basic German Grammar: A 5-Minute Crash Course on German Verbs
German verbs are perhaps the most complicate topic of all German grammar. However, since learning the grammar rules is one of the quickest ways of improving your ability to speak German, you should be eager to jump in and learn how to use them! Adding action to your sentences (and using the correct tense) will permit you to speak good German very quickly. So let’s take a look at the basic component of German verbs.
The Infinitive Form of a Verb
In English, the infinitive form of a verb is the base form of a verb preceded by ‘to’. For example, ‘to walk’, ‘to sleep’, and so on. In German, this is the form you will find in the dictionary. Most German verbs in their infinitive form end in -en. For example, ‘finden’, which method ‘to find’.
German Verb Endings
German verbs have many more forms in addition to the infinitive form, and these forms are made up of various endings additional to a stem. The stem is based on the infinitive form, although it can vary. The endings of a verb change depending on who or what is doing the action, and whether you are referring to the past, present or future.
ineffective, Strong and Mixed Verbs
To determine the verb endings, you need to know whether the verb is ineffective, strong or mixed. ineffective verbs (also known as regular verbs) change their form following a set pattern. Strong and irregular verbs change according to different patterns, while mixed verbs follow a combination of the patterns used for verbs that are ineffective and strong.
Verbs and the “Doer”
As mentioned, German verbs endings change depending on who or what is doing the action. English verbs do this to some degree by adding an -s when talking about he, she or it. For example… ‘I/you/we see a dog’… but ‘he/she/it sees a dog’. In German, this is more distinct. Let’s take an example using the verb ‘finden’ (to find)…
- I find–‘ich finde’
- You find–‘du findest’ (here ‘you’ is for familiar/informal situations)
- He/she/it finds–‘er/sie/es findet’
- We find–‘wir finden’
- You find–‘ihr findet’ (here ‘you’ is for familiar plural, as in ‘you guys’)
- You find–‘Sie finden’ (this is for formal ‘you’, in singular and plural.)
- They find–‘sie finden’
German verb tenses do not correlate exactly with English tenses, so you will need to learn each one and take some time to think about which tense is the correct one to use. The main tenses are:
- Present Tense–This is used to describe what is happening now. It is also used to talk about things that happen regularly (such as habits), and something that is going to happen in the very near future.
- Perfect Tense–This is used to talk about things that happened in the past, usually a one-time action.
- Imperfect Tense–This is also used to talk about things that happened in the past, but in this case it is used for things that used to happen, repeated actions, and for describing what things were like.
- Future Tense–As the name indicates, this is used to talk about something that will happen in the future.
- The Conditional–The tense is used if you want to talk about something that would happen if certain conditions were in place.
- Pluperfect Tense–This tense is used when you are talking about a point in time in the past, about something that had already happened.
- The Subjunctive–This form is used to express uncertainty or speculation. The subjunctive can be used in present tense and pluperfect tense.
If we take our example ‘finden’, using the first person singular (ich), the verb will change as follows:
- Present Tense–‘ich finde’
- Present Subjunctive–‘ich finde’
- Perfect Tense–‘ich habe gefunden’
- Imperfect Tense–‘ich fand’
- Future Tense–‘ich werde finden’
- Conditional–‘ich wurde finden’
- Pluperfect–‘ich hatte gefunden’
- Pluperfect Subjunctive–‘ich hatte gefunden’
* The u in wurde contains umlauts (two dots over the letter) in this example.
** the a in hatte contains umlauts in this example.
Other verbs that you will need to learn include:
- Reflexive Verbs–Used when the subject and object are the same (eg. I washed myself).
- Imperative Verbs–The verb form used when giving instructions (eg. Listen!).
- Passive Tense–This is the form you use when the subject of the sentence is not the “doer”, but is affected by the action (eg. ‘I was pushed’).
As you can see, German verbs are quite a complicate topic with many moving parts. As always, the best idea is to take things one step at a time. Focus your attention on the one aspect you are working on and learn it well before moving on. With this overview of German verbs, you are now aware of the chief concepts and you can use this as your guide to work by the detail. Soon enough, you will be able to form German verbs in any situation and this will take your German skills to wonderful new levels! Have fun and enjoy speaking German!