German Verb Types Overview
The basic starting point for all verbs is the ‘infinitive’ form: to sing, to eat, to play.
The infinitive then takes small changes, called ‘conjugations’ based on who the subject is (I, you, he, etc.): I sing, he sings; I eat, he eats.
Most verbs are categorized as strong, weak, or mixed. Weak verbs take few, predictable changes. Strong verbs take more, less predictable changes. Mixed verbs combine the rules/patterns of weak and strong.
Key verbs such as sein, haben, werden, the modal verbs and other oddballs are outliers with many, highly-unpredictable changes that don’t allow them to fit neatly in the strong / weak / mixed paradigm.
Modal verbs are paired with infinitives: I can ski and perhaps I should ski, but I don’t like to ski during the week. I want to ski on Saturday.
Some German verbs have prepositions (or other words) added in front of the infinitive. These can be either ‘separable-prefix’ or ‘inseparable-prefix’ verbs.
A body of German verbs are called ‘reflexive verbs’ because the subject of the sentence is doing something to himself: Ich rasiere mich (I’m shaving myself).
Collocations are verbs paired with prepositions (and possibly other words): I’m thinking of him, I’m falling in love.
About 50 German verbs ‘take the dative’. These ‘dative’ verbs have implied direct objects: Ich helfe ihm (I help him [by giving help]). Ich rate ihr (I advise her [by giving advice]).
Finally understand hard-to-grasp German grammar concepts.
Infinitives & Conjugations
German has more possible conjugations than English, taking into account person, tense, and whether the verbs is strong / weak / mixed / oddball.
Ich gehe. Ich ging. Ich bin gegangen.
(I go. I went. I have gone.)
Du sagst. Du sagtest. Du hast gesagt.
(You say. You said. You have said.)
Prefixes (usually prepositions or adverbs) can separate (or not) or even be ‘two-way’ prefixes that separate from the main verb just sometimes.
English: to go out / German: ausgehen (to outgo)
English: to come inside / German: hereinkommen (to insidecome)
Infinitives & Conjugation
Most infinitives end with -en (some with -ern, -eln, or -ieren). Taking off these endings leaves us with the ‘stem’ or ‘root’. To these stems / roots, we must add the conjugations, which primarily indicate person (I, you, he/she/it, we, y’all, they).
In English, generally only the 3rd Person Singular has a conjugation different from the other persons:
I sing — we sing
you sing — y’all sing
he sings — they sing
But in German, there are 4 conjugations:
ich singe — wir singen
du singst — ihr singt
er singt — sie singen
German conjugations are same for all verbs (independent from whether the verb is strong / weak / mixed), with only minor exceptions for modals and other oddballs or in the rarely-used simple past tense.
Weak verbs (thousands of them!) do not additionally change the verb stem / root in the present tense, add a ‘t’ to the stem in the simple past, and form the past participle with ge + (stem) + t.
ich höre → ich hörte → ich habe gehört
du kaufst → du kauftest → du hast gekauft
Weak verbs in the simple past for the 3rd person singular (er/sie/es) change the typical -t conjugation to an -e, just like the 1st person singular.
ich höre → ich hörte → ich habe gehört
er hört → er hörte → er hat gehört
Strong verbs (about 150 of them) take a stem-vowel changes (in particular instances) in addition to usually using the regular conjugations.
ich helfe — wir helfen
du hilfst — ihr helft
er hilft — sie helfen
NOTE: in the present tense, only the 2nd & 3rd Persons, Singular take stem-vowel changes.
Simple Past Tense:
ich half — wir halfen
du halfst — ihr halft
er half — sie halfen
NOTE: Notice here the absence of any conjugation at all for the 1st or 3rd Persons, Singular.
ich habe geholfen — wir haben geholfen
du hast geholfen — ihr habt geholfen
er hat geholfen — sie haben geholfen
NOTE: past participles (e.g. geholfen) for strong verbs are ge + (stem with changed vowel) + en
There are only 9 mixed verbs in German, so they’re pretty easy to remember! Mixed verbs combine the typical rules for weak and strong verbs.
brennen → brannte → gebrannt
rennen → rannte → gerannt
In the simple past tense, a ‘t’ is added to the stem just like a weak verb. However, there is also a stem-vowel change like strong verbs. Similarly, the past participle combines the weak ‘t’ ending with a stem-vowel change.
Sein, Haben, and Werden
The verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ are usually the most irregular in any language. In some cases, you can still see some of the same conjugations; but other letters are added or dropped in the stem. Or, sometimes letters seem to materialize out of nowhere.
‘Sein’ doesn’t even have a stem / root! It’s conjugations break down like this:
ich bin — wir sind
du bist — ihr seid
er ist — sie sind
Where, for instance, do the ‘b’s come from?
These oddballs need to be memorized for all persons individually because of all their wackiness vs. strong / weak / mixed verbs that at least follow consistent patterns that can be applied across the board to other verbs of their type.
The added bonus of learning sein, haben, and werden like the back of your hand, though, is that you use these three verbs a lot when forming various tenses of other verbs. In fact, these three oddball verbs in particular are known as ‘auxiliary verbs’ because of this very function.
In many ways, modal verbs can be thought of as ‘oddballs’, too. They do follow some patterns unique to themselves, but there are many departures from typical conjugations and stem-vowel changes the way we see them with strong / weak / mixed verbs.
There are 6 modal verbs — well, 6 ½, as I like to say (read the full article HERE) — and they are crucial for learn! You will use these handy little verbs all the time.
Modal verbs are ‘to can’, ‘to must’, ‘to want’, ‘to should’, ‘to may’, ‘to like’ and — the ½ modal — ‘to would like’ (because it’s a sub-category of the verb ‘to like’).
Modal verbs must always be paired with other infinitive verbs:
Ich kann singen.
Du darfst rauchen.
Er soll saubermachen.
Wir wollen schlafen.
Ihr mögt Schokolade.
Sie möchten reisen.
Sie (you, plural) müssen gehen.
Separable and Inseparable Verbs
Prepositions or adverbs are added in front of infinitive verbs to change the meaning — sometimes only subtly, sometimes drastically.
gehen (to go) … ausgehen (to go out) … vergehen (to pass / fade away)
There are even some ‘two-way prefixes’ that separate from some verbs, but not from others.
Wir machen eine schlechte Zeit durch. BUT: Ich durchschaue deinen Plan.
Das Bad ist übergelaufen. BUT: Ich überlasse dir die Wahl.
Some prefixes attach to the same verb, but whether it separates changes the meaning.
Ich versuche den Brief umzuschreiben. / Ich versuche den Brief zu umschreiben.
German uses a lot of reflexive verbs where English does not.
Some verbs always take an accusative reflexive pronoun — these are the true reflexive verbs.
However, just about any verb can be made reflexive if the subject and object are the same person:
Ich sehe mich im Spiegel.
Ich rasiere mich.
Ich schneide mich in den Finger.
Ich wasche mich.
These same verbs don’t have to be reflexive, though: Ich sehe dich im Spiegel.
Some verbs that don’t have direct objects in English must have one in German, so it takes a reflexive pronoun.
Alles wird sich ändern.
Das Rad dreht sich.
Die Tür öffnet sich.
Some verbs are paired with prepositions for specific meanings. These collocations are either accusative or dative and may be reflexive or not:
sich gewöhnen an — to get used to
sich verlieben in — to fall in love with
sich freuen über — to be happy about
sich freuen auf — to look forward to
glauben an — to believe in
denken an — to think of
hoffen auf — to hope for
sich fürchten vor — to be afraid of
sich beschäftigen mit — to be occupied with
sich umsehen nach — to look around for
bestehen aus — to consist of
bestehen auf — to insist upon
aufhören mit — to stop doing
verkehren mit — to associate with
Notice the instances in which only the preposition has changed, yet the meaning of the collocation is then totally different.
There are about 50 verbs that always take a dative (indirect) object even though there is no direct object.
Of course, there are also verbs that take both accusative (direct) and dative (indirect) objects, but these are not technically dative verbs:
Ich schreibe dir einen Brief.
Ich gebe dir das Geld.
You have hopefully rightly assumed, then, that with the exception of these 50 dative verbs, transitive verbs (verbs that take an object) default to taking accusative (direct) objects!