It starts with the infinitive
German verbs are listed in dictionaries in the infinitive form — the “to [verb]” form. For example, you can find waschen (to wash) in a dictionary but not washe (washes). So if you want to look up a verb in the dictionary try to convert it to an infinitive first.
Infinitive German verbs are easy to recognize — most of them end in -en, and those that don’t, end in -n.
The part of the infinitive without the trailing -n or -en is called the stem, and it is to this stem that the various conjugate endings are attached. For example:
 (you, plural, familiar)
 (you, singular, familiar)
 (you, formal)
 (the du-imperative form is simply the verb stem, lächel; for example, Schau nicht so traurig aus. Lächel! (Don’t look so sad. Smile!)
Most verbs follow the above pattern, although some are irregular.
The most important verbs
The most important verbs in any language are sein (be), tun (and), haben (have); although machen (make) is often substituted for tun. Generally, use machen when you are talking about doing a specific something, and tun when you are talking about doing “something” without saying what that something is, or are talking about not doing anything. These verbs should be learned well.
Some prefixes can be put in front of the infinitive — attached in front, with no space in between. For example, where rufen means (to shout), anrufen means (to call), like on the phone. Here’s an example:
Sie ruft mir an. (She calls me.)
Notice how the prefix was moved to the end of the sentence — this is why they’re called separable. Separable prefixes are one of the things that make learning German a difficult task.
Some of the more common separable prefixes:
an-, auf-, aus, , durch-, ein-, hinein-, los-, mit-, nach-, um-, vor, zu-, and zurück-.
These are much simpler. They are put in front of the verb stem, without a space separating them, that never detach.
Some of the more common inseparable prefixes are be-, ent-, er-, miss-, ver-, and zer-.
Seperable or inseparable, prefixes are never accented. The accent usually falls on the first syllable of the stem (although for most German words other than prefixed verbs, the accent just falls on the first syllable).
Modal verbs are attached behind “main” verbs, with a space in between. For example, spielen (to play), and können means (to be able to), so spielen können means (to be able to play). Sample sentence: Wir können Gitarre spielen (we can play guitar). Please think of this compound verb as being spielen können rather than können spielen; I’ve listed the spielen first because that’s the part that moves to the end of the sentence, just like a separable prefix does. (Sometimes, when the spielen and the können both get moved to the end, they appear in the order spielen können. This is further described below.)
Here are the modal verbs, with examples:
- ◆ sprechen dürfen (to be allowed to speak)
- ◆ spielen können (to be able to play)
- ◆ essen mögen (to want to (would like to) eat)
- ◆ zahlen müssen (to have to (must) pay)
- ◆ besuchen sollen (to ought to (should) visit)
- ◆ nehmen wollen (to demand to (will) take (something))
- ◆ and sometimes werden when it means to intend to
Be careful about using wollen. It implies a sort of demand to get what one wants regardless of others’ wishes. About the worst thing you can say is Ich will ihr, which means (I will have my way with her) regardless of what she or anyone else thinks. Always substitute werden as a softer alternative, unless the meaning is clear, as in Ich will lesen, meaning I will read, since nobody really cares if you’re going to read or not.
The ich/es/er/sie/man conjugations are irregular. They are darf, kann, mag, muss, soll, will, and worden respectively.
Artificial compound verbs
There are several things that are not really compound verbs, but they are treated as if they are. Here’re some examples:
- ◆ Deutsch sprechen (to speak German)
- ◆ kennen lernen (to become acquainted with someone)
- ◆ ins Kino gehen (to go to the movies)
- ◆ skiläufen (to go skiing)
The first part in each case — Deutsch, kennen, ins, Kino, and Ski — are again treated like separable prefixes. When forming conjugations, you can move the first part to the end of the sentence and everyone will know what you mean. (It’s only because these constructions are very common that this is done at all. It’s not mandatory.)
ist or haben plus participle
If you put ist or haben together with a participle (described below), start with the participle first, then ist or haben. Then treat the participle like a separable prefix, which means you move it to the end. This is further described in the lesson on past tense, to be published. For now, just accept that the participle gets moved, not ist or haben.
Three or more verbs
When you have three or verbs (including the “articificial verbs” described above), you can construct a grammatically correct sentence using the following procedure:
- ◆ Put all the verbs together near the beginning of the sentence, in some order that seems to make sense. Example: Du ins Kino gehen können heute. (You can go to the movies today). Use the guidelines above as to which comes first, like the “zahlen müssen” example above.
- ◆ Take the artificial (first) verb, ins Kino, and move it to the end of the sentence, giving Du gehen können heute ins Kino.
- ◆ Now take the next verb, gehen, and move that to the end of the sentence. Du können heute ins Kino gehen.
- ◆ Now since there’s only one verb left up front, don’t move it, but rather conjugate it: Du kannst heute ins Kino gehen.
- ◆ Only the one verb left up front gets conjugated; the ones that were moved to the back stay in their infinitive forms.
Many German verbs are stem-changing (or strong) verbs, which means the stem changes when you conjugate it. For example, schlafen (to sleep) changes to a stem of schläf in the es/er/sie/man forms — making it es/er/sie/man schläft. When this happens, the du form usually goes along with the above, with an extra s thrown in, as is usual with du. So that would be du schläfst.
Further stem changes are possible with the past tense and the participle.
Most German verbs don’t change stems; but many of the verbs that have been around for hundreds of years and are frequently used, do. Verbs like bake, begin, die, dig, drive, fry, read, shove, sing, stink, swim, and wash. So if you have no other way of determining if it’s a stem-changing verb, ask yourself if it’s an old, common verb. However, if it begins with an inseparable prefix, it never changes its stem.
Every German verb can be used to form a participle. Either the participle ends in -n or -en, just like the infinitive does, or the -n or -en is replaced with -t. You usually have to shove a -ge- in there somewhere. There is no single rule that covers all cases, but here are some guidelines:
- ◆ If it begins with a separable prefix, squeeze a -ge- between the separable prefix and the stem. (Obviously, do this before you move the prefix. If you do so, leave the ge- with the stem.)
- ◆ If it begins with an inseparable prefix, don’t add a -ge- and end the participle with a -t.
- ◆ If there is no separable or inseparable prefix, then put a ge- on in front. (There are a few exceptions.)
- ◆ If it’s a stem-changing (strong) verb, the participle will always end with -n or -en, and you will need a ge- in there somewhere.
For ankommen (arrive), the participle is angekommen.
For begrüßen (greet), the participle is begrüßt.
For öffnen (open), the participle is geöffnet.
For fahren (drive), the participle is gefahren.
For tanzen (dance), the participle is getanzt.
Now that you have the participle, what do you do with it? It can be used as an adverb, although that’s not often done. But if you add a suffix like -e or -es to it, it becomes an adjective, which is very useful. For example: Der geöffenet Markt, which means the store that’s open. (Note the extra -e- crammed into the word; this is only because three different consonants in a row is hard to pronounce.)
Participles are also useful when forming the past tense — which will be explained in a lesson to be published.
Look for Jennie’s German Language Classroom for English Speakers on the last (sometimes next-to-last) Wednesday of every month.
Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Freeman. In particular, permission is not granted to assemble the parts of this series together and distribute them. You may of course post links to the individual posts.