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.

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Starbuck
Starbuck
1 year ago

Man sagt dass man beide Pronomen und Verb nutzen muss… Aber habe ich gefunden, dass viele Menschen “ich” (zusammen mit “-e”) oder “du” wegfallen lassen.

Gespräche an Tinder/Grindr z.B. “was suchst?”, “komm aus Österreich” (manchmal “von Österreich” aber von ist falsch oder?), “Was arbeitest?” usw… oder – echt verwirrend – “komm gleich”, das wie ein Befehl klingt aber oft “ich komme gleich” heißt.

(Berightungen bitte, wie immer :) )

Anonymous
Anonymous
1 year ago

Bin ich spat sur diese partyt?
Ich wohne in India, und spreche ich fliesend Hindi und Marathi – das grammer fur beide ist gleich wie Deutsche
(Ich hoffe das grammatik ist richtig)

rahway1
rahway1
1 year ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Sehr interessanten Texte. Ich habe zwei Fragen:

  1. Welche Sprache ist am besten geeignet, um Informationen zu vermitteln?
  2. Welches Wörterbuch empfehlen Sie? Leo und DeepL Translate zeigen ‘auflegen’ (oben im Text) wie ‘hang up’. Ich kämpfe darüber, wenn ich Englisch zu Deutsch übersetzen versuche.
lkc368
lkc368
3 years ago

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 :)

Sandra Alvarez
Sandra Alvarez
3 years ago

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.

Sarahswids
Sarahswids
4 years ago

“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!

SaeedNebo
SaeedNebo
4 years ago

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

margit
margit
5 years ago

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.

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

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! :)

Diane Merlock
7 years ago

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!

Sheera
Sheera
7 years ago

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

Keoki Maka Kamaka Kiili
Keoki Maka Kamaka Kiili
7 years ago

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

Attila the Hungarian
Attila the Hungarian
7 years ago

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

Attila the Hungarian
Attila the Hungarian
7 years ago

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
7 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Okay, so in Hungarian, there are 14 vowels. They are divided into two categories: high vowels(e,é,i,í,ö,ő,ü,ű) and low vowels(a,á,o,ó,u,ú). Being an agglutinative language, Hungarian has lots of suffixes, a lot of which change, depending on whether the vowels in the word are high or low.(When both kinds appear, the suffix type is usually decided by the last vowel.) This is called vowel harmony The suffixes used for conjugations also have different forms based on bowel harmony. (Sometimes there is a different ending for ö,ő,ü, and ű, because they’re rounded, while e,é,i, and í are not. Such distinctions do not exist for low vowels though.) In my previous post, I wrote “direct or indirect object” but I used the terms wrong. It’s supposed to be “definite or indefinite. The difference between definite and indefinite conjugation is that a verb in definite conjugation has a definite object, while in indefinite it doesn’t.(Which either means that it has an indefinite object, or that it has no object.) I don’t really want to overuse complex grammatical terms here, but I have to call them something to be able to talk about them. Basically, it’s related to the difference between definite and indefinite articles. If the verb’s object has a definite article, it’s definite conjugation. If it has an indefinite article, it’s indefinite conjugation. So “I play a game” is indefinite, while “I plax the game” is definite. Another way to decide is that if your object can be replaced by “this” or “that”, it’s definite conjugation, if it can’t, it isn’t. Example of a verb with high vowels: kérni – to ask for(that -ni marks the infinitive form, just like the German -en. This is not how you’d find the verbs in the dictionary though, because the most basic form of the verb is the stem – in this case ‘kér’ – which is conveniently also the indefinite third person singular form.(As a side note – I find it interesting that while Hungarian marks the third person the least, in English the third person us the only one that is marked.)) Indefinite conjugation én kérEK – I ask for (a car) te kérSZ – you ask for (a car) ő kér – he/she/it asks for (a car) mi kérÜNK- we ask for (a car) ti kérTEK – you (all) ask for (a car) ők kérNEK – they ask for (a car) Definite conjugation én kérEM – I ask for (the car) te kérED – you ask for (the car) ő kérI – he/she/it asks for (the car) mi kérJÜK – we ask for (the car) ti kérITEK – you (all) ask for (the car) ők kérIK – they ask for (the car) Example of a verb with low vowels: adni – to give Indefinite conjugation én adOK – I give (someone a car) te adSZ – you give (someone a car) ő ad – he/she/it gives (someone a car) mi adUNK – we give (someone a car) ti adTOK – you (all) give (someone… Read more »

metebalci
metebalci
3 years ago

This was a great summary. I am native Turkish speaker and I know Hungarian and Turkish has some connection considering the language groups but I didnt know more than this. Turkish is very similar as you described above, using your example, in Turkish:

sor(uyor)(um)
sor(uyor)(sun)
sor(uyor)()
sor(uyor)(uz)
sor(uyor)(sunuz)
sor(uyor)(lar)

sor is the root form „ask“
(uyor) is the present continuous tense suffix.
second paranthesis is the person suffix.

Like you said, Turkish also have vowel harmony and the suffixes above may slightly change in different verbs, but nothing radical and it is very regular. For example, I am giving is ver(iyor)um, uyor became iyor because of „e“ in the verb root instead of o above.

I think, maybe luckily, there is no change in conjugation for definite or indefinite cases, these are only indicated as suffixes on the objects (nouns).

Turkish doesnt have Gender, so he/she/it has a single pronoun and single suffix. Amazing even both languages have no suffix for 3rd person singular.

Lastly, Turkish has different tenses (eg present, present continuous, 2 different past, future) and moods, and each of these have different set of suffixes or a combination (eg past continous is present continous suffix plus past suffix).

mobutu
mobutu
7 years ago

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.

Arylana
Arylana
8 years ago

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
2 years ago
Reply to  Arylana

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?

Igor Tirkajla
8 years ago

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

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

German conjugation is difficult. :(

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Ok, I guess it could be worse. Maybe I am just lazy. Thanks. :)

Marcel
Marcel
7 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Indonesian, well Malay and Javan, has neither declension nor conjugation.
I, you, he, we, etc, walk yesterday, now, tomorrow.
One apple, two apple apple.
Many auxiliary verbs are replaced with adverbs. It’s supposedly very easy to learn. I prefer languages with all the bells and whistles, Latin, Russian, must try Finnish, yet somehow classical Greek was beyond me. Mostly because I just couldn’t memorize the words. Somewhat ‘animal farm’: rules good, words bad!

Chip
Chip
2 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

So, my first thought was… I thought all European languages were latin based. And, I agree! If English is Germanic, and German is boring, English is moreso. No wonder so many countries use it as a second language. I often wish I could! :-) That could be a great excuse for learning German :-/ I’m actually learning it to make English my second language.
(Though I think the Brits would say, American *is* a second language and not English; so I may be onto something. British is not boring to me…. I mean English is not…. (sigh) I think you get it… perhaps.)

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago

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