German Present Tense – Regular Verbs

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of the YourDailyGerman – Online German Course.

Today, we are going to look at the most important part of the German language – the verb. Everything in a German sentence centers around the verb and the verb is what you need to identify if you want to understand what is going on in a sentence.

So in this lecture you will learn how to conjugate 99.999 % percent of all German verbs in present tense (the remaining few verbs will be covered in the next post).
It’s a pretty long lesson, but here’s the quick links so you can jump around:

  1. Present Tense – Basic Conjugation
  2. One Glitch – Vowel Shift
  3. Your new best frenemy – German Prefix Verbs
  4. Separable Prefix Verbs – Grammar, Word Order
  5. Inseparable Prefix Verbs – Grammar, Word Order

If you’re not sure what conjugating even means or if you want to find out more about this, you can check out my  Grammar Jargon Post here  but I’ll give a super short summary here.

In a nutshell, conjugating means to dress up your verbs such that they make for a nice couple with the subject. In some languages the verbs have this huuuuuge closet with all kinds of forms in there for any specific language occasion imaginable. I don’t want to point fingers but I am looking at you FRENCH :).
In other languages the verbs only have a few different outfits, so few that they easily fit into the verbs carry-on, these verbs won’t have any trouble to travel the world as they don’t have much luggage… like in English.

The German verbs are somewhat in between. They certainly have more clothes than the English ones but by far not as many as some other languages, like… I don’t know… FRENCH!!

Anyway, let’s get to the basics.

Present Tense – Basic Conjugation

German conjugation is really easy.
There are some exceptions here and there but not too many, and even those ones are not a big deal, so conjugating will be a piece of cake… now you might say “Hey the German verb sounds kinda cool… I think we’ll make friends quickly.” … well just wait till you have misplaced it for the gazillionth time GUAHAHHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAAAA!!!!!

For real, though… you’ll have your gripes with German verbs, but it won’t be because of conjugation.

So let’s start with a totally regular word that stands for one of the most extraordinary things:

lieben – to love

Oh crap. The soppy-meter is off the charts. Let’s love the rather mundane coffee to tone it down a little:

  • Ich               liebe Kaffee.
    Du                liebst  Kaffee.
    Sie             liebt   Kaffee.
    Er                liebt  Kaffee.
    Es                 liebt  Kaffee.
    Wir              lieben Kaffee.
    Ihr               liebt Kaffee.
    Sie               lieben Kaffee.

Now I guess that many of you can’t really concentrate right now so let me just answer your question and move on: I love you is Ich liebe dich.
Back to conjugation. First off, every verb has a dictionary form, aka infinitive. The dictionary form in German always ends in -en as in lieb-en, … oh wait exception report coming in… go ahead!… what?… some don’t?… so it’s like some just end in -n?… not a big deal though? Thank god. Don’t want to scare my students away… examples by any chance?… er-what?… erinnern? Ok thanks man. Stay alert.
So yeah ALMOST all dictionary forms end in -en. Some just have n like erinnern (to remember/to remind). The missing e has just disappeared over time. To conjugate, you take away the –en and add the correct ending. The endings are

  • Ich                 –e
  • du                  –st
  • er/ sie/ es   –t
  • wir      –en
  • ihr       – t
  • sie        –en

So these are the absolute basics. And before we talk about the details, it’s your turn :).

Well done. So now, let’s look at the finer points.

First thing to point out is the fact that the dictionary form and the form for we and they are identical. Then what is really important to know is that the s is the decisive letter for the du-form. Let’s take the German word for to applaud – klatschen (pron.: clutchen) and conjugate it:

  • Ich klatsch-e.
    Du klatsch-st.
    Er klatsch-t.

In klatschst you have 8 consonants and one little tiny vowel, so you might find this hard to pronounce. But as great a temptation you feel to skip a letter or 2 DO NOT SKIP THE S. You may skip the t but never the s because the s is what makes it the right dress for du. This also means that you should never put an s if the person is NOT du. Let’s look at kaufen (pron.: cow-fan)  – to buy.

  • Er kaufst ein Auto…. NOPE

This is wrong, and although it clearly has he in there, it will sound more likely like du is the person buying and you just accidentally used er. The s is just that strong.
This brings us to a legit question. “I have taken the -en away and now the stem ends in s?” An example would be küssen – to kiss. Well German is not crazy enough to put a triple s into a verb … yet… so the du-s just drops and the forms for du and sie/er/es are the same.

  • Ich küss –e. 
    Du küss –t.
    Er küss –t.

Now what happens if the stem of a verb ends with t, for examplewarten – to wait. In order to be able to pronounce that you need to add an e between the t of the stem and the ending.

  • Ich wart – e.
    Du wart-e-st. 
    Er wart-e-t.

But these things are really more practical little adjustments as opposed to different rules or exceptions. And now it’s your turn again.
Time to check if you paid attension with a little quiz :). Only four questions… shouldn’t be too hard.

So, now we know the basics of conjugation.  Well, almost. because there’s a bunch of verbs that need additional treatment… a so called vowel shift.

Verbs with vowel shift

As you progress in German, you’ll find that changing the stem vowel is actually an essential part of German. It’s a feature of Germanic languages in general and English has it, too. Just think of teach and taught.
And in German, we have a bunch of verbs that actually have a slight vowel shift even in the normal present tense conjugation. More specifically

For many (NOT ALL) verbs with “a” or “e” at the stem,
vowel gets lifted “upward” one step for the du-form and the er/sie/es-form. 

What do I mean by lifted upward? Well, “a” is changing to “ä”, and “e” changes to “i” or “ie” respectively, and those sound “higher”.
Let’s look at one example for each.

schlafen – to sleep

  • ich   schlafe.
  • du     schläfst
  • er/ sie/ es  schläft
  • wir schlafen

geben – to give

  • ich gebe.
  • du  gibst.
  • er/sie/es gibt.
  • wir geben
  • ..

Note that the lifting only affects du and er/sie/es and it only happens to verb with “a” or “e” and NOT all of them. And you can’t really tell from looks.
You kind of need to know the verb to know its character… fallen (to fall) changes, knallen (to bang) does not; sehen (to see) changes, gehen (to go) does not. I could give you a list now, but I think it makes more sense to not give this too much weight. Just pick it up as you go along. And if you forget a shift, people will absolutely still understand you. It just sounds quite clumsy.
So now we really know all the basics for German verb conjugation and we can talk about the verbs that have prefixes.
But before we do that, we’ll do another little test. And read carefully… some questions are a bit tricky :)


Your new best friend: German Prefix Verbs

People always talk about German genders and cases, but I think a more important feature of German are actually prefix verbs.  A base verb like gehen, combined with a little syllable like auf forms a new verb aufgehen. And the meaning of that new verb may or may not have something to do with the parts it is made from.
German has A LOT of those.
Just take a look at how many versions there are for the basic verb gehen (to go):

angehen, aufgehen, untergehen, hintergehen, nachgehen,
übergehen, ausgehen, vorgehen, eingehen, mitgehen,
vergehen, begehen, entgehen, zergehen, durchgehen,

That’s actually not all of them, believe it or not.
And as if that wasn’t confusing enough, most of those verbs mean two or three different things at once.
Usually, with some mind yoga, we can deduce a concept all the meanings have in common but at first sight they are different.
I think they’re really important and largely ignored by usual courses and textbooks, so you can find a LOT on German prefix verbs on this blog. I got you covered :).

But today we’ll focus on how to use them in present tense. Because there’s a bit of a… surprise there.
As far as the base verb goes, you just conjugate that normally. The prefix doesn’t affect the endings and changes in any way.
So aufmachen (to open) will get the exact same endings and changes as machen by itself.

The problem is with the prefix itself.
There are two kinds of prefix verbs in German.
One group is separable, the other group non-separable.
And actually, there’s a third group, a mixed group, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Separable Prefix Verbs

Separable prefix verbs have a weak link between the prefix and the base verb. That means that they are one word, one unit in the dictionary, but the connection is fragile. And as soon as you “touch it” because you want to use it, it breaks and have two separate parts – the base verb and the prefix.
And you’ll have to pay for breaking it. Not with money but with nerves because the prefix actually goes to the end of the phrase.
And that’s actually not a weird exceptional behavior of the prefix. Rather, it’s one of the most fundamental rules about German verbs.

Whenever your action/verbal phrase consists of more than one word,
one part is in the “normal” position, the rest lines up AT THE END.

Actually, as we progress, we’ll see that this is one of the fundamental characteristics of the German language as a whole, that’ll help us heaps with word order and negation and so on and I’d loooove to tell you about it right now, but it’s a bit much for the start.
For now, it is enough if you remember to put the prefix at the end of the phrase.
The verb aufstehen means to get up and it’s separable. So the link between prefix and base verb is weak. So as soon as you touch it, you will be left with the parts auf and stehen and the plain conjugation will be as follows.

  • Ich stehe auf.
  • Du stehst auf.

Now, it looks a bit as if I had only inversed the order of things but let’s see what happens when we add some more information into the sentence. The information about when I get up: morgen um halb 7 (tomorrow at half past 6).

  • Ich stehe morgen um halb 7 auf.
  • Du stehst morgen um halb 7 auf.

It is NOT

  • Ich stehe auf morgen um halb 7… WRONG

Our additional information comes BEFORE the auf. Auf  is at the very end.
This concept is crucial. In German, you often have to wait till the very end to know what’s actually going on.
Like… let’s take the verbs aufmachen and zumachen, which mean to open and to close.

  • Ich mache die Küchentür ___ .

The sentence is almost over and you don’t know whether I close the door or open it.
This is a challenge when listening and reading, because you have to “keep an open mind” until the end of the phrase. And of course it’s a challenge for speaking, because you have to remember that little prefix and add it to the end, or your sentence will sound really incomplete.

It’ll take a while to get used to this, but one thing that can help us is to understand that it’s to some extent a question of rhythm.
We start the sentence, then talk, talk, talk and then we end with a very distinct and emphasized auf or zu or whatever prefix it may be.

  • Ich mache gleich das Fenster in der Küche auf.
  • I will open the window in the kitchen in a second.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich mache gleich das Fenster in der Küche zu.
  • I will close the window in the kitchen in a second.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The prefix at the end is a focal point. It’s “ich mache blah blah blah blah” and then “BAM”. There comes the prefix.
It sounds like of silly, but you can train it by just saying “lalalala BAM”. Feel the flow of that, the rhythm. That’s kind of what German is like.
Of course it will take training to do all this but you will get there eventually.
So now we’ve seen how to use separable verbs in a sentence, and it’s time for another little quiz :)

And now let’s move on to the last topic for today. The other big group of prefix verbs – the non-separable ones.

non-separable prefix verbs

Non-separable prefix verbs are much easier to handle because the link between the prefix and the base verb is strong and doesn’t break. And they’re actually nothing new, because we have non-separable prefix verbs in English. To understand for example, which is a combination of under and stand. And by the way… it’s also a good example for how random prefix verbs can be. I mean… why the heck does understand not just mean standing under something?
We’ll do a lot of this mind yoga as we learn more and more prefix verbs. But for now let’s focus on the grammar.
The prefix doesn’t get separated from the verb, but it also doesn’t have an effect on the conjugation. And let’s take the German version of understand as an example.. verstehen.
And the conjugation is totally regular.

  • Ich verstehe Deutsch. (I understand German.)
  • Du verstehst Deutsch.
  • ….

And just to make sure… it is NOT

  • Ich stehe Deutsch ver…. WRONG

So non-separable verbs are really easy to handle and you don’t have to worry about moving the prefix to the end.

And now the big question a lot of you have is of course how to know which verbs are separable and which aren’t.
Well, basically all the weakly linked prefixes have a meaning themselves while (for the most part) the strongly linked ones mean nothing. But as a beginner you of course don’t know many words yet, so here are the important non-separable prefixes. It’s luckily just a few…

ver, ent, zer, be, ge, er, miss

so it might be a good approach to just learn those by heart. I mean it… learn them by heart.
As you can see, except for miss they all have just e as a vowel. The weakly linked ones have all kinds of other vowels. Like… mit, vor, nach, bei, zu, aus. So that’s an extra help.
Unfortunately, there’s this weird third group I mentioned.  It’s not many, but some prefixes  like über, unter, um or hinter can go either way. Sometimes they split, sometimes they stick… and they can do both with the same base verb, creating two completely different meanings.

  •  Ich stelle mich unter.
  • I take shelter.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Ich unterstelle dir, mein Bier genommen zu haben.
  • I accuse you of having taken my beer.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Ugh…. German in all its beauty.
Compared to the total number of prefix verbs in German (which is insanely high), those are just a few though, and you shouldn’t be worried about them too much.

One last thing before we wrap up though.
Actually, there’s not just a grammatical difference between separable and non-separable prefixes. There is also a difference in how you say them.
A weakly linked prefix will always carry a strong stress. In aufstehen for instance (do you remember what it means… we had it in the quiz ;)?) the auf-part gets a strong emphasis while the stehen is quite slurred in daily speech. In the non-separable verstehen on the other hand, the ver gets NO emphasis. The steh carries all of it.

  • AUFstehen
  • verSTEHen

It’s quite a different flow, so try to really feel that and get used to it. It’ll be quite helpful later on as we talk about past tense.

And thus we have reached the end of the first part on the German verb. I know it was a lot but here are the key points that you should take with you:

  • the verb endings
  • sometimes, we’ll make little adjustments to help pronunciation (example: du wartest instead of du wartst)
  • Some verbs with a or e get a vowel shift toward ä or i(e) respectively. You just have to learn which ones.
  • German has a group of prefix verbs, where the prefix is only weakly linked to the base verb. This prefix splits off and goes to the end when we use the verb in a sentence.
  • Most prefixes are separable. The ones that are always inseparable are ver, be, ent, er,ge, zer and miss

In the second part, we will talk about the very few irregular verbs in German, namely to be to have, the modal verbs and a few others.
So if you’re up for more, you can hop over right away :)

German irregular verbs

And of course if you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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