Verb Types

Your complete guide to German verb types
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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]).

Components:

Infinitives & Conjugations

German has more possible conjugations than English, taking into account person, tense, and whether the verbs is strong / weak / mixed / oddball.

Examples:
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.)

COMING SOON

Prefixes

Prefixes (usually prepositions or adverbs) can separate (or not) or even be ‘two-way’ prefixes that separate from the main verb just sometimes.

Examples:
English: to go out / German: ausgehen (to outgo)
English: to come inside / German: hereinkommen (to insidecome)

COMING SOON

Digging Deeper:


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

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

Strong verbs (about 150 of them) take a stem-vowel changes (in particular instances) in addition to usually using the regular conjugations.

Present Tense:

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.

Present Perfect:

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

Mixed Verbs

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.

Modal Verbs

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.

Reflexive Verbs

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.

sich ausruhen

sich erholen

sich setzen

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.

Collocations

Some verbs are paired with prepositions for specific meanings. These collocations are either accusative or dative and may be reflexive or not:

Accusative

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

Dative

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.

Dative Verbs

There are about 50 verbs that always take a dative (indirect) object even though there is no direct object.

helfen

folgen

gefallen

gelingen

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!