Understanding German Verbs Part I

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Understanding German Verbs Part I

Verbs, we’re all familiar with the term, but when it comes to actually understanding it we sometimes get flustered. In grade school teachers said they were -ing words. Others learned that they are doing words. Well that is all fine and dandy for some of us, but when it comes to the verbs “to be” and “to have” we seldom think of them in a continuous form (-ing) or as an action. So how are “to be” and “to have” verbs and what are verbs?

A verb is a part of speech that in syntax conveys an action (bring, read, walk, run, learn), or a state of being (be, exist, stand). In the usual description of English, the basic form, with or without the particle to, is the infinitive. In many languages, verbs are inflected (modified in form) to show subject, mood, and tense.


In German verbs are inflected more than in English. English generally, with a few exceptions, only changes its present form in the third person singular, where an -s is added. German tends to have between four and five different inflections. Important to remember here is subject-verb agreement. What does that mean? It means that the verb needs to be conjugated (inflected) to match the subject. I highly recommend that you learn your German verbs in the following conjugation pattern going down. Learn them until you can go through the personal pronoun and conjugate the verb for each one. Notice that the gender does not affect the verb.

Learn your verbs systematically

Like in English and many other verbs, the German verbs haben (to have) and sein (to be) are irregular. In German the stem of the verb is usually found by taking the -en off the infinitive. We conjugate the verbs by adding endings to the stem. For regular verbs the endings generally follow this pattern:

Typical Verb Endings. There is a pattern, but always check new verbs.

Of course there are verbs that are irregular and may take an umlaut ( ¨ ) on a stem vowel. For this reason, I recommend that every new verb you learn, you put into the first table.

If you learn your verbs in this fashion, you’re German career will be made much easier.

Present Perfect:

So far I have introduced verbs in the present form. Unlike in English, we don’t use a continuous form in German. The present form of the verb (Ich esse) can be translated as both the simple present (ex. I eat) or the present continuous (I am eating). In this way German is actually easier than English.

When it comes to the past tense there is also no continuous form. Unlike in English, in spoken German the present perfect (ex. I have eaten) is used more than the simple past (ex. I ate) even when the action has been fully ended and the correct English form would be in the simple past (ex. I ate). The present perfect is formed with either the verb sein or haben and the the past participle. The past participle usually begins with ge-. Each verb has only one past participle. The verb you conjugate is the haben or sein. Therefore, it is vital that you learn those two verbs as quickly as possible. Along with your present verb conjugations it is also very helpful to learn the past participle. In a simple sentence the conjugated verb goes in the second position and the past participle in the final.


  • Ich habe schon gegessen.
    • I have already eaten.
  • Ich habe gestern einen ganzen Schokladenkuchen alleine gegessen.
    • I ate an entire chocolate cake alone yesterday.
  • Letzte Woche ist Fritz nach Lugano gefahren.
    • Fritz went to Lugano last week.

**Notice that the perfect is not always translated into the English perfect. From the context you can usually tell if the action has been fully ended or not. If it has then in English you would use the simple past.

Simple Past (Präteritum):

As I’ve stated above the simple past is not used as much in German as in English. You will encounter it in written German more than in spoken German. That said there are a few verbs that are good to learn in the simple past quite early: haben, sein, and geben (to give).

Three important German verbs in the simple past


  • Warstdu schon mal in Rom?
    • Have you ever been to Rome?
  • Gestern hatteich Fieber.
    • I had a fever yesterday.
  • Letztes Jahr gabes keinen Schnee in Zürich.
    • There was no snow in Zurich last year.


We can use the present form with a future time reference to insinuate the future.


  • Morgen gehe ich einkaufen.
    • I’m going shopping tomorrow.
    • I will go shopping tomorrow. 

Otherwise we form it with the verb werden and the infinitive. Like in the present perfect the conjugated form comes in the second position and the infinitive in this case comes at the end of the clause. The translation of werden is will so do not confuse it with the German modal verb wollen, which conjugates to will in the first and third person singular.

Conjugation of werden.


  • Morgen werdeich einkaufen gehen.
    • Tomorrow I will go shopping.

Here is a list of 50 of the most common verbs in German:

antwortento answerEr antwortet nicht.He’s not answering.
arbeitento workEr arbeitet heute.He’s working today.
bedeutento mean, signifyWas bedeutet dieses Wort?What does this word mean?
beginnento beginWann beginnt der Film?When does the film start?
bekommento get, receiveWas bekommen Sie?What would you like?
bestellento orderEr bestellt es online.He’s ordering it online.
besuchento visitWir besuchen meine Tante in Bern.We’re visiting my aunt in Bern.
bezahlento payBezahlen wir jetzt?Are we paying now?
bleibento stay, remainWir bleiben hier.We’re staying here.
bringento bring, takeFritz bringt Anna zum Flughafen.Fritz is brining Anna to the airport.
dankento thankIch danke Ihnen.I thank you.
denkento thinkWorüber denken Sie?What are you thinking about?
essento eatWann isst du zu Mittag?When do you eat lunch?
fahrento travel, drive, goIch fahre morgen nach Zermatt.I’m going to Zermatt tomorrow.
findento findWie finden Sie den Film?What do you think of the film?
fliegento flyEr fliegt nach Zürich.He’s flying to Zurich.
fragento askFragst du mich?Are you asking me?
gebento giveWann gibst du ihm das Buch?When are you going to give him the book?
gehento goWir gehen ins Kino.We’re going to the cinema.
helfento helpHilf mir!Help me!
hörento hear, listenHörst du die Musik?Do you hear the music?
kaufento buyIch kaufe den Computer.I’m buying the computer.
kommento comeWann kommt er nach Hause?When is he coming home?
kostento costWie viel kostet das Buch?How much does the book cost?
lesento readIch lese die Zeitung.I’m reading the newspaper.
liebento loveIch liebe dich.I love you.
machento make, doWas macht er?What’s he doing?
nehmento takeNehmt ihr das Geld?Are you taking the money?
öffnento openSie öffnet die Tür.She’s opening the door.
probierento try (out)Er probiert den Kuchen.He’s trying the cake.
regnento rainEs regnet heute.It’s raining today.
reisento travelEr reist nach Wien.He’s traveling to Vienna.
sagento say, tellEr sagt nein.He says no.
schlafento sleepWir schlafen gut.We sleep well.
schmeckento taste, be tastyDas schmeckt!That tastes good.
schreibento writeEr schreibt eine E-Mail.He’s writing an e-mail.
schwimmento swimEr schwimmt gern.He likes to swim.
sehento seeIch sehe ihn nicht.I don’t see him.
sendento send, transmitEr sendet eine E-Mail.He’s sending an e-mail.
setzento put, setEr setzt sich.He’s taking a seat.
singento singSie singt sehr schön.She sings beautifully.
spielento play, actHans spielt Fussball.Hans plays football.
sprechento speakIch spreche Deutsch.I speak German.
suchento seek, search, look forWas suchst du?What are you looking for?
trinkento drinkIch trinke lieber Kaffee.I’d rather drink coffee.
vergessento forgetIch vergesse den Namen.I forget the name.
verstehento understandEr versteht Deutsch.I understand German.
wartento waitSie wartet auf den Bus.She’s waiting for the bus.
wohnento reside, live (in)Mein Vater wohnt in Basel.My dad lives in Basel.
zeigento show, indicateIch zeige Ihnen, wo das ist.I’ll show you where that is.

Next week we’ll look at: separable prefix verbs, modal verbs, and the subjunctive form.

  1. enlightingenlighting07-18-2012

    Ein gut website für Deutsch lernein.

  2. Ankit KhandelwalAnkit Khandelwal07-28-2012

    Wunderschön website für Deutsch lernerin.

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