How To Master German Verb Conjugation In 3 Easy Steps
Image: © Arne Müseler / arne-mueseler.de / CC-BY-SA-3.0
When it comes to your favourite things to do, German verb conjugation probably isn’t at the top of the list.
In fact, it may seem intimidating and complicated at first glance – one of the harder aspects of learning German.
This can leave you wondering how to approach this important topic in the most effective way.
However, once you break down the rules, German verb conjugation is actually quite simple and it follows patterns similar to English.
Don't have time to read this article now? Don't worry! I’ve created a special PDF version of this article save on your phone or computer so you can read it anywhere, anytime and practice your German.
What Exactly Is Verb Conjugation?
Verb conjugation is the process of changing a verb to indicate the person, gender, tense, number, or aspect of a sentence.
In English, we can use verb conjugation to specify who is performing an action. For example:
- I am
- You are
- He/she/it is
These verbs are all forms of the verb ‘to be’.
German also conjugates verbs in this way. For example, you’ve probably already seen:
- ich bin
- du bist
- er/sie/es ist
These are conjugated forms of the German verb sein (to be).
Both English and German have regular as well as irregular verbs.
- Regular verbs are conjugated according to regular patterns
- Irregular verbs usually change their vowels or ‘stem’ when conjugated
Although they follow unique rules, many irregular German verbs follow patterns similar to English.
(Note: The stem of a verb is the core part of the verb that normally stays the same even when conjugated. You’ll see this in the examples below. For example, the stem of the German verb “lernen” is “lern-“. In all conjugations of this verb, this stem stays the same while the ending changes.)
Verb Tenses In German
We can also use verb conujugation to indicate when an action took place using different verb tenses.
In English, we have two present tenses.
- The present simple tense (e.g. I walk to work)
- The present continuous tense (I am walking to work today)
The first situation describes a regular scenario that happens over and over again, whereas the second describes a one-time event that is happening right now.
In German, there is only one present tense, which already simplifies the process of conjugating verbs!
In this article, we'll follow a simple 3 step pattern to master German verb conjugation. It will require plenty of practice but if you follow this process you'll pick up the basics more quickly and avoid confusion along the way.
We’re going to focus on conjugating German verbs in the present tense first, before moving on to the other tenses later.
1. Start With Regular Verbs In The Present Tense
Source: “Learn German” by Harold Groven – Under Creative Commons license
The best way to start learning German verb conjugation is to begin with regular verbs in the present tense.
Fortunately for English speakers, German verb conjugation is not as complicated as it appears at first glance and 90% of German verbs are regular and can be conjugated using one of four possible endings.
Unlike many other foreign languages, German requires very little memorization when it comes to conjugating regular verbs.
Once you’ve mastered the regular verbs in the present tense, you can begin learning irregular verbs and moving on to the past and future tenses.
There are three basic types of regular, or weak, verbs in German:
- verbs with an -en ending
- verbs with an -el or -er ending
- verbs with a -ten ending
We’ll explore the patterns and rules for each type of regular verb with simple examples below for easy reference.
Verbs Ending With -en
All regular verbs with an -en ending follow the same conjugation patterns. Below, you can see the patterns that can be applied to all verbs of this type.
(Note: These are the conjugation rules for the present tense. We’ll get to the other tenses later on.)
lernen (to learn) [Present Tense]
- ich lerne – I learn
- du lernst – you (informal) learn
- er/sie/es lernt – he/she/it learns
- Wir lernen – we learn
- ihr lernt – you (plural/informal) learn
- Sie/sie lernen – they learn
As we can see, the basic rules of conjugation are not very complicated and can be memorized in no time at all. There are only six different possibilities and two of them are the same!
Verbs Ending With -el or -er
These verbs are treated almost exactly the same as first type, however, they use an -n ending instead of an -en ending for the ‘we’ and ‘they’ forms.
handeln (to negotiate) [Present Tense]
- ich handle or ich handele – I negotiate
- du handelst – you (informal) negotiate
- er/sie/es handelt – he/she/it negotiate
- Wir handeln – we negotiate
- ihr handelt – you (plural/informal) negotiate
- Sie/sie handeln – they negotiate
Verbs Ending With -ten
The same rules apply to regular verbs ending in -ten but with an additional ‘e’ added in to help ease pronunciation for some of the forms.
Arbeiten (to work) [Present Tense]
- ich arbeite – I work
- du arbeitest – you (informal) work
- er/sie/es arbeitet – he/she/it work
- Wir arbeiten – we work
- ihr arbeitet – you (plural/informal) work
- Sie/sie arbeiten – they work
Using these rules, you can now conjugate any regular verb in the present tense – it's that easy!
The rules and patterns are all very similar, which means there’s actually very little memorization necessary. It’s simply a matter of recognizing patterns and applying the rules you’ve learned.
So by now, you’ve already learned to conjugate hundreds of regular German verbs in the present tense. But what about the irregular verbs?
2. Memorise The Most Common Irregular German Verbs
The second step to mastering German verb conjugation is to learn the most common and most important irregular verbs.
German has more than 200 irregular verbs, though you’ll only need a small percentage of them in every day conversation. That said, the small number of irregular verbs you will need are essential, everyday verbs so it’s important to learn them and learn them well from the beginning.
As a beginner, it's helpful to have a general overview of irregular verbs. This will allow you to become familiar with their conjugational patterns as you continue to progress.
You will also notice that irregular verbs change their stem vowels for du and er/sie/es, but follow regular patterns for the other pronouns. So although we call them irregular verbs, they’re really not that irregular or strange after all.
Irregular verbs often change their the vowels in their stem when conjugated. These usually change in the following ways:
We’re going to take a look at the most common irregular verbs, sein (to be), haben (to have), and werden (to become, shall, will). The present tense conjugations of these verbs are listed below.
Sein (to be) [Present Tense]
- ich bin – I am
- du bist – you (informal) are
- er/sie/es ist – he/she/it is
- Wir sind – we are
- ihr seid – you (plural/informal) are
- Sie/sie sind – they are
Let’s take a look at the present tense conjugation of another very common German verb – haben (to have). Pay close attention to the pattern in the verb endings and notice how the stem changes.
Haben (to have) [Present Tense]
- ich habe – I have
- du hast – you (informal) have
- er/sie/es hat – he/she/it has
- Wir haben – we have
- ihr habt – you (plural/informal) have
- Sie/sie haben – they have
Another important irregular German verb is werden (to become, shall, will). This is perhaps one of the most common words in German and can mean ‘to become’, as in, Ich werde krank (I’m becoming ill),or ‘will’ or ‘shall’ as in wir werden sehen (We will see).
Werden (to become, shall, will) [Present Tense]
- ich werde – I become
- du wirst – you (informal) become
- er/sie/es wird – he/she/it become
- Wir werden – we become
- ihr werdet – you (plural/informal) become
- Sie/sie werden – they become
Even though these verbs are irregular, we can see similarities in how they are conjugated.
- most verbs have an -e ending after ich (I)
- to conjugate words for du (you), we usually use an -st ending
- Wir and Sie/sie always take -en endings
Recognizing these patterns and becoming familiar with them will help you significantly when learning them.
All of a sudden, irregular verbs don't seem so scary or strange at all, do they?
3. Once You've Learned The Present, Move On To Other Tenses
After you’ve become confident with conjugating verbs in the present tense, and have become familiar with irregular verbs, you may start wondering about the other tenses. After all, your German conversations won’t last very long if you can only speak in the present tense!
Apply the same approach you used to learn the present tense to the other tenses. The rules and endings may look slightly different in the past and future tenses, however the same patterns still apply.
As an example, let’s say you want to express yourself in the past. You can either use simple past tense, or past perfect tense. As an example, let’s examine what happens to the verb sein (to be) in both of these past tenses.
Sein (to be) [Past Simple Tense]
- ich war – I was
- du warst – you (informal) were
- er/sie/es war – he/she/it was
- Wir waren – we were
- ihr wart – you (plural/informal) were
- Sie/sie waren – they were
Sein (to be) [Past Perfect Tense]
- ich bin gewesen – I have been
- du bist gewesen – you (informal) have been
- er/sie/es ist gewesen – he/she/it has been
- Wir sind gewesen – we have been
- ihr seid gewesen – you (plural/informal) have been
- Sie/sie sind gewesen – they have been
As we can see, the word changes, but the similar patterns remain. We still see the use of ‘-st' ending conjugations for the du form and in the past simple tense Wir and Sie/sie still take a ‘-en' even though the stem has changed significantly..
So as you can see, once you’ve learned the basic rules, you’ll be able to easily grasp these concepts in other tenses using the same techniques. It simply becomes a matter of practice to get to a point where you're comfortable with each of the different conjugations so you can use them in your German conversations.
German Verb Conjugation Isn’t As Hard As It May Seem
Practice by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Although German verb conjugation may appear difficult at first, looks can be deceiving.
Most verbs follow regular rules with simple endings that can be learned quickly. Daily practice and repetition will help you learn these concepts faster.
You should start by learning regular verbs in the present tense. These rules are simplest to learn and doesn’t require hours of memorization. Gradually build up your knowledge by expanding your study to include irregular verbs.
Once you have a strong grasp of the grammatical concepts and patterns in the present tense, you can apply them to other tenses.
Although the past and future tenses are slightly more difficult, you’ll find that the same rules and learning techniques are applicable.
In addition to noticing patterns between verbs, it’s important to practice conjugating verbs on a regular basis.
Get a notebook for your German notes if you don't already have one and spend some time writing out the basic conjugation patterns.
Study the similarities, patterns, and rules until you can recite them without hesitation.
Although the patterns help significantly, some memorization will be necessary.
Practice using the correct endings through daily writing and speaking exercises. Once you’ve got a hold of the basics, it’s just a matter of repetition.
Now it’s over to you to get started! Viel Glück!
Master German Grammar The Natural Way
Want to learn German grammar the natural way, without pouring over verb tables or memorising rules?
Then German Grammar Hero is for you. In this programme, you read and immerse yourself in a compelling story.
The grammar emerges naturally as you read, instead of the traditional school method where you learn the rules out of context and struggle to use them in real life.
That way you can actually speak German with accuracy and confidence, rather than translating in your head from English every time you open your mouth.
Grammar Hero is perfect for low intermediate to intermediate learners. If that's you then click here to find out more and become a grammar hero!
What’s your experience of learning German? What motivates you to learn it? Let us know in the comments!