German verb conjugation across tenses

German verb conjugation across tenses

by Brita Corzilius

Updated November 7, 2022

Today Brita will have a general look into German verb conjugation and she will give you some tips and tricks on how to memorise them better!

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Irregular and regular verbs in German

The irregularity of verbs refers to the Infinitiv, Präteritum and the Partizip 2 of the verbs. The good news is: 90% of verbs in German are regular.

The other good news is: German does not have two present tenses like English, but only one. Whoop whoop!

Both these facts will make our life much easier today and in the future. 

But before I can teach you tips and tricks, I’ll give you a quick overview about conjugation. 

Conjugation of regular verbs in German

Regular or weak verbs follow the regular conjugation also in the past tense and the Partizip 2, such as küssen (to kiss), lernen (to learn), arbeiten (to work). 

All you have to do is take the verb stem and add the present or simple past tense endings. 

Here you can see an example table of lernen. I divided the verb stem and ending for a better understanding:

 PresentSimple past (Präteritum)
er, sie, es      lern-              lern-te
Sie, sielern-enlern-ten

Conjugation of irregular verbs in German

Even though I told you 90% of the verbs in German are regular, there are more than 200 verbs that are irregular or so-called strong. 

Again some good news: You do not need to learn all 200+ irregular verbs for your daily life and conversation (phew). In fact, it is only a small bunch of verbs that repeatedly appear, but those are essential.

The other thing you should keep in mind is that some irregular verbs are irregular throughout. That means they are irregular in the present and the past (like sehen – to see). Some are regular in the present and irregular in the past (gehen – to go). 

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What really is irregular about these German verbs?

As you may have noticed, the irregularity of verbs often lies in the change of the stem vowel.

This change can happen in the present tense, or more common in the Präteritum.

It is also accompanied by an irregularity in the Partizip 2. Due to assimilation, you will also find a half irregular form of verbs, which is only irregular in the Präteritum. These verbs are called “Mischverben” (mixed verbs).

Is your head already spinning? Let’s look at examples, it’s always easier that way.

Present tense

In the present tense the change of vowel usually happens and only occurs to the 2nd and 3rd person singular:

e → ie  e.g. sehen (to see): du siehst, er/sie/es sieht

e → i e.g. nehmen (to take): du nimmst, er/sie/es nimmt

a →  ä e.g. fahren (to drive): du fährst, er/sie/es fährt

In the Präteritum the vowel changes are not following one certain rule. Here you really have to learn the changes by heart.
But what can be said is that the German conjugation rules and endings are similar to the regular verbs. 

er, sie, esgingdurfte
Sie, siegingendurften

As with the regular verbs in the past tense, we have similarities here as well again. 1st and 3rd person singular share the same ending (or no ending), so do 1st and 3rd person plural. 

It is important to keep in mind that – as well as in English – the auxiliary and modal verbs are mostly irregular. The auxiliary verb sein (to be) is especially irregular in present and past.

The Partizip 2 of the irregular forms also have many faces. There are certain rules to construct the Partizip 2, but to be honest, it is a pain! And therefore we need to swallow a hard pill and just learn them.

It will be much easier with the tips and tricks down below.

4 Tips and tricks to learn German 

1. Raps

The one trick I was taught and worked best for me as a native speaker is to learn all verbs always in a trilogy.

Yes, a super cool trilogy! Like one of these action movies. And then make a song or rhythm out of them. No, really!

The trilogy will be: Infinitive present, 1st person Präteritum, Partizip 2

This has three major benefits. You will not forget that the verb is regular or irregular.

You will have your foundation already set if you need to construct the Präteritum and you already know the Partizip 2!

No construction of it, no getting confused which rule applies or where the ge– has to go. 

Let’s make some examples and please wiggle around a little while you imagine me rapping them 🙂 !

to go → gehen, ging, gegangen 

to drive → fahren, fuhr, gefahren

to see → sehen, sah, gesehen

to eat → essen, aß, gegessen

to be → sein, war, gewesen

to be able to → können, konnte, gekonnt 

to learn → lernen, lernte, gelernt

to kiss → küssen, küsste, geküsst

You can find the different German verb conjugations and tenses of the verbs at Duden.

2. Creativity

An easier way of learning for me always was and is to repeat them in a story that is so impressive or funny that I will not forget.
As I am learning Hindi at the moment, I can tell you, selling all boyfriends in the world and buying cheaper new ones makes me never forget the verbs for selling and buying and how to use them in a sentence. 

So please, go out into the world and use your words everyday. Be hilarious, be courageous, be experimental and even if you think it doesn’t make sense, say it anyway with pride! 

You might get some weird faces from people but you’ll also receive many many more smiles and laughs!

3. Use mnemonic example sentences

Mne… what? Yeah, these sentences are actually extremely helpful if you want to learn the vowel graduation of the irregular verbs in a different way. 

You create a sentence that contains a word, that itself contains both vowels that are present and changing in the verb you want to learn. Sounds complicated, but it is actually quite easy.

Have a look:

Let’s use the verb essen (to eat). Essen becomes aß in the Präteritum and gegessen in the Partizip 2. That means the vowel changes from e-a-e.

You have already learned the infinitive of essen and we only need to remember the change to a and e. 

Our mnemonic word could be Apfel (apple). Here also the first vowel is an a the second an e. 

But memorising just one word is confusing for our brain. So let’s create a sentence around Apfel: Ich esse einen Apfel. (I eat an apple)

What happens here with your brain are two things. One is that you connect the vowels to another word, which is easier to recollect, instead of learning dry structure. You also create a picture in your head that is now connected to the verb. 

4. Simply learn it

I remember my teachers telling me: “You have to simply learn it, Brita! There is no other way!”

There are not too many irregular verbs and once you get used to their sounds, your language feeling will take care of the rest. Repetition, repetition, repetition, is the game changer here!

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