7 Things Every Learner Should Know About German Verbs

  • Fergus O'Sullivan
    Written byFergus O'Sullivan
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7 Things Every Learner Should Know About German Verbs

Anybody learning German for a while has come in touch with the language’s verbs and their odd quirks.

Though they’re nowhere near as tough as the rules surrounding German noun cases, there are a few basic things that you can keep in mind while studying.

To help you get started, I’ve put together a list of things that are a bit strange about German verbs, especially if you’re coming from English.

Though learning German is generally easier than you think, with the below advice under your belt, you’ll be able to make quicker progress.

Luckily, one thing is easy, the word for verb is the same: das Verb.

Important things about German verbs that you should know

1. German rarely uses its progressive tenses

We’ll kick off with a problem that’s fairly unique to English speakers: German practically doesn’t use its progressive tenses.

This is in contrast to English, which uses it, well, all the time.

Here’s an example:

Listen to audio

Torsten fährt nach Berlin

Torsten is driving to Berlin

In this case, Torsten is driving his car to Berlin as we speak.

If I were to translate the German tense directly, I’d say “Torsten drives to Berlin.”

In English, though, that implies some form of habit, as in him driving to the nation’s capital weekly or even daily.

The trap here is that you’ll think the German present works the same as the English present, so only used for things like habits or anything done regularly.

It’s actually English that’s weird here. Very few languages use the progressive or continuous tense as much as English does, and it’s a habit you need to get out of when learning other languages.

In the case of German, if you want to make clear you’re doing something right this very second, you use a weird construction with beim _or _am + a gerund.

Imagine you’re reading a book and somebody wants your attention, but you want to shoo them away, you’d say:

Listen to audio

Ich bin am Lesen

I am reading

Literally you just said “I am at the reading,” and it’s a dative construction, so you have to add m to the preposition.

That said, it’s pretty rare you’ll use this: in most cases, most of the time the present will do just fine.

2. The verb at the end of the sentence is put

This next one is also pretty important: unlike in English, often enough verbs are moved to the back of the sentence, especially if they’re infinitives or participles.

This can radically change the structure of a sentence and is a big stumbling block for learners of German and Dutch alike, as both languages have the same pattern.

The best way to explain the issue is with an example, so take a close look where the verbs are in this next sentence:

Listen to audio

Er war in den Laden gegangen

He had gone to the store

Literally, that says “he was in the store gone,” which sounds ridiculous. However, literally translating the English to German also sounds insane: er war gegangen in den Laden.

In English, we like to keep the predicate (so the subject and all the associated verbs) all bunched up toward the front of the sentence, but other Germanic languages don’t need to do that.

In German, as long as some kind of verb — almost always an auxiliary verb, one that “helps” the main one — is at the front, the rest can go toward the end.

In this case, the predicate is er war gegangen, but it gets split up and gegangen can go at the end.

In some tenses, you can even get a little train of verbs at the end of the sentence, which can be pretty tough to decipher.

Listen to audio

Das hätte möglich sein sollen

That must have been possible

I won’t lie, constructions like this are pretty tough to get used to. However, the key here is to simply keep practicing.

3. Verbs change depending on the person

This one won’t be unfamiliar to you if you know some French or Spanish or, well, almost any other Indo-European language: German verbs change their endings depending on the person they’re in.

By “person” we mean grammatical person, so “I,” “you,” “he” etc.

In English, the verb barely changes, only in the third person singular. So “I sing” but “he sings.”

In German — and many other languages — it can change quite a bit, depending on the person and the tense the verb is in.

Let’s look at one example in the present tense.

EnglishDeutsch
I singIch singe
You singDu singst
He singsEr singt
We singWir singen
You singIhr singt
They singSie singen

We have a full guide to German personal pronouns if you need some help with those.

As you can see, they change a lot more than English verbs do, though not as much as the Romance or Slavic languages.

Once you get used to it, though, it’s actually a good crutch while learning the language.

If you can see what person a verb is in, you know more easily what’s the subject of a sentence, which is great.

However, there is one small obstacle, still, namely because verbs’ ending can radically change a lot because…

4. German verbs can be irregular in different ways

German has regular and irregular verbs, which on the face of it isn’t a huge deal, many languages have this issue.

However, German is a little different for two reasons: the first is that it names them differently, regular is called “weak” (schwaches Verb) while irregular is called “strong” (starkes Verb).

If you get these confused, think of strong verbs as being able to change the rules because they’re powerful, while weak ones have to do as the rules say because they’re unable to resist.

It’s not just the nomenclature that makes this tricky, though. As we discussed, the endings of verbs can change depending on the person and the tense. \ Irregular and regular verbs change these endings the same way — the big exception here is “to be,” sein — but strong verbs change inside the word.

They don’t do that just once or twice, either, like in English, but in many tenses, sometimes even in the present.

Let’s take the verb “to break” which is irregular in both languages.

Englishto breakhe breaksbrokebroken
Deutschbrechener brichtbrachgebrochen

There are a lot of these strong verbs, and a lot of rules governing how they change and the only way to figure out how this works is simply learning it all by rote.

I know it isn’t fun, but it’s the only way to get these verbs right.

5. Prepositional verbs

Another fun aspect of German is how some verbs have a preposition attached to it, thus changing the meaning and the way it’s conjugated.

Now, this isn’t entirely alien to English speakers, we have a few examples ourselves: “wait” and “wait for” are two different words that mean slightly different things.

However, German takes this to another level.

For example, “to think” is denken, but “to think of” can come with any of three prepositions, denken an, denken über or denken von.

All three are slightly different shades of the same concept, thinking of something, and it makes a difference which one you use.

Sometimes, adding a preposition can change a verb’s meaning by a lot more, though. For example, bestehen means “to exist.” However, bestehen auf means to consist of, while bestehen aus means “to insist on.”

To make things even more complicated, these prepositions can be separated from their verb.

Listen to audio

Er besteht immer aus Pünktlichkeit

He always insists on punctuality

Another example is how in some cases the preposition can be baked into a verb. For example, aufkaufen _or “to buy up” has the verb “to buy,” _kaufen and the preposition “up,” auf, in it.

However, depending on how it’s used in a sentence, auf can move around.

Listen to audio

Er kauft das Wasser auf

He buys up the water

Now it’s at the end of the sentence, let’s look at that sentence in another tense.

Listen to audio

Er hat das Wasser aufgekauft

He bought up the water

Now the grammatical marker ge snuck in between auf and kaufen.

Though it’s all a bit much to explain here, the bottom line is that verbs need prepositions in German, but they’re not married to them either.

6. Reflexive verbs

Much the same goes for another set of verbs, so-called reflexive verbs, verbs that cast back on themselves.

The concept is present in English, but we don’t use it quite as much. Again, let’s look at an example:

Listen to audio

Ich rasiere mich

I shave

In this case, “to shave,” rasieren, needs to have an object no matter what. Even though it seems redundant, we need to add mich to the sentence.

In English, we could say “I shave myself,” but the “myself” part isn’t really necessary, so we leave it off. In German, though, you can’t do that.

It’s simple enough on paper, but in practice it can get a bit rough, especially if you have some prepositional reflexive nouns — yes, they exist, and, yes, they suck.

A good example is ansehen, which means “look at.” As a bonus, it’s also a strong verb.

Listen to audio

Er sieht sich in Spiegel an

He looks in the mirror

Literally the above means “He looks at himself in the mirror” but we don’t generally say that in English.

In German, though, that’s a normal sentence, with prepositions and personal pronouns flying everywhere.

7. Some verbs can change a noun’s case

We’ll finish up this list with a relatively simple one: some verbs change a noun’s case.

To a certain extent this is normal, in a way all verbs change a noun from a nominative to an accusative.

However, some verbs don’t take the accusative, but the dative or genitive, instead.

The dative ones are generally more common, here are some I figured you’ll see the most (you’ll recognize this list from my piece about mastering the German dative).

DeutschEnglish
antwortento answer
begegnento meet
gefallento be pleasing, to like
gehörento belong to (ownership)
glaubento believe
helfento help
nützento use
passento fit
passierento happen
schmeckento taste

When you see any of these, you need to change the associated noun to a dative, not an accusative, so:

Listen to audio

Er hilft dem Mann

He helps the man

The man is being helped, so he gets the third case.

It’s also important in the passive:

Listen to audio

Du glaubst nicht, was mir passiert ist!

You won't believe what happened to me!

When something happens to something, it gets the dative.

Some verbs — far fewer thankfully — can get the genitive, instead. These are generally used in more formal language. Here are five of them, though there are more.

DeutschEnglish
anklagento accuse of
bedürfento be in need of
beschuldigento accuse of
gedenkento remember (as in a memorial)
überführento convict of

You won’t run into these words too often unless you’re in some kind of official capacity or work in a courthouse. Still, it’s handy to know them. Let’s take a look at two of them:

Listen to audio

Wir gedenken der Toten

We remember the dead

The dead are the object of the verb, but get the genitive, think of it as “in remembrance of.”

There’s one thing to note: gedenken means to remember as in “remembrance,” not as in “remember your car keys!” For everyday remembering, use erinnern, not gedenken.

For something a bit more juicy, let’s take a look at this:

Listen to audio

Der Mann ist des Mordes beschuldigt

The man is accused of murder

In this case, to remember to use the genitive, remember you accuse somebody of something, that should help.

Conclusion

German verbs can be tricky, but they’re logical. Hopefully these tips will help you make sense of them.

If you want to go into more detail learning German verbs, also see our list of carefully curated, online German courses.

Viel Erfolg.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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