Understanding German Verbs Part II

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Understanding German Verbs Part II

Last week we looked at some of the basic tenses in German and how they are constructed. Important to remember between German and English is that German doesn’t have the continuous tense like in English. Therefore, translating “I am reading this blog” word for word, though it is a Subject + Verb + Object construct, will end up with a false translation: “I bin lesen diesen Blog.” The correct translation would simply be: “Ich lese diesen Blog.”

Today we want to look at three more common verb issues. Verbs with separable prefixes, modal verbs, and the subjunctive case.

separable vs. inseparable

Separable prefixes:

In English you use verbs in conjunction with prepositions all the time. In German there are many verbs that have a prepositional prefix on them in the infinitive. When used in a simple sentence with one verb, the prefix is placed at the end of the clause, hence separable. In its participle form the ge- is placed between the prefix and the main verb.


  • (anrufen) Ich rufe Thomas heute Nachmittag an.
    • (to phone) I’ll phone Thomas this afternoon.
  • Ich habe Thomas gestern angerufen.
    • I phoned Thomas yesterday.

In spoken German we emphasize (betonen) the separable prefix.

Like in English you cannot assume that the meaning of a verb with a separable prefix (like a phrasal verb) is the literal sum of the preposition and the verb. Ex. abnehmen (ab + nehmen) = to pick up; decrease; reduce; lose weight

Here are some common prefixes and their general meanings.

Common German Verb Prefixes

*durch and um are not always separable. Be careful of meaning.

I’m allowed to do that. I’m Jewish.

Modal Verbs:

A modal verb (also modal, modal auxiliary verb, modal auxiliary) is a type of auxiliary verb (helper verb) that is used to indicate modality — that is, likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation

We use modals all the time in English and they are very handy in German. With them you’ll be better able to ask permission, want, like and ability.

Below you’ll see all of the modals in a conjugation chart. Like with all verbs it is best if you memorize these. Möchten is actually the subjunctive form of mögen and means “would like”.

German Modal Verbs

dürfen = may / be allowed to do something; können = can; mögen = like; müssen = must / have to; sollen = should; wollen = want; möchten = would like

When you use a modal in a simple sentence it is the modal that gets conjugated. The infinitive of the other verb goes to the end of the clause.

Independent Clause (Hauptsatz):

  • Subjekt + Modal + Mittelfeld + Infinitiv
  • Max muss jeden Montag mit seiner Freundin ins Fitnessstudio gehen.
    • Max has to go to the gym with his girlfriend every Monday.

Subordinate Clause (Nebensatz):

  • Hauptsatz , Konjunktion + Subjekt + Mittelfeld + Infinitiv + Modal.
  • Max kommt heute Abend nicht, weil er mit seiner Freundin ins Fitnessstudio gehen muss.
    • Max isn’t coming this evening, because he has to go to the gym with his girlfriend.

Subjunctive Case:

If you’ve been using the verb möchten you’ve been unknowingly using the subjunctive case and probably almost from your first German lesson. The subjunctive in German is another one of those cases that is generally simpler from a logical perspective than in English. You use it on both sides of an “if (wenn) sentence“.

We use the subjunctive to talk about hypothetical cases and to be polite (hense möchten or hätte gern).

All verbs have a subjunctive form, but many German speakers even do not know all the subjunctive forms. This is because we often use a würde + infinitive construction for many verbs. Here are the most important subjunctive verbs. Think of the subjunctive as “would + verb”:

Common German Subjunctive Verbs

hätte = would haveEx.

wäre = would be

gäbe = would give

möchte = would like

For the other verbs we use the würde + infinitive construction. The same rules we use with modal verbs are applied here. The conjugated form of würde is in the second position and the infinitive comes at the end.

To best understand the use we should juxtapose a real situation to a hypothetical situation. See the table below:

Real vs. Hypothetical

The subjunctive is generally built by placing an umlaut on the stem vowel of the simple past (Präteritum) form of the verb. If you learn the subjunctive forms on this page and the würde construction, you’ll be good to go in most situations.Here it is worth noting that we do not use: würde + haben or würde + sein. Instead we use the subjunctive forms of these verbs (hätte and wäre).

If I’d wanted foreplay, I’d have said so.

  1. Very helpful Christian! I’ll be checking in to your blog more often. Cheers!

  2. enlightingenlighting07-18-2012

    Danke schön!

  3. LunaLuna09-03-2013

    I’ve been a little confused.. is Subjunctive Case same as Konjunktiv II? ’cause the rules seem to be the same to me. If not, please explain their differences. And thanks a lot for your useful posts!

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