A big part of learning German is figuring out how the verbs work.
The best place to start when learning German verbs is the present tense, the most basic, verbal building block when you’re putting sentences together.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at the German present tense, when to use it and how to form it.
Many of German’s other tenses, like the past tense, are formed based on the present tense, so think of this as your foundation for learning other tenses, too.
However, since this is supposed to be a foundation, I won’t go too far into the weeds with advanced theory.
This guide will cover the essentials of German present tense verbs.
How to form the present tense in German
Before we get to how German uses the present tense, let’s first look at how it’s formed, it will help with any examples we use later.
To form the present tense in German, we need to take a verb’s infinitive, which we can recognize by the ending of -en, and find the verb’s core/root.
This is pretty easy, actually: you just take the infinitive and chop off -en and you have it, in most cases.
Once you have the core, you need to add a suffix that denotes which person the verb falls into, so the way we say “I see” but “he sees” in English.
For example, let’s take the very common regular verb machen.
We find the core by removing the -en at the end, giving us mach.
Now, all we have to do is stick the right suffix on to the core and that’s your German present tense conjugation.
Each grammatical person (so I, you, he, etc.) in German has its own suffix (check out my guide to German pronouns), though some double up, here they are:
As you can see, this isn’t like most Romance languages or Greek, where you have very different endings for each person.
In German, plenty of suffixes do double duty, meaning unlike in many romance or Slavic languages you need to always use the person you’re talking about in a sentence.
It’s one of the idiosyncrasies of German verbs that you just need to get used to.
In those languages you can just use the verb’s core and the suffix and that’s enough, but as with English, that won’t work in German.
Forming regular German verbs
So, with the core and the necessary suffixes, we can conjugate machen:
Which in a sentence looks a bit like this:
Was machst du?
Machen belongs to the largest group of German verbs, the regular or “weak” (schwach) ones.
All of these verbs are conjugated this way in the present tense: find the core, add the exits and that’s that.
However, there’s a small exception to this rule for regular verbs, let’s take a look at those now.
Regular verbs with -t
There are a handful of German regular verbs where the core ends in -t or sometimes -d.
Examples include antworten (“to answer”) and arbeiten (“to work”).
When this happens, we can’t simply stick the exit to the core, you’d get du arbeitst, which is a crazy tongue twister even by German standards.
Instead, we stick an -e- between ther core and the exit on the first and third person singular, as well as the second person plural, so we get this:
Note that this also happens with irregular verbs that end with -t or -d, like werden (“to become”).
German irregular verbs in the present tense
With regular verbs out of the way, let’s take a look at how irregular or strong (stark) verbs handle the present tense.
Like with many things German, such as noun plurals, irregular verbs are irregular in that they change the core of the verb.
For example, the infinitive of “to drive” is fahren, but the conjugated version would be er fährt (“he drives”).
There are two important things to note, though: for one, the suffixes stay the same, so it’s not like you need to learn a new list of those.
The other is that generally speaking only the second and third person singular make this change, so in the case of fahren the conjugation looks like this:
One downside, though, is that there’s no real rhyme or reason to which verbs are strong and which are weak.
As a result, this means that you simply need to learn German irregular verbs by rote, here are a few common ones to get you started.
For some reason, it’s the common thing to use the third person singular in lists like these.
|sprechen||spricht||to speak, talk|
|sehen||sieht||to see, look|
On top of the “normal” irregular verbs, there are also four that are just completely weird and irregular.
If you’re going to speak German of any kind, you need to know all four of these off by heart, they’re used all the time.
|to be||to have||to know||to become|
Okay, that was a whole lot of grammar, let’s now take a look at when we use the present tense in German.
When to use the German present tense
In German, the present tense is used a lot throughout speech in contrast to English, where the present simple is actually not used all that much.
The way in which you use the present tense in German can be broken down into roughly four categories.
Things that happen regularly
Let’s start with the one it shares with English, which is describing a habit or things that happen regularly.
Hans spielt Schach
In this example, Hans is a guy who really likes chess. We’re not sure exactly how often he plays, but we can guess that he likes the game and knows how to move a knight.
We can get a bit more specific than that, though, too, and use the present tense.
Verena spielt Fussball jeder Montag und Mittwoch
Interestingly enough, it can also be used for things that don’t happen, like this:
Er geht nimmer nach den Zahnarzt
Dental hygiene aside. This is a perfectly good use of the present tense, likely familiar to any English speaker. Let’s take a look at a few other cases, though.
Something that’s happening now
Here’s where German and English diverge: German uses the present tense to actually describe things that are happening now.
For example, if you’re leaving the house, you’d say something like:
Ich gehe jetzt
The literal translation would be “I go now,” which sounds just terrible in English, like something a caveman would utter.
However, English is pretty unique in using the progressive tense to describe the present, almost everybody else, including German and Dutch, use the simple present.
As a result, you get sentences that sound kind of simple in English without the progressive.
Wir fahren nach Berlin
That said, it’s not completely alien, either: when describing the state of something right now, English and German are pretty much the same.
Das ist mein Haus
So, to recap, where English uses the present progressive, German uses the present, as well as to describe the state of something.
It may take some getting used to, but you should be able to adapt quickly, especially if you come from a language other than English.
Describing the near future
Another odd use of the present tense in German for English speakers is how it can be used to describe the near future. To use an earlier example:
Wir gehen morgen nach Berlin
As I discuss in my article on the German future tense, this is an extremely common way to express future plans.
Just add a “time” word in there, like “tomorrow,” “next week” or even just “later” and you’ve created the future, it’s just that simple.
It’s very flexible and used more often than the “real” future tenses.
How long something has been happening
Finally, the German present tense can be used to describe something that has been happening, and still is. A good example is something like this:
Er spielt seit fünf Jahren Schach
This is probably the rarest of the four use cases, but you’ll come across it if you talk with more educated people.
It’s a lot more terse than the English way of expressing this sentiment, all you really need to do is use a word like seit (“since”) in conjunction with the present tense and you can get your meaning across.
The German present tense is easy
As you can see, the present tense in German is a lot more versatile than it is in English, and used more often too.
Thankfully, it’s easy to put together so you shouldn’t have any trouble getting comfortable with it.
Good luck with German and its present tense.
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