What does “to conjugate” mean

Hello everyone, if Lisa were a verb, she would conjugate

and welcome to our Grammar Jargon section. Today we will have a look at a rather wide-spread term –

to conjugate

Whenever you learn a language this word will be thrown at you from the beginning assuming that you know what it is. If you don’t and you dare to ask… well you might be given a half-assed explanation that doesn’t really explain anything.
However , it is hard to use a different word for it as to conjugate describes one particular action you need to do with the verb. So instead of calling it to conjugate you could call it …..hmmmm…. to changeatize or dress-upatize to make it sound more dynamic and cool. But… it’s there, it is a word and to conjugate is one example for grammar jargon, that you really need to learn.So let’s dive right in. 

First we’ll explain what conjugating actually is and then we are going to have a look whether every language does it and to what extend it is necessary.

What exactly is to conjugate? 

In a language that conjugates every verb has different wardrobes. First there is the infinitive robe. That is the one the verb is wearing when it hangs out in the dictionary or when it just accompanies verb like to want or to have to. Now as soon as the verb has to go to work, meaning it has to go to a sentence to do what it means, it will first check with which person it is going to team up for that and in what time. Person in this case doesn’t mean specific persons like Thomas or Maria, it means the grammatical or linguistic person. This person basically describes the relation between the speaker, so the one who says the sentence, and the listener. There is I, you, he, she, it, we you all and they. And he can be Thomas or Marc and you all could be 3 people or 3 Million. So depending on with whom of these persons it is going to the sentence and what the time is (present, past, future etc.) the verb will put on a certain outfit to match the person and make for a nice couple… if your sentence is a little soirée then the verb and the subject are the hosting couple and they want to look good together. The verb dresses a certain way – it conjugates.

Now let’s look at an example. We will take the verb to be.

  •  I am
  • You are
  • He is
  • We are
  • You are
  • They are 

As you can see the verb has 4 different dresses in total and its dictionary outfit doesn’t even vaguely resemble the other. But to be has also found the dress ‘are’ to be so pretty that it wears it most of the time.

For the rest of the English verbs the conjugation has almost completely disappeared. Only when the verb goes out with he/she or it it will still put on its little posh ‘s’… and there is the dress for past tense and the dress with -ing of course.
In Swedish the verbs do not do anything like that anymore in present tense. So whoever is their partner, they dress up the same. The other extreme are the Roman languages. Their verbs have one distinct dress for every single person and the dictionary form. They also have a set of dresses for pretty much every tense while the English verbs usually call up a buddy if they need to do future or conditional or something. English verbs have successfully outsourced most of the tenses while the Romans are happy with their huge closet.

The German verb is somewhere in between. It has a dress for I, You, he/she/it and you all and it puts on its dictionary form for we, they and the polite you. Let’s have a quick look at an example and take the verb konjugieren… any wild guess what that could be :) :

  • Ich konjugiere.
  • Du konjugierst.
  • Er konjugiert. Sie konjugiert. Es konjugiert.
  • Wir konjugieren
  • Ihr konjugiert.
  • Sie konjugieren.

So everyone conjugates as it seems :) .  At least in language class. The conjugation in German is fortunately really simple, so this won’t be too much of a problem.

And now let’s get to the question you are all yearning to answer.

Is conjugation really necessary?

The answer is clearly no, as there are obviously languages that can get along without just fine. You could also speak German without ever conjugating but it would sound very very very very […] very very odd. Just imagine the English verb “to  be” were to grab the wrong suit by accident and your sentence ends up being:

  • We am going to the library.

Furthermore the German verb has this certain tendency to come at the very end of a sentence. When this sentence happened to be a little longer, a correctly dressed / correctly conjugated verb is a good reminder of who the subject is.

  • Tonight, we will go to the party, because my friend, who has been working there as a resident for a while, got us some free tickets.
  •  Wir gehen heute abend zur Party, weil mein Freund, der in dem Club seit einer Weile regelmässig auflegt, uns Freikarten besorgt hat.

If you end the sentence with haben, a German will be very confused as to who supplied the free tickets.
So conjugation partly carries the information about the subject and some languages make ample use of that. Italian is one example of them. Italian verbs have a specific dress for every person, so they all conjugate. Consequently the subject can actually stay at home or have a quick espresso somewhere… oh the stereotypes :).

  • Leggo.
  • Read.
  • I read.

This does not work in English. By just saying “read” all I know is that it is not he, she or it.
Now some of you might say “Oh great, so since the person already indicated by the verb in German, I don’t have to embarrass myself by trying to pronounce ich anymore……. Sweeeeeeet.”

Well I am sorry but no! That is not possible in German. You have to conjugate and say the person anyway.

So… we have reached the end. To conjugate a verb means to dress it up properly to fit the subject. Some languages do it extensively, some do it half-assed and some don’t do it at all. But if the language does it, be it half-assed or not, mistakes will sound very very wrong.

Hope you enjoyed it and see you next time.

for members :)

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Amanda
Amanda

This is an awesome explanation, Thanks. You is helpful very!;-)

Anonymous
Anonymous

German conjugation is difficult. :(

Igor Tirkajla

My native Serbian has 3 different pronouns in 3rd person plurar to pair the verb with :) So, er, sie or es have their plural counterparts.
Greetings from a beginner in German course from Belgrade. Very informative, useful and entertaining blog you have.
Igor

Arylana
Arylana

not only Thai … it’s also in Malay. No conjugation at all. I go = Saya pergi, We go = Kami pergi, They go = mereka pergi, He goes = Dia pergi (for both male, female) and so on. In fact no past tense, no past participle, no cases, no nothing. :) Now that’s an easy language. With that being the mother tongue, I suffer a lot trying to master German ..

Chip
Chip

If I’m understanding you, it does seem easy! But, I’m concerned that you are always suffering. Because without the past tense, how does one stop suffering?

mobutu
mobutu

Hello, thumbs up for a really nice work you are doing here!
I chime in just to let you know about a funny grammar error in your original post:

“Is conjugation really necessary?
The answer is clearly no, as there is obviously languages that can get along without just fine.”

The correct way is:
The answer is clearly no, as there ARE obviously languages that can get along without just fine.

Thanks and keep up the good work.

Attila the Hungarian
Attila the Hungarian

As a native Hungarian, I find German conjugation quite easy. In Hungarian, the verbs are conjugate differently based on what the vowels are in them, and have 2 forms in either category based on whether their object is ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ (basically, “I play a game” is conjugated differently than “I play the game”).

Attila the Hungarian
Attila the Hungarian

But Hungarian does have articles. There ate some forms that don’t show the difference, so we still need the article.

Keoki Maka Kamaka Kiili
Keoki Maka Kamaka Kiili

vielen dank. I speak English very well but I did not pay any attention to the conjugation of words in the English language. I just said what I needed to say in the proper tense without knowing that I was conjugating. Now I understand more in trying to learn German. my teacher is 73 years age and retired from teaching and knows 6 languages. however, she is concentrating on teaching me the German language with her own special techniques which seems to be very similar to you way and thoughts. Vielen dank. however, she makes the German words come alive with life whenever I begin to learn something new. and I feel the same way as I do with your explanations. Vielen dank. I will continue to refer to you to help speed up my learning process and to surprise my teacher.
vielen dank

Sheera
Sheera

Omg this was an amazing explanation, thank you so much. I’ve now bookmarked your site! Thank you again!!! :)

Diane Merlock

Thank you for your website! I regret that I did not take advantage of the opportunity to learn German when I was stationed in Germany (’79 – ’83). I dabbled in the language, so I didn’t go hungry or naked (shopping for clothes), or get lost, but even then most of the native population spoke English when I needed to communicate. And they wanted to practice their English apparently more than I wanted to learn German. Now that I am retired I have the time, and the drive, to learn a language. My mother (a Hertensteiner) and maternal grandmother (Scheid) would be happy to know that I am finally learning their native language.

Again, thank you for all the time you put into this incredibly informative site!

Anonymous
Anonymous

I just came across your website and I find it absolutely AMAZING! Very well and simply explained! I’m so liking it! I applaud you for the sense of humor in between lines! :)

margit
margit

We do not conjugate the verb by person in Norwegian either, I also doubt they do it in Danish. They probably do it in Icelandic though, they stick to their old grammar. Our verbs do not come at the end of the sentences, so I guess it is not necessary to conjugate the verb according to person.

SaeedNebo
SaeedNebo

this is the best place for learning German, it helped me a lot

Sarahswids
Sarahswids

“stay at home or have an quick espresso somewhere… oh the stereotypes :)”
Here, because the indefinite article is not pressed up against espresso you can say “have a quick espresso,” “an” sounds awkward.
Sorry if you don’t like corrections in English, I’m just assuming since this is a space to improve in languages it will be encouraged/appreciated and not seen as mean (because it’s not, I’m just trying to be friendly!)

Vielen Dank!

Sandra Alvarez
Sandra Alvarez

Hi Emmanuel, I saw in a newspaper article recently an instance where the writer did not use ‘Ich’ because it was implied that the reader understood the context without having to add it. It REALLY stood out since this has been beaten into my head that you MUST include the pronoun in German ( I speak Polish, and like Italian, you can leave the ‘I’ out since the end of the first person always indicates it can only be that). Are there literary flourishes that writers can use when they get advanced enough to leave that “Ich” out? Why can’t you say, ‘Fliege nach London’, for example, if you are in a conversation with someone where they know you are talking only about yourself? Just curious.

lkc368
lkc368

Interesting. Chinese language do not conjugate at all, not for past present or future, not for numbers, not for any reason. A character is a character. So it is much simpler to learn. Japanese conjugate based on social status, so you need to know your place there to communicate properly :)