: "tischlern" "to join (carpentry)"
**agent noun, masculine: "Der Tischler" "the (male) joiner"
**agent noun, feminine: "Die Tischlerin" "the (female) joiner"

*infinitive: "verweigern" "to refuse"
**agent noun, masculine: "Der Verweigerer" "the (male) refuser"
**agent noun, feminine: "Die Verweigerin" "the (female) refuser"This form is hard to build for complex infinitives, therefore it is unusual:

*infinitive:"weggehen" "to go away"does not usually become "der Weggeher" or "die Weggeherin", but instead "Derjenige, der weggeht" ("the one going away")

or even

"schnell zum Flughafen fahren um die Maschine noch zu erwischen" ("to quickly drive to the airport to just catch the flight")
*does not become: "Der Schnell-zum-Flughafen-um-die-Maschine-noch-zu-erwischen-Fahrer" ("the quickly-driving-to-the-airport-to-catch-the-flight-driver")


The normal gerund noun is generally the same word as the infinitive. The gerund does not have a plural, and its gender is neuter.

:"arbeiten" - "Das Arbeiten" ("to work - working"):NOTE "Die Arbeiten" is not the feminine plural of the gerund "Arbeiten",:: it is the plural of "Die Arbeit".

There is another kind of gerund that (sometimes) implies disapproval of the action. The ending of this form is "-erei" ( "-lerei" or "erei" ). It does not have a plural, and its gender is feminine.

:"arbeiten" - "Die Arbeiterei" ("to work - this silly working"):"lächeln" - "Die Lächlerei" ("to smile - this silly smiling")

The above form means a loose, vague abstractum of the verb's meaning. It is also often used to designate a whole trade, discipline or industry:

:"die Meierei" - (once) a milk-processing enterprise:"die Computerei" - (hobbyist) computing

Cf. also "Hitlerei", "Tschechei", "Walachei", "Fleischerei" (butcher's establishment) which do not spring from verbs.

Similar to the form presented above, you can put the prefix "ge-" (after the separable prefix), if the verb doesn't have a permanent prefix, and attach the ending "-e" ( "-el", "-er" ). This noun indicates the same disapproval as the other one. It is a singularetantum, too, and it is neuter.

:"fahren" - "Das Gefahre" ("to drive - silly driving"):"lächeln" - "Das Gelächle" ("smiling - silly smiling")

These forms are very hard to build for complex infinitives, therefore they are very unusual. Most of the time you do this, and you won't do that very often, you must ensure that all object phrases and adverbial phrases are put before the gerund noun.

:"gesehen werden" - "Das Gesehen-Werden" ("to be seen - being seen")

:"schnell zum Flughafen fahren um die Maschine noch zu erwischen"
** "Das Schnell-zum-Flughafen-um-die-Maschine-noch-zu-erwischen-Fahren"
*Not that absurd, but rather funny:
** "Die Schnell-zum-Flughafen-um-die-Maschine-noch-zu-erwischen-Fahrerei"Fahrt


Although there are six tenses in German, a student has actually only two tenses to learn, because the other ones are compound. They are actually quite similar to English constructions.

Conjugation includes three persons, two numbers, two moods and two tenses. The subjunctive mood is quite complicated to build; even many native speakers have problems with that matter.English native speakers should note that these tenses do not carry aspect information. There are no progressive tenses in standard German. "Das Mädchen geht zur Schule" may mean "The girl goes to school" as well as "The girl is going to school". A sentence like "Das Mädchen ist zur Schule gehend" is still - theoretically - correct, but nobody speaks this way (by the way, "Das Mädchen ist gehend zur Schule" is completely wrong). You must use an adverb to make a visible difference aside from the context. In colloquial German, there does exist a progressive form, but it is only used with intransitive verbs, for example, "am Essen sein" meaning "to be eating".

* Present- It is the present-conjugated form of the infinitive. The most important tense in German. You will mainly use "Präsens" for present progressive, as well as for historical past. It is also very common to use it with a future meaning.
*:Example: Ich kaufe das Auto. ("I buy the car")
* Preterite - It is the past-conjugated form of the infinitive. This past tense is mainly for written German and formal speech.
*:Example: Ich kaufte das Auto. ("I bought the car")
* Perfect - It is the present-conjugated form of the perfect infinitive. The most important tense in spoken German to explain what happened in the past. Note that to express things like "I have been waiting for 3 hours now", present tense is used: "Ich warte jetzt schon seit 3 Stunden hier" (literally, "I wait now already since 3 hours here").
*:Example: Ich habe das Auto gekauft. ("I (have) bought the car")
* Pluperfect (past perfect) - It is the past-conjugated form of the perfect infinitive. It can be thought of the perfect form of the Preterite. Use it when you describe what had already happened in the past.
*:Example: Ich hatte das Auto gekauft. ("I had bought the car")
* Future - It is the present-conjugated form of the future infinitive. Mainly for describing the future, but also for assumptions. This tense is used in spoken and written German, but Germans prefer the Präsens with future meaning instead.
*:Example: Ich werde das Auto kaufen. ("I will buy the car")
* Future perfect - It is the present-conjugated form of the future infinitive of the perfect infinitive. Used to refer to things that will have happened, that is be past, in the future. This tense is not really common German. Usually, perfect is used instead.
*:Example: Ich werde das Auto gekauft haben. ("I'll have bought the car")

In the third singular and plural conjugations future perfect can also be used to express an assumption and refers to something that is assumed to have happened in the past.

:Er wird das Auto gekauft haben ("He'll (surely) have bought the car"):Sie werden das Auto gekauft haben ("They'll (surely) have bought the car")

Present weak verb endings

The endings of German verbs change depending on the context they are used in. This rule is used sometimes, but only with weak verbs because strong verbs have their own ending. "e.g with the ver haben- to have":"Ich" = e "komm(e)":"Du" = st "komm(st)":"Er, sie, es" = t "komm(t)":"Wir" = en "komm(en)":"Ihr" = t "komm(t)" (sometimes : "-et"):"Sie" = en "komm(en)"

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