Verb tenses, modal verbs

Infinitives

In German, the infinitive is a base form of the verb that ends in en. If the verb is go, the infinitive is to go - gehen, for example. If the verb is have, the infinitive is to have - haben.

Infinitives are used in some compound tenses, such as the future, with a helping verb.

Infinitives are infinite in the sense that they don't have a tense (fixed time) or person (a subject performing the verb), so they are not bound, limited, or finite - hence, in-finite.

Conjugated verbs are called finite verbs.

Participles

Participles are part of the verb, and they are a different part of speech. That is, they come from the verb, but they cannot be used as verbs (they don't have subjects, for example). They are often used as adjectives in German.

German has two types of participles: present and past. The present participle corresponds to -ing words in English (starting, progressing, achieving), whereas past participles correspond, usually, to -ed words in English (started, progressed, achieved). Past participles in German are used in compound past tenses with a helping verb.

In German the present participle is constructed by adding a -d to the infinitive (or more appropriately: adding -end to the stem, but since the infinitive already adds the -en, we just need to add a -d):

infinitive
kochen
(to cook)

present participle
kochend
(cooking)

infinitive
lachen
(to laugh)

present participle
lachend
(laughing)

In German the present participle is never used alone. It is used as an adjective, and as such takes adjective endings:

das kochende Ei
The boiling egg
das lachende Kind
The laughing child

The past participle is usually created by adding a ge- to the stem, and either an -en at the end if the verb is strong, or a -t if it is weak. The exceptions are sein, mixed verbs, and verbs with an inseparable prefix.

The past participle of sein is gewesen, the past participles of mixed verbs add a ge- and a -t but have a vowel change (we generally include the modal verbs here). Verbs with inseparable prefixes do not add a ge-.

Many strong verbs also have vowel changes in the past participle:

infinitive
lachen
(to laugh)
past participle
gelacht
(laughed)
infinitive
gehen
(to go)
past participle
gegangen
(gone)

Past participles are used both as adjectives (just like present participles) and take adjective endings, and in compound tenses. In particular, they are used in the conversational past (aka the present perfect), the past subjunctive, and the passive.

Helping verbs

There are a handful of verbs that can be used on their own, but which are commonly used to produce other tenses or moods, and we call these helping verbs. They fall into three related categories:

  1. haben and sein (used to form past tenses)
  2. werden (used to form the future and the subjunctive, and to form the passive)
  3. modal verbs (können, wollen, sollen, dürfen, mögen, müssen)

We can think of these verbs as changing the way we think of the verb (as an infinitive or past participle) they are paired with. When haben and sein are used with a past participle, they indicate that the action of the other verb has already happened:

ich sehe
(I see)

ich habe gesehen
(I have seen = I saw)

ich hatte gesehen
(I had seen)

Werden as a verb means to become and thus indicates something that has not yet happened. When used as a helping verb with an infinitive, it indicates that the other verb has not (yet) happened:

ich gehe
(I go)

ich werde gehen
(I will go)

ich würde gehen
(I would go)

Werden is also used to make the passive voice: a present or past form of werden is combined with the past participle of a transitive verb (one that can take a direct object):

der Apfel wird gegessen
(the apple is eaten)

der Apfel wurde gegessen
(the apple was eaten)

der Apfel ist gegessen worden
(the apple has been eaten)

The modal verbs by themselves indicate ability, desire, and obligation, and when combined with an infinitive they indicate one's desire, obligation or ability regarding the other verb:

ich spreche
(I speak)
[action taken]

ich kann sprechen
(I can speak)
[ability]

ich wollte sprechen
(I wanted to speak)
[desire to have done something]

ich möchte sprechen
(I would like to speak)
[desire to do something]

ich musste sprechen
(I had to speak)
[past obligation]

The subjunctive

German has two moods: indicative and subjunctive. The indicative tells of an action that really happened (or happens). Thus, I speak ( ich spreche), you go (du gehst), we eat (wir essen). This mood is used to describe what we do, what we did, and even what we will do. Notice the similarity to the word indicate. The present and past tenses are both indicative.

The subjunctive shows possibility, doubt, and what ifs. It is most commonly used in its past tense form, known as Konjunktiv II; the II indicates that it is the 2nd subjunctive; the 1st subjunctive, more rarely used, is the present subjunctive.

The subjunctive (Konjunktiv II) is formed from the simple past tense. To summarize its formation: the subjunctive for weak verbs is identical to the past tense. The subjunctive of strong verbs takes the past tense stem (that is, without endings), adds an umlaut if the stem contains an a, o or u, and adds the subjunctive endings. The subjunctive of mixed verbs is the same as the past tense, but the vowels are umlauted. Thus, if you know the past tense, you know the subjunctive.

infinitive
sein
(to be)
past
war
(was/were)
Konjunktiv II
wäre
(would be)
infinitive
haben
(to have)
past
hatte
(had)
Konjunktiv II
hätte
(would have)
infinitive
werden
(to become)
past
wurde
(became)
Konjunktiv II
würde
(would become)
infinitive
kommen
(to come)
past
kam
(came)
Konjunktiv II
käme
(would come)
infinitive
spielen
(to play)
past
spielte
(played)
Konjunktiv II
spielte
(would play)
infinitive
können
(can)
past
konnte
(could)
Konjunktiv II
könnte
(could)
infinitive
wissen
(to know)
past
wusste
(knwe)
Konjunktiv II
wüsste
(would know)

The subjunctive can also be formed by combining the subjunctive form of werden (würde, würdest, etc.) with the infinitive. Thus, ich würde kommen means the same as ich käme. We translate them the same: I would come, and we almost always translate the subjunctive form as 'would + verb'.

    The following guidelines for use should be kept in mind:

    The subjunctive of weak verbs is rarely used because it can be confused with the past tense; the würde + infinitive construction is much preferred.

    The subjunctive of strong and mixed verbs is only used with certain high-frequency verbs: kommen, geben, gehen, wissen, lassen, and a few others; the würde + infinitive construction can also be used.

    The subjunctive form of the helping and modal verbs is used; the würde + infinitive construction is not used.

The future

The future tense in German is built by combining the present tense of werden with an infinitive. Thus, all one really needs to know in order to build the future tense of any verb in German is how to conjugate werden: ich werde, du wirst, er/sie/es wird, wir werden, ihr werdet, sie/Sie werden.

ich werde
(I will)

du wirst
(you will)

er, sie es wird
(he, she it will)

wir werden
(we will)

ihr werdet
(you will)

sie, Sie werden
(they, you [formal] will)

ich werde gehen
I will go
du wirst verlieren
you will lose
sie wird arbeiten
she will work
wir werden reisen
we will travel
ihr werdet essen
you will eat
sie werden spielen
they will play

The future tense in German is not used as regularly as the will + verb construction in English. In most cases, the present tense is simply used with an expression of time. In English we sould say I will play basketball tomorrow; in German one says Ich spiele morgen Basketball.

You will not regularly encounter the future tense of werden, though it is possible (ich werde werden = I will become).

The simple past (narrative past)

Actually, it's called simple because it's a one-word tense (hatte, ging, sprach, machte) and isn't a compound tense like the present perfect (hat gehabt, ist gegangen, habe gesprochen, haben gemacht). To be precise and technical, the Imperfekt or narrative past tense refers to a past event that is not yet fully completed (Latin 'perfect'), but I have never seen how this applies to its actual use in German in any practical way. However, it is sometimes useful to think of the narrative past as being used to describe a series of connected events in the past, i.e., a narrative. This is in contrast to the present perfect described below, which (technically) is used to describe isolated events in the past.

Used less in conversation and more in print/writing, the simple past, narrative past, or imperfect tense is often described as the more formal of the two basic past tenses in German and it is found primarily in books and newspapers. Therefore, with a few important exceptions, for the average learner it is more important to recognize and be able to read the simple past than to use it. (Exceptions include helping verbs such as haben, sein, werden, the modal verbs, and few others, whose simple past tense forms are often used in conversation as well as written German.)

The German simple past tense may have several English equivalents. A phrase such as er spielte Golf can be translated into English as: he was playing golf, he used to play golf, he played golf, or he did play golf, depending on the context.

The present perfect (conversational past)

The conversational past is the most common past tense in German because, as its name suggests, it is used in spoken (conversational) German. It is built by combining the present tense of haben or sein with the past participle of the verb under consideration. Ich habe gemacht means either I have done or I did - in German this distinction is not really made.

We not use the conversational past for haben or sein, but the simple past (say ich hatte not ich habe gehabt; say er war not er ist gewesen).

The present perfect is a compound (two-word) tense formed by combining an auxiliary (helping) verb with the past participle. Its name comes from the fact that the present tense form of the auxiliary verb is used, and the word perfect, which, as we mentioned above, is Latin for done/completed.

Because the present perfect or conversational past is used in spoken German, it is important to learn how this tense is formed and used. However, just as the simple past is not used exclusively in print/writing, neither is the present perfect used only for spoken German. The present perfect (and past perfect) is also used in newspapers and books, but not as often as the simple past. Most grammar books tell you that the German present perfect is used to indicate that something is finished at the time of speaking or that a completed past event has results that continue into the present. That can be useful to know, but it is more important to recognize some of the major differences in the way the present perfect is used in German and English.

For instance, if you want to express, I used to live in Munich in German, you can say, Ich habe in München gewohnt. - a completed event (you no longer live in Munich). On the other hand, if you want to say, I have lived/have been living in Munich for ten years, you can't use the perfect tense (or any past tense) because you're talking about an event in the present (you are still living in Munich). So German uses the present tense (with schon seit) in this situation: Ich wohne schon seit zehn Jahren in München, literally I live since ten years in Munich.

English speakers also need to understand that a German present perfect phrase such as er hat Geige gespielt, can be translated into English as: he has played (the) violin, he used to play (the) violin, he played (the) violin, he was playing (the) violin, or even he did play (the) violin, depending on the context. In fact, for a sentence such as, Beethoven hat nur eine Oper komponiert, it would only be correct to translate it into the English simple past, Beethoven composed only one opera, rather than the English present perfect, Beethoven has composed only one opera. (The latter incorrectly implies that Beethoven is still alive and composing.)

Past perfect

Past perfect: past tense of haben or sein with the past participle, meaning had done.

ich hatte gegessen [haben]
I had eaten
du warst gekommen [sein]
you had come

Past subjunctive

Past subjunctive: subjunctive of haben or sein with the past participle, meaning would have done.

sie hätte gegessen [haben]
she would have eaten eaten
ihr wäret gegangen [sein]
you would have gone

Future perfect

Future perfect - present tense of werden along with haben or sein as an infinitive, and a past participle, meaning will have done (future because it hasn't yet happened, and perfect because by the time the future comes around, it will be completed).

wir werden gegessen haben [haben]
we will have eaten
er wird gekommen sein [sein]
he will have come

Active vs. passive voice

We usually talk about a subject performing a verb (action). Often, the action is performed upon an object.

What if we wish to stress the object (that was acted upon) rather than the subject? What if we know the action, and what was acted upon, but not who did it? Then it is a good time to use the passive voice instead of the active voice.

We have the same distinction in English between the passive and the active, but the construction is a little different. In the examples below, the subject of the active and passive example is highlighted.

Active

Andrew eats the apple
Andrew isst den Apfel you wrote a letter
du schriebst einen Brief we bought a car
wir kauften ein Auto

Passive

the apple is eaten (by Andrew)
der Apfel wird (von Andrew) gegessen a letter was written (by you)
ein Brief wurde (von dir) geschrieben the car was bought (by us)
das Auto wurde (von uns) gekauft

In English we use to be + past participle; in German we use werden + past participle. You don't use sein to form the passive in German.

The subject of a passive sentence is the direct object of an active sentence; the subject of an active sentence becomes the agent of a passive sentence, and usually can be left out.

Because every sentence needs a subject, verbs that do not take direct objects cannot be used in the passive. In short, any passive sentence can be turned into an active sentence; an active sentence with a direct object can be turned into a passive sentence.

Most of the time, the active voice is preferred to the passive (just as in English), but there are times when the passive is the better, or even only choice. If you do not know who performed the action, you use the passive. In some cases, it makes no sense to use the active.

Finally, since active sentences can be in a variety of tenses (present, past, present perfect, future, etc.) and moods (indicative, subjunctive), so can the passive.

Most common German verbs

antworten
to answer

Er antwortet nicht.
He does not answer.
arbeiten
to work

Er arbeitet heute.
He is working today.
bedeuten
to mean, to signify

Was bedeutet dieses Wort?
What does this word mean?
beginnen
to begin, to start

Wann beginnt der Film?
When does the movie start?
bekommen
to get, to receive

Was bekommen Sie?
What are you getting?
bestellen
to order

Er bestellt es online.
He is ordering it online.
besuchen
to visit

Wir besuchen meine Tante.
We are visiting my aunt.
bezahlen
to pay

Bezahlen wir jetzt?
Are we paying now?
bleiben
to stay, to remain

Wir bleiben hier.
We are staying here.
bringen
to bring, to take

Ich bringe einen Kuchen.
I bring a cake.
danken
to thank

Ich danke Ihnen.
(I) thank you.
denken
to think

Was denkst du?
What do you think?
essen
to eat

Was isst du?
What are you eating?
fahren
to travel, to drive, to go

Ich fahre nach Berlin.
I'm going to Berlin.
finden
to find

Wie finden Sie den Film?
How do you find the movie?
fliegen
to fly

Sie fliegt nach Hamburg
She is flying to Hamburg.
fragen
to ask

Fragst du mich?
Are you asking me?
geben
to give

Gibst du mir das Buch?
Do you give me the book?
gehen
to go

Wir gehen nach Hause.
We are going home.
helfen
to help

Helfen Sie mir!
Help me!
hören
to hear, to listen

Ich höre Musik.
I am listening to music.
kaufen
to buy

Ich kaufe ein Brot.
I buy a bread.
bedeuten
to mean, to signify

Was bedeutet dieses Wort?
What does this word mean?
kosten
to cost

Was kostet der Fisch?
How much is the fish?
lesen
to read

Er liest die Zeitung.
He is reading the newspaper.
lieben
to love

Ich liebe dich.
I love you.
machen
to make, to do

Was macht er?
What is he doing?
nehmen
to take

Nehmen Sie das Geld?
Are you taking the money?
öffnen
to open

Sie öffnet die Tür.
She opens the door.
probieren
to try (out)

Hast du die Hose probiert?
Have you tried the trousers?
regnen
to rain

Es regnet morgen.
It will rain tomorrow.
reisen
to travel

Er reist nach Belgien.
He is travelling to Belgium.
sagen
to say, to tel

Er sagt nein.
He says no.
schlafen
to sleep

Schlaf gut.
Sleep well.
schmecken
to taste, to be tasty

Das schmeckt!
That is tasty!
schreiben
to write

Er schreibt ein Buch.
He is writing a book.
schwimmen
to swim

Er schwimmt gern.
He enjoys swimming.
sehen
to see

Ich sehe dich nicht.
I do not see you.
senden
to send, to transmit

Er sendet ein Paket.
He sends a parcel.
setzen
to put, to set

Er setzt sich
He is sitting down.
singen
to sing

Sie singt ein Lied.
She sings a song.
spielen
to play, to act

Hans spielt Tennis.
Hans plays tennis.
sprechen
to speak

Ich spreche Deutsch.
I speak German.
suchen
to seek, to search, to look for

Was suchst du?
What are you looking for?
trinken
to drink

Ich trinke Tee.
I am drinking tea.
vergessen
to forget

Ich vegesse den Namen.
I forget the name.
vestehen
to understand

Er vesteht Deutsch.
He understands Geman.
warten
to wait

Sie wartet auf den Bus.
She is waiting for the bus.

Dative verbs

In the list below you'll find those German verbs that take a direct object in the dative case rather than the normal accusative case.

The dative verbs category is a rather loose classification because almost any transitive verb can have a dative indirect object. But in general a dative verb is one that normally takes an object in the dative case - usually without any other object.

The list below does not include such normal verbs, as geben (to give) or zeigen (to show, to indicate), that commonly have both a direct and an indirect object (as in English):

Er gibt mir [dative] das Buch[accusative].

In addition to the single-word English translation, many dative verbs can be translated with a to-phrase:

antworten
to give an answer to
danken
to give thanks to
gefallen
to be pleasing to

This favorite grammar trick of many German teachers does not always hold up (as with folgen (to follow). But this to aspect does have some basis in the German grammar of some dative verbs, in that they are not actually taking a true direct object. Ich glaube dir nicht. (I don't believe you.) is short for Ich glaube es dir nicht - in which es is the true direct object and dir is a sort of dative of possession that could be translated of you (i.e., I don't believe it of you.).

However, even if you are one of those rare people who find all this dative grammar fascinating, it is best to simply learn (memorize!) the more common dative verbs. Thus, the list below, which lists the most common dative verbs - those that you should learn first.

Note that many dative verbs also have an accusative be- prefix variation: antworten/beantworten, danken/bedanken, etc.

antworten
to answer

Antworten Sie mir.
Answer me.
danken
to thank

Ich danke dir.
(I) thank you.
fehlen
to be missing

Du fehlst mir.
I miss you.
folgen
to follow

Folgen Sie mir, bitte.
Follow me, please.
gefallen
to like, to be pleasing to

Das Hemd gefällt mir.
I like the shirt.
gehören
to belong to

Das Buch gehört mir.
The book belongs to me.
helfen
to help

Kann ich Ihnen helfen?
Can I help you?
Leid tun
to be sorry

Es tut mir Leid.
I am sorry.
passieren
to happen

Was ist dir passiert ?
What happened to you?
verzeihen
to pardon, to forgive

Ich kann ihm nicht verzeihen.
I cannot forgive him.
wehtun
to hurt

Wo tut es Ihnen weh?
Where does it hurt?

Below are additional dative verbs that are perhaps less common and not listed in part one. However, many of the verbs in this list are important German vocabulary and should also be learned.

Modal verbs

Dürfen - to be allowed / permitted

Present Simple:
ich darf
(I may)

du darfst
(you may)

er, sie, es darf
(he, she, it may)


wir dürfen
(we may)

ihr dürft
(you may)

sie, Sie dürfen
(they, you [formal] may)

Past Simple:
ich durfte
(I was allowed)

du durftest
(you were allowed)

er, sie, es durfte
(he, she, it was allowed)


wir durften
(we were allowed)

ihr durftet
(you were allowed)

sie, Sie durften
(they, you [formal] were allowed)

Present Perfect:
ich habe gedurft
(I was allowed)

du hast gedurft
(you were allowed)

er, sie es hat gedurft
(he, she, it was allowed)


wir haben gedurft
(we were allowed)

ihr habt gedurft
(you were allowed)

sie, Sie haben gedurft
(they, you [formal] were allowed)

Können - to be able to / can

Present Simple:
ich kann
(I can)

du kannst
(you can)

er, sie, es kann
(he, she, it can)


wir können
(we can)

ihr könnt
(you can)

sie, Sie können
(they, you [formal] can)

Past Simple:
ich konnte
(I could)

du konntest
(you could)

er, sie, es konnte
(he, she, it could)


wir konnten
(we could)

ihr konntet
(you could)

sie, Sie konnten
(they, you [formal] could)

Present Perfect:
ich habe gekonnt
(I could)

du hast gekonnt
(you could)

er, sie es hat gekonnt
(he, she, it could)


wir haben gekonnt
(we could)

ihr habt gekonnt
(you could)

sie, Sie haben gekonnt
(they, you [formal] could)

Mögen - to like / to want

Present Simple:
ich mag
(I like)

du magst
(you like)

er, sie, es mag
(he, she, it likes)


wir mögen
(we like)

ihr mögt
(you like)

sie, Sie mögen
(they, you [formal] like)

Past Simple:
ich mochte
(I liked)

du mochtest
(you liked)

er, sie, es mochte
(he, she, it liked)


wir mochten
(we liked)

ihr mochtet
(you liked)

sie, Sie mochten
(they, you [formal] liked)

Present Perfect:
ich habe gemocht
(I liked)

du hast gemocht
(you liked)

er, sie es hat gemocht
(he, she, it liked)


wir haben gemocht
(we liked)

ihr habt gemocht
(you liked)

sie, Sie haben gemocht
(they, you [formal] liked)

Müssen - to have to / must

Present Simple:
ich muss
(I must)

du musst
(you must)

er, sie, es muss
(he, she, it must)


wir müssen
(we must)

ihr müsst
(you must)

sie, Sie müssen
(they, you [formal] must)

Past Simple:
ich musste
(I had to)

du musstest
(you had to)

er, sie, es musste
(he, she, it had to)


wir mussten
(we had to)

ihr musstet
(you had to)

sie, Sie mussten
(they, you [formal] had to)

Present Perfect:
ich habe gemusst
(I had to)

du hast gemusst
(you had to)

er, sie es hat gemusst
(he, she, it had to)


wir haben gemusst
(we had to)

ihr habt gemusst
(you had to)

sie, Sie haben gemusst
(they, you [formal] had to)

Sollen - should / ought to

Present Simple:
ich soll
(I should)

du sollst
(you should)

er, sie, es soll
(he, she, it should)


wir sollen
(we should)

ihr sollt
(you should)

sie, Sie sollen
(they, you [formal] should)

Past Simple:
ich sollte
(I should have)

du solltest
(you should have)

er, sie, es sollte
(he, she, it should have)


wir sollten
(we should have)

ihr solltet
(you should have)

sie, Sie sollten
(they, you [formal] should have)

Present Perfect:
ich habe gesollt
(I should have)

du hast gesollt
(you should have)

er, sie es hat gesollt
(he, she, it should have)


wir haben gesollt
(we should have)

ihr habt gesollt
(you should have)

sie, Sie haben gesollt
(they, you [formal] should have)

Wollen - to want to

Present Simple:
ich will
(I want to)

du willst
(you want to)

er, sie, es will
(he, she, it wants to)


wir wollen
(we want to)

ihr wollt
(you want to)

sie, Sie wollen
(they, you [formal] want to)

Past Simple:
ich wollte
(I wanted to)

du wolltest
(you wanted to)

er, sie, es wollte
(he, she, it wanted to)


wir wollten
(we wanted to)

ihr wolltet
(you wanted to)

sie, Sie wollten
(they, you [formal] wanted to)

Present Perfect:
ich habe gewollt
(I wanted to)

du hast gewollt
(you wanted to)

er, sie es hat gewollt
(he, she, it wanted to)


wir haben gewollt
(we wanted to)

ihr habt gewollt
(you wanted to)

sie, Sie haben gewollt
(they, you [formal] wanted to)

Reflexive verbs

One of the things German-learners need to learn is that German and English often do things a little differently. Although English does have some reflexive verbs forms (enjoy yourself), German relies much more on the reflexive than English does.

The grammatical term reflexive simply means that a verb's subject (the initiator of an action) is the same person as that verb's object (the person acted upon). The object reflects back to, or is a reflection of the subject. We are enjoying ourselves is a reflexive phrase. We are enjoying them is not—because the subject (we) is not the same person as the object (them).

The word reflexive means the same thing in English and German grammar, but as we said, German uses reflexive verbs much more frequently. German uses reflexive verb phrases and expressions that may not be reflexive in English. Particularly when it comes to showing possession and referring to parts of the body, German prefers the reflexive. To express he's washing his hands, German usually avoids the possessive sein (his) and uses the reflexive form er wäscht sich die Hände - in which the reflexive sich (himself) indicates whose hands are being washed. In English you can say I'm shaving myself, but you usually just say I'm shaving. In German to shave is a reflexive verb: sich rasieren. I'm shaving in German is ich rasiere mich - and such German verbs can't be used without the reflexive pronoun ( mich/myself).

Although some German verbs are exclusively reflexive, most can be either reflexive or not; the meaning of the reflexive form is very different from the non-reflexive form.

reflexive

sich annehmen
to look after / take care of

non-reflexive

annehmen
to assume

reflexive

sich anziehen
to get dressed

non-reflexive

anziehen
to attract

reflexive

sich erinnern
to remember

non-reflexive

erinnern
to remind

reflexive

sich setzen
to sit down

non-reflexive

setzen
to put, to place

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