Word of the Day – “sein”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. The first ever word of the day, actually. And so we’ll look at the most basic verb there is:



Sein is German for to be. It’s ALSO the German word for his, but that’s really just one of many… uhm… funny coincidences the German language has in store for beginners.
Anyway, sein is the most irregular verb in the German language. Actually, it’s the ONLY really irregular verb in German, because German conjugation is quite chill. But yeah…. sein is classic LBH-material (Learn-By-Heart).

Here it is in present tense:

Ich                 bin       schön.
Du                  bist      schön.
Sie (er/es)   ist         schön.

Wir                sind       schön
Ihr                 seid       schön.
Sie                 sind      schön.

And here it is in past tense:

Ich                 war          in London.
Du                 warst      in London.
Sie (er/es)   war         in London.

Wir                waren     in London.
Ihr                 wart        in London.
Sie                 waren     in London.


As you can see, the forms are pretty “wild” but you might also have noticed some parallels to English. The “bin” low key resembles “to be” and the past “war” kinda sorta looks like “was/were”.
The reason WHY to be and sein have such a patchwork of forms is the Germanic tribes actually literally puzzled together parts of three distinct roots – we could call them the b-root (be, been, bin, bist), the es-root (am, is, ist, sind…) and the was-root (war, was…). Of course the tribes didn’t do that on purpose. These things just kind of evolved over centuries. One branch is used for past, another one for present. And sometimes, two forms were used in parallel before the people finally settled on one. In Middle English for instance there were forms like  I be, thou beest which look a lot like German but they just weren’t as popular as am and are. So yeah, both languages, German and English kind of “recruited” their forms the same pool, but they didn’t recruit the same forms. Hence the differences we see today.
By the way… to be is not the only patchwork verb like that. Another nice example is to go. The past form is went, which doesn’t look ANYTHING like to go. And that’s simply because it actually comes from to wind. People just ended up using it as the past for to go.

But anyway… these relations are of course nothing you need to remember. I just wanted to mention it because the verbs to be and sein with their forms really are kind of strange.
But learning by heart is the name of the game for this one. But it won’t take long because of course you’ll need this verb very, very frequently. And in German, you actually even need it for the spoken past quite a bit.
And speaking of past… the ge-form (past participle) of sein is gewesen (a distant relative of “was”) and the spoken past is done with … sein :)

  • Ich bin gewesen.
  • I have been.

And if you’re now like “Wait, what’s spoken past, what’s ge-form and why does have translate to bein?” then I’ll recommend you the grammar course… here’s the link to the first episode.

German Grammar Essentials – Part 1 – Personal Pronouns

You’ll also find lots more examples for sein there and practice the forms.
To wrap this up here is the famous Shakespeare-line in German:

  • Sein oder Nichtsein,  das ist hier die Frage.

Advanced learners might have noticed that the compound word Nichtsein  is capitalized and hence a noun. This appears to be the most widespread translation of “to be, or not to be…”. However, it is not the most logical choice and not the closest translation either.
The literal translation of Nichtsein would be nonexistence.
Whereas in the original version, Hamlet ponders two different actions (to be or not to be) , in German he has to decide between two “things”.
I don’t know why this obvious shift has come to be the most agreed upon translation to date but I honestly have to disagree. I have heard the phrase numerous times and I would have written it as follows:

  • Sein oder nicht sein,  das ist hier die Frage.

This is pronounced exactly the same as the former version but it is closer to the English original because the pending choice  is between two actions “sein” and “nicht sein”.
If you know the reason for the German translation you are welcome to leave a comment.
*nerd-mode off
Anyway… I hope you enjoyed this very first word of the day and see you next time.

Oh… here’s a little quiz, by the way :)

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2 months ago

Hi there! Could you explain (either here or somewhere else) the construction “Es ist” in the sense of using sein with “es” first to make it more of a statement? For example, it seems to me that you could say “Pizza ist übrig,” but you could also say “Es ist Pizza übrig,” but is there a reason you’d use one over another? Another question that’s coming to mind as I type this is if you could also substitute “Es gibt” here.

You could also do this with werden in the sense of “Es werden 3 Schüler die Prüfung schreiben” or “3 Schüler werden die Prüfung schreiben.” Similarly, “Es sind 3 Schüler im Unterricht” instead of “3 Schüler sind im Unterricht.” Do you know what the difference is here?

2 months ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Oh great, thank you! I think I just looked in the wrong article then. I appreciate it!

10 months ago

Servus! Ich habe in der Zeitung “sei” und “seien” gesehen und kann den Unterschied nicht verstehen.

Ich habe diesen Artikel gefunden: https://dschule.de/seien-oder-sein/ aber er ist auf Deutsch und super verwirrend.


“Ein zentraler Punkt sei auch, bereits ausgebildete Pflegekräfte, die nicht (mehr) in diesem Beruf arbeiten, wieder zurückzugewinnen.”

“Man sehe es den Menschen nicht an, wie ernst ihre Erkrankung sei, da müsse man schon genauer hinschauen”

1 year ago

Perhaps someone has already asked this question? Why is the Hamlet quote not translated as “Zu sein oder nicht zu sein?” Am I perhaps misunderstanding the use of the preposition “zu?” Please help.

1 year ago

I’ve been enjoying your posts for a while, then I though ‘why not start from the beginning?’ so here I am with ‘sein’. Great stuff, thanks.
One point, my information is that ‘went’ is the past of ‘wend’ (not ‘wind’). https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2016/06/went.html
Wend is still used very occasionally, often in the phrase ‘to wend ones weary way’

1 year ago

Danke, Emmanuel, Sie sind der einzigartigste Deutschlehrer, den ich je gesehen habe. Wäre ich früher hier gewesen, würde mein Deutsch bisher bestimmt makellos :) Danke sehr

1 year ago

It find it interesting that said tribes decided to use Sein which implies existence to also use it to imply masculine possession or was it the other way around? :) also ihr to indicate female is possessions is weird imo

Julian Koch
Julian Koch
3 years ago

Thank you very much for this great article about the German verbs haben and sein. It helped me a lot to understand hte basic principles. By the way.. I have a little suggestion.. why don’t you add graphics to you articles as on https://language-easy.org/german/grammar/verbs/to-have-in-german/ ? That would make the topic a bit more illustrative.. Thanks again and Greetings from Bolivia!

4 years ago

What do you mean when you refer to “participle 2”?


8 years ago

I frequently get mixed up between using sein and werden, given in english, they can be both “be” depending on “to be” and “to become”.

What would then be the difference in meaning between the two following sentences for “to be missing” according to Leo.dict?

1) using : als vermisst gemeldet sein “Er ist als vermisst gemeldet”

2) using : als vermisst gemeldet werden “Er wird als vermisst gemeldet”

I don’t understand the subtle difference in meaning… I understand that with werden, it is the passive, but I can’t recognise the subtle difference in meaning between the two sentences, and when one would use one over the other…

Vielen Dank im Voraus!

8 years ago

I assume that you have deliberately missed to add Subjuntive forms of verb ‘sein’ here presumably to not to confuse the beginners. But i was hoping that someone like you could well explain those complex structures easily and not to bore away the readers.
This is one of the first verbs that i learned and it didn’t look hard to grab, until i encountered the Subjuntive mood of this.

Regards, Hunny

Adriano Marcato
Adriano Marcato
8 years ago

that’s it? no jokes? no abstraction glasses? after meeting the blog so advanced stage I decided to see the first posts. again very nice blog, It’s speeding my german learning so much!

9 years ago

I think that Hamlet means with that phrase the existence and so they translated it to Nichtsein!

Pooni (@Pooni)
10 years ago

I am in Grundstufe A2 right now and want to continue onto B1. However after falling short for B1 in a placement test by 4 punkte…its time i pulled up my socks and started taking Deutsch seriously! :D And then i stumbled upon serendipitiously onto ur wonderful Blog..Thank you so much for all the work u put into this lovely blog. I appreciate it a lot! Vielen Dank!