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How to Learn German: Conjugate the Main Verb Tenses With These Simple German Lessons

Blog > Languages > German > Learning German Online: Verbs 101

Unless you want to spend your time speaking in nominative sentences – “Me Tarzan, you Jane” – at some point in your German grammar lessons you will be confronted with German verbs.

Verb conjugation, in German as in many other languages, consists of taking the verb stem – the “core” of the verb – and adding suffixes to it (and prefixes in the case of the past participle). In so-called “irregular” verbs, the stem itself is modified in certain tenses, and the endings not always conform.

To call them an exception, however, belies the fact that there are a great many of them, and that they include some of the most commonly used words in the German language.

You can find lists of verb stems on this site (look at the sidebar for further lists.)

The Infinitive of German Verbs

The infinitive is what you might call the “default setting” of a verb. In English there are many differences, infinitives are preceded by “to “ (”to do”, “to come”). In German, they are made up of the verb stem and the ending “-en” (”machen”, “kommen”).

Learn How to Form the Present Tense in German

The simple present of German verbs

The German present tense is used:

  1. to indicate actions taking place in the present.(”Ich gehe jetzt ins Kino.” I am going to the cinema.)
  2. to indicate actions taking place in the near future. (”Morgen gehen wir ins Kino.” Tomorrow, we will go to the cinema.)
  3. to indicate something that happens constantly or is a universal truth. (”Das Kino ist ein beliebtes Freizeitangebot.” The cinema is a popular pastime. “Die Erde dreht sich um die Sonne.” The earth circles around the sun.)

They correspond to the English present (”Wherever I go, I run”) or the present continuous (”I am going to the movies”), which explains why Germans have so much trouble with the latter form, which does not exist in German at all.

The simple present in German is formed with the verb stem and the following endings:
”machen”, to do:

1st Person Singular:     Ich mache
2nd Person Singular:   Du machst
3rd Person Singular:    Er macht

1st Person Plural:         Wir machen
2nd Person Plural:       Ihr macht
3rd Person Plural/2nd Person Singular formal: Sie machen.

This was the easy part. Irregular verbs (see below) are sometimes modified slightly to enable the conjugation, and, as in most languages, the verb “to be” (”sein”) is as irregular as it gets, but the present is pretty straigthforward.

In fact, many of the other tenses are crafted from an auxiliary verb in the present followed by the main verb as an infinitive or a participle.

Ways to Express the Future in German Grammar

As we have seen, German sometimes use the simple present to express future actions. However, the German language does possess future tenses.

Conjugating the simple future in German

In some cases, you will want to use the actual future tense, rather than the present tense, to express the future. The future is used:

  1. to express intent (”Ich werde meine deutsche Grammatik verbessern.”)
  2. to express actions in the far future (”Eines Tages werden wir auf dem Mars leben.”)
  3. to express actions in the near future in a context where the present tense would lead to confusion.

The future tense is crafted with the auxiliary verb “werden” +the infinitive of the verb.
It is conjugated thus:

Ich werde machen
Du wirst machen
Er wird machen

Wir werden machen
Ihr werdet machen
Sie werden machen.

“Werden” as the conjugated verb takes second place in main clauses, with the infinitive at the end of the sentence (”Ich werde morgen ins Kino gehen.” I will go to the cinema to-morrow.). In subordinate clauses, “werden” comes at the very end of the clause, after the infinitive (”Du sagtest, dass er morgen ins Kino gehen wird” You said that he will go to the cinema to-morrow).

The Future Perfect: a German future tense

The future perfect is used to show an action that is finished, either when talking of future events (”Irgendwann wird man den Mars besiedelt haben” Someday, we will have colonized Mars) or of events one suspects are over at the time of speaking. (”Er ist nicht gekommen, es wird ins Kino gegangen sein.” He hasn’t come, he will have gone to the cinema.) AS you can see, the English equivalient is crafted with “will have”.
The German future perfect tense is formed by:

“werden” (conjugated) + participle of main verb + infinitive of “haben” or “sein”:

Ich werde gemacht haben                Ich werde gegangen sein
Du wirst gemacht haben                   Du wirst gegangen sein
Er wird gemacht haben                     Er wird gegangen sein

Wir werden gemacht haben            Wir werden gegangen sein
Ihr werdet gemacht haben               Ihr werdet gegangen sein
Sie werden gemacht haben              Sie werden gegangen sein

Verbs that take direct objects use the auxiliary “haben”, verbs of motion, existence or expressing change take the auxiliary “sein”.

The future perfect is a German verb tense with two auxiliaries. Time travellers love the future perfect. Make sure you learn how to use it correctly in German.
Photo credit: Snapshooter46 via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Learn German Past Tenses With These Simple Conjugations

How to conjugate the simple past in German

In the German language, the simple past is used to show things that have happened and are finished at the time of speaking. It is becoming ever rarer in spoken German, but is still used in the written language.

It is conjugated by adding a “t” to the verb stem, followed by the suffixes we know from the simple present:

Ich machte
Du machtest
Er machte

Wir machten
Ihr machtet
Sie machten

The simple past is the one of the tenses where German irregular verbs show their irregularities (see below).

The present perfect as a German verb tense

In German, the present perfect is used in everyday speech to express actions that are over at the time of speaking. Generally, where English would use the simple past, German now uses the present perfect.

The present perfect is formed using by conjugating the auxiliary verbs “haben” or “sein” in the present and adding the past participle:

Ich habe gemacht                                       Ich bin gekommen
Du hast gemacht                                         Du bist gekommen
Er hat gemacht                                            Er ist gekommen

Wir haben gemacht                                   Wir sind gekommen
Ihr habt gemacht                                        Ihr seid gekommen
Sie haben gemacht                                     Sie sind gekommen

Using the past perfect tense in German grammar

As in English, the past perfect is used in the German language to indicate a past action taking place before another past action:

“Ich hatte die Kinokarten online gekauft, bevor du mir von der Party erzählt hast.” I had bought the movie tickets online before you told me about the party.

The past perfect is formed with the auxiliary verb “haben” or “sein” in the PAST tense (simple past) + the past participle:

Ich hatte gemacht                                   Ich war gekommen
Du hast gemacht                                     Du warst gekommen
Er hat gemacht                                        Er war gekommen

Wir haben gemacht                               Wir waren gekommen
Ihr hattet gemacht                                 Ihr wart gekommen
Sie hatten gemacht                                Sie waren gekommen

Discover the best books and resources for learning German at all levels.

There are two past tenses in German. When coming back to the future from the past tense of a German verb, don’t forget what auxiliary verb to use.
Photo credit: Rooners Toy Photography via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

When To Use Which German Auxiliary Verb

When conjugating your verbs for your German lessons, remember:

Use the auxiliary verb “werden” for the the future tense and conjugate it in the future perfect.

Use the auxiliary verb “haben” in the perfect tenses for verbs with a direct (accusative) object in German.

Use the auxiliary verb “sein” with German verbs expressing motion, existence or change.

How German Participles Work

The present participle and its uses in the German language

The present participle can be used in one of two ways:

It can function as an adjective, giving additional information about a NOUN: “eine tanzende Ratte” “a dancing rat”, “ein denkender Mensch” (a thinking person). A whole little participle clause can be built around it: “eine den Waltzer tanzende Ratte” (a rat who dances the waltz), “ein über die Politik dekender Mensch” (a person who thinks about politics).

You will notice that the adjective function can be translated with the English participle ending in “-ing” while the participle clauses need a subordinate clause in English to make sense.

It can function as an adverb, giving additional information about the predicate (generally the verb) WHILE indicated simultaneous action: “Er ging tanzend die Straße runter.” He went down the street, singing.)

The present participle is made by adding the ending “-end” to the verb stem. You will notice it generally corresponds to the English participle ending in “-ing”:
Machend, kommend.

How to craft the German past participle

Most past participles are made by adding the PREFIX “ge-” and the SUFFIX “-t”to the verb stem:

Du machst. Du hast gemacht.

Es schneit. Es hat geschneit.
Ich kaufe. Ich habe gekauft.

However, irregular or strong verbs can form past participles differently (see below).

Participles are used to craft the perfect tenses. Participles are the knobs and buttons that help you express time in the German language.
Photo credit: clarksworth via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The Imperative Mood of German Verbs

Before starting your German language course, the most German you heard was probably the bad guys in TV series and movies, and they probably used the imperative a lot. The imperative is used when giving orders or directions: “Gib mir die Fernbedienung!” (Give me the remote!”) “Nimm die nächste Straße rechts, dann fahre gerade aus.” (Take the first left turn, then continue straight on.)

Generally, the imperative is made up of the bare verb stem for the 2nd person singular, and the ending “-t” for the 2nd person plural. Because of its nature as an order, there is no first or second person in the imperative:

2nd Person Singular:        Mach!               Komm!
2nd Person Plural:            Macht!              Kommt!

If the verb ends in a single consonant, the 2nd person singular takes an “-e”:

Gehe!          Reite!            Singe!
Geht!           Reitet!*        Singt!

(*and if the last letter of the verb stem is a “t”, and extra “e” is added between the two “t”s in the 2nd person plural.)

When addressing someone formally, you can use the formal “Sie”. The verb then takes the ending “-en”:

Machen Sie!            Kommen Sie!

You can also give commands in the infinitive, in which case the verb comes at the end of the sentence:
“Stifte fallen lassen!”
“Anweisungen folgen!”
This is especially common in signage.

Learn more about German sentence structure in this dedicated blog.

Use the imperative for orders in German. The imperative mood in German is used to give orders or directions.

Learning German Irregular Verbs

German irregular verbs, also called “strong verbs”, are verbs that, in certain tenses, change their stems.

They usually do so in:

  • The imperative
  • The simple past
  • The past participle
  • the subjunctive (not covered by this post)

As a matter of fact, we have those in English grammar, too:

I drink, I drank, I have drunk. Drink!
Ich trinke, ich trank, ich habe getrunken. Trink!

Many strong German verbs change the vowel in the verb stem and add a suffix in “-en” instead of “-t” for the past participle, but some are so totally irregular that you just have to learn them by heart. Oddly (or not, as the German and English languages share the same root), many verbs that are irregular in English are irregular in German grammar, too.

Learn about German Cases and Gender here.

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