What is a verb? In a general sense, an English verb conveys an action or a state of being. A German verb takes an identical role. Before delving into the distinguishing and critical aspects in the learning of German verbs, let me briefly detail these in a quick overview.
Overview of German Verbs
- Different tenses exist as it relates to time
- present (I am eating)
- present perfect (I have eaten)
- simple past (I ate)
- past perfect (I had eaten)
- future (I will eat)
- future perfect (I will have eaten)
- There is the concept of reflexive verbs
- Verbs prefixes are either separable or inseparable
- Most German verbs end in -en, -eln, or -ern
- They are conjugated according to the noun which is doing the action, or found in the infinitive form
- Verb conjugations vary according to the verb’s classification as a strong, weak or mixed verb
- Verbs can be regular or irregular (the good news is, German has significantly fewer irregular verbs than most other languages)
- Two subjunctive forms exist, but only one is used in everyday casual communication
The German language consists of six tenses, which provide details on time, including the position in time something occurs as well as the state of the occurrence. In spoken language, nearly all conversations take place in present or present perfect. These two, as well as the other four, will be broken down in more detail below, including in which contexts they are used and what their approximate equivalents in English would be.
The present tense is used to describe present and future actions.
- An action in the present: one, unlimited, recurring, or never
- A fact that applies in the present
- An ongoing action with a duration
- A planned future action
(1). Ich esse eine Banane. (I eat a banana.)
- This is a present action, occurring once
(2). Ich esse jeden Tag eine Banane. (I eat a banana every day.)
- This is a present action, occurring recurringly
(3). Ich esse nie Bananen. (I never eat bananas.)
- This is a present action, occurring never
(4). Ich esse gern Bananen. (I like to eat bananas.)
- This is a fact that applies in the present
(5). Ich esse diese Banane seit 10 Minuten. (I’ve been eating this banana for 10 minutes.)
- This is an ongoing action with a duration
(6). Morgen esse ich eine Banane statt eines Apfels. (Tomorrow I will eat a banana instead of an apple.
- This is a future action that is already planned. Often times, in such a situation, the verb will be paired with a “time descriptor”, for example “heute Abend” (tonight), “nächste Woche” (next week), or “später” (later)
The present perfect is used to describe past actions and events that have no impact on the present, past actions and events that do have an impact on the present, or actions and events that will be completed in the future. This form is used in spoken language almost exclusively for describing the past, instead of using the past perfect, which is rather reserved for written language.
- Describing the past with no relation to the present
- Describing the past with a relation to the present
- Describing a future completed action or event (Can be a surety or an assumption)
(1). Gestern habe ich ein UFO gesehen! (Yesterday, I saw a UFO.)
- This action happened in the past, but isn’t related to the present
(2). Ich habe begonnen, den Kosmos mit meinem Teleskop zu studieren. (I’ve started studying the cosmos with my telescope.)
- This action happened in the past, but it is continuing and thus impacting the present
(3). Sicherlich habe ich bis Ende des Jahres einen Marsmenschen gesehen. (Surely I will have seen a Martian by the end of the year.)
- This is an assumption about a completed action in the future
This tense is used to describe the completed past and is primarily used in written language, with “sein” (to be), and with auxiliary verbs.
- In written contexts
- With the verb “sein”
- With auxiliary verbs
(1). Mein Hund aß die Hausaufgaben. (My dog ate the homework.)
- This is an action completed in the past
- Maybe an excuse a student wrote via email to his teacher, or maybe an entry into a diary
(2). Gestern war ich traurig, aber heute bin ich sehr glücklich. (Yesterday I was sad, but today I am very happy.)
- This uses a conjugation of the verb
(3). Ich musste rennen, um rechtzeitig zur Schule zu kommen. (I had to run to make it to school on time.)
- “musste” is the simple past conjugated form of the auxiliary verb “müssen”, meaning “to have to”
The past perfect is used to describe an action or event that has already been completed before another action or event takes place.
- Describing a completed past action or event before a verb
- Describing a completed past action or event before a noun
(1). Mein zweiter Flug war bereits abgeflogen, bevor mein erster Flug gelandet war. (My second flight had already taken off before my first flight landed.)
- Here, an action was complete before the other action completed: the first flight took off (complete), and only after that did the second flight land (the following verb)
(2). Der Sportler hatte sich bereits vor dem Spiel eine Stunde lang aufgewärmt. (The athlete had already been warming up for an hour before the match.)
- Here, an action was complete before a noun: the athlete warmed up (complete) and then the match started (the following noun)
The future tense is used, hence the name, to describe the future, but whereas the present is often used to describe the future as well, the future tense is rather descriptive of the process than the completion.
- Describing a future action or event
- Giving an order
- Describing an intention
(1). Ich werde morgen mit meinem Hund Gassi gehen. (Tomorrow I will walk my dog.)
- This is a future action, but it allows some room for “doubt”, in the sense that the action was not planned but will likely happen
- “Morgen gehe ich mit meinem Hund Gassi“ would be the present tense variant which sounds much more definite
(2). Du wirst mir gleich sagen, wohin du gestern mit dem Auto gefahren bist! (Tell me right now where you took the car yesterday!)
- This is an order
(3). Ich werde versuchen, Fremden gegenüber freundlicher zu sein. (I will try to be more friendly to strangers.)
- Here is an intention with the verb “versuchen” (to try)
The future perfect tense is used to describe an action or event that will have been completed in the future. Additionally, there is a less frequent but still relevant usage of this tense to detail a presumption about a past occurrence.
- Describe a completed future action or event
- Describe a presumption about a past occurrence
(1). Mach dir keine Sorge. Ich werde vor Beginn des Meetings ankommen.
- (Don’t worry. I’ll arrive before the meeting starts.)
- This describes a completed future action
(2). Er wird den Gipfel des Berges erreicht haben. (He must have reached the top of the mountain.)
- This describes a presumption about an occurrence that is most likely to have already been completed in the past
What to Read Next
- German Modal Verbs: Können, Müssen, Wollen, Sollen, Dürfen, and Mögen
- The Most Three Common Auxiliary Verbs in German
- German Reflexive Verbs: List and How to Use Them
- German Separable and Inseparable Verbs
- German Verb Endings and Stems
- German Conjugation Verb: List, Chart, and How to Use It
- German Passive Voice: Processual, Statal, and Usage
- German Subjunctive and Conjugating Subjunctive
Or go back to our Learn German Language page for more learning resources.