German Conjugation: A Walk in the Park
It’s not quite fair, is it? You’ve been told that German cases are the bane of every learner. You pored over online articles and textbook charts and finally have a good foundation for the articles and adjective endings.
And now you’re learning that the verbs are hard too?! What a mess! French is supposed to have the hard verbs, not German!
Take a deep breath. It’s not so bad as all that. Read on, and you’ll soon discover that there’s a method to the madness – and that German conjugation might be even more familiar than you thought.
A Quick Review of German Tenses
We can’t conjugate verbs without subjects. As you are no doubt aware, German has six different pronouns:
Ich – I
Du – You (informal)
Er/sie/es – He/she/it
Ihr – you (plural)
Wir – we
Sie – they, you (formal)
Let’s try on a regular verb. As in most languages, the really common verbs in German are irregular, so we’ll pick a more unusual one: zeigen (to point at, to show)
The present tense in German is used very much like in English, in that it refers to habitual action. One small thing to note is that it’s also used to show the immediate future, so English I’ll show you the flowers becomes Ich zeige dir die Blumen.
Next up is the future, which is uncannily similar to English. No surprise that English is a Germanic language.
In English, we don’t actually have a future tense. Neither does German. We say I will [verb] and simply conjugate will appropriately. Same thing with German! Werden is our auxiliary verb here.
Ich werde tanzen
Du wirst gehen
Er/sie/es wird zeigen
Ihr werdet fahren
Wir werden lesen
Sie werden schreiben
Now for the past. Here’s where things begin to deviate rather sharply from English.
German has two ways to express the past tense. One is to conjugate the verb directly, as we do in English. Here’s sagen (to say, tell):
That’s not too bad, but unfortunately this simple past tense is normally only used in writing. For some very common verbs – like sagen – it does appear in speech, but the vast majority of German past tense usage is with the compound past.
The compound past tense is fortunately not terribly difficult to master. It’s formed just like English’s present perfect, though the meaning is often identical to the past.
So if we want to conjugate a verb like lesen in the past tense, we’re most likely going to use the compound past. The simple past exists for every verb, but lesen is a fine example of one where it just sounds too literary to be natural in everyday language.
Like the future “tense,” the compound past requires you to conjugate just one verb, haben, for each pronoun. The other half is taken up by the past participle, which is often regularly formed with a ge- prefix.
Ich habe gelesen
Du hast gelesen
Er/sie/es hat gelesen
Ihr habt gelesen
Wir haben gelesen
Sie haben gelesen
And if we want to say something had happened (what we call the past perfect), we just conjugate haben to its simple past form. Same as English!
Ich hatte gesehen
Du hattest gesehen
Er/sie/es hatte gesehen
And in the grand finale, we use not one but two auxiliary verbs to form the last compound tense – the compound future. This is for something that will have happened. Again, just like English, only this time the order gets switched around a little. Let’s use the regular verb graben (to dig).
Ich werde gegraben haben.
Du wirst gegraben haben.
Er/sie/es wird gegraben haben.
German Conjugation: A Rosy Outlook
Germanic verbs are like roses – they have stems. The stem of a verb is the core part that generally remains after you remove the -en infinitive ending.
Unlike rose stems, many Germanic verb stems undergo regular sound changes when they conjugate. It’s for this reason that we have triplets in English like swim, swam, swum. Take a look at the German equivalent: schwimmen – schwamm – geschwommen.
More letters, but the sound change is nearly identical! You can transfer this knowledge to several other verbs too. Not every verb changed the same way in German and English – compare graben/gegraben with to dig/dug – but it’s a helpful hint that can help you quickly memorize a lot of this vocabulary.
How else can the stems change? Well, we can actually classify verbs by this aspect.
Regular verbs are called weak verbs in Germanic linguistics. A language with all irregular verbs would be near impossible to learn, so you’ll be happy to know that this is by far the largest category. Weak verbs like sagen and kaufen simply drop the -en ending and add te for the simple past, and the past participles end in -t.
Irregular verbs are known as strong verbs, and again here’s where you’ll see the stem changes. In dictionaries, they’re usually listed with their infinitive, simple past, and past participle forms: sehen, sah, hat gesehen. The past participles end in -en.
And there’s one more type, mixed verbs. These have the same endings as weak verbs (-te and -t) but they still have sound changes. You can think of these as exceptions to the weak verbs, and there are only 9 that you have to memorize.
So what’s the best way to learn all these conjugations and irregularities? To be honest, native speakers and advanced users of German don’t even think about the strong, weak, and mixed verb categories.
They use the German language so often, constantly reading and listening to native content, and this cements the patterns deeply into their minds.
As for memorizing the irregular verbs, well, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. Irregular verbs are very common. If they were less common, people would forget the irregular forms and make new regular forms for them.
The good news there, though, is that you’ll automatically get tons of practice with them because they’re so common. Whether you speak, listen, read, or write, these verbs will come up often enough that you’ll learn their correct forms without much effort at all.
And the best way to get all this practice? Regular, consistent consumption of interesting native content. There’s practically unlimited resources all over the internet, but a fine place to start is right here on LingQ. So let’s put that knowledge to the use and get started today!
Alex Thomas has traveled to many countries in Europe and finds the forests of Germany to be some of the most beautiful anywhere. He has studied and spoken the German language for nearly six years, both in the classroom and on the street.
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