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Flashcards in GRAMMAR Verbs/tenses Deck (17):

What are the basic verb tenses and moods in German?

The basic verb tenses in German are:





Futur I

Futur II

In addition to this, the German language also has several moods. While the verb tense indicates the time the action takes place, its mood indicates the reality of the action. The main moods in German are:


Konjunktiv I

Konjunktiv II


Note that the Konjuktiv I is only really ever used by journalists so we will not discuss it here.


Indicative mood introduction:

The Indikativ/Indicative mood is the most common in both English and German and it is used for describing reality: things that have actually happened, are happening or are expected to happen.


Konjuktiv II introduction:

The Konjunktiv II is similar to the conditional mood in English. It expresses hypothetical and/or conditional actions, and it usually uses a form of werden in the same way that English uses "would":

"I wouldn’t do that"- Ich würde das nicht tun.


Imperative mood introduction:

The Imperativ/Imperative mood is used for commands ("Go away!"; "Clean your room!").

It’s the easiest mood to learn in the German language, because it only exists in the present tense and the second person.

In German (but not in English) the infinitive form of the verb can also be used as an imperative in some circumstances.


Präsens introduction:

The Präsens corresponds to the simple present tense in English ("I take the bus") as well as the “emphatic” ("I do take the bus").

It can also be used to refer to future events, in which case it’s called the Futuristisches Präsens. In English there is a futuristic present too (e.g. "I get paid tomorrow" means "I will get paid tomorrow") but in German it’s more common.

And like all German verb forms, the Präsens can also translate to the equivalent continuous form in English: "I am taking the bus."


Perfekt and Präteritum introduction:

The Präteritum and Perfekt, are closely related to the English preterite and perfect tenses.

The Präteritum and English preterite are both formed with either a hard consonant ending (weak verbs), a vowel shift (strong verbs) or both (mixed verbs).

The Perfekt is formed by conjugating the verb haben (or sometimes sein) in the present tense and adding the participle of the main verb, just the way one would do with the verb "to have" in English.

Note however, these tenses do not translate directly between the two languages, despite their similar forms.

In English the preterite is mainly used, but in spoken German the Perfekt dominates.


Plusquamperfekt introduction:

The Plusquamperfekt is directly related to the past perfect (also called the pluperfect) in English.

It’s used for an action that was already completed at some point in the past.

It’s formed the same way as the Perfekt, except that it uses the past (Präteritum) form of haben or sein instead of the present form.


Futur I introduction:

The Futur I tense is similar to the English future tense

It uses werden the same way "will" is used in English:
"I will read it" --> Ich werde es lesen.

But note that there are other ways of expressing the future in English (like I’m going to read it) that don’t exist in German.


Futur II introduction:

The Futur II is similar to the English future perfect, with will + have in English and werden + haben/sein in German:

"I will have read it" --> Ich werde es gelesen haben.


The Present and Preterite Tenses:

The Präsens and Präteritum are the two "fully conjugated" forms in German (that is, they don't use an auxiliary verb), so it's good to learn them together.

Here’s the weak verb kaufen (to buy):


ich kaufe I buy
du kaufst you buy
er/sie/es kauft he/she/it buys

wir kaufen we buy
ihr kauft you (pl.) buy
sie/Sie kaufen they buy


ich kaufte I bought
du kauftest you bought
er/sie/es kaufte he/she/it bought

wir kauften we bought
ihr kauftet you (pl.) bought
sie/Sie kauften they bought

Notice the pattern:
The "en" ending of the infinitive is removed (sometimes it’s just an "n") and replaced with the appropriate ending.
The past tense endings are mostly just the present tense endings with an extra t.

These twelve endings are used for every weak verb in German, without exception.
Some of them are hard to pronounce if the verb has certain consonants at the end of the stem; in this case an e is added in between the stem and the ending (reden (to talk); ich rede, du redest,... Ich redEte, du redEtest,....)

Also notice that the Sie form, the formal second person is conjugated exactly the same as the third person plural (“they”). This is true for all tenses and moods, and for all types of verbs.

Strong verbs are a little different.

Strong verbs form their past tense with a vowel shift rather than an added t; some of them also have a (different) vowel shift in the present tense, but only ever in the 2nd and 3rd person singular. There’s no one rule for these vowel shifts - you have to learn them when you learn the verb.

Here’s the strong verb fallen (to fall):


ich falle I fall
du fällst you fall
er/sie/es fällt he/she/it falls

wir fallen we fall
ihr fallt you (pl) fall
sie/Sie fallen they fall


ich fiel I fell
du fielst you fell
er/sie/es fiel he/she/it fell

wir fielen we fell
ihr fielt you (pl) fell
sie/Sie fielen they fell

Notice that the present tense endings are the same as for weak verbs. Also notice how the vowel shift only ever occurs in the 2nd and 3rd person singular.

Also notice that with both strong and weak verbs, the 1st and 3rd person singular are the same in the past tense, and the 1st and 3rd person plural (we and they) are the same in both tenses.

And now a mixed verb.

Remember that there are only a few of these, and they combine the strong past stem changes with the weak past endings. Mixed verbs do not have the strong vowel shift in the present tense, except for wissen (which becomes weiß).

Here is bringen (to bring):


ich bringe I bring
du bringst you bring
er/sie/es bringt he/she/it brings

wir bringen we bring
ihr bringt you (pl) bring
sie/Sie bringen they bring


ich brachte I brought
du brachtest you brought
er/sie/es brachte he/she/it brought

wir brachten we brought
ihr brachtet you (pl) brought
sie/Sie brachten they brought

Remember that all of the strong as well as the mixed verbs are listed in the deck "Verbs/irregular verbs".


The Präsens and the Präteritum of the modal verbs:

Modal verbs are irregular in the
present singular tenses, and weak in the

Präsens :

ich darf kann mag
muss soll will

du darfst kannst magst
musst sollst willst

er/sie/es darf kann mag
muss soll will

wir dürfen können mögen
müssen sollen wollen

ihr dürft könnt mögt
müsst sollt wollt

sie/Sie dürfen können mögen
müssen sollen wollen

The modal verbs have weak endings in
the past tense, but they lose their umlauts
and mögen has a stem change:


ich durfte konnte mochte
musste sollte wollte

du durftest konntest mochtest
musstest solltest wolltest

er/sie/es durfte konnte mochte
musste sollte wollte

wir durften konnten mochten
mussten sollten wollten

ihr durftet konntet mochtet
musstet solltet wolltet

sie/Sie durften konnten mochten
mussten sollten wollten

Dürfen - to be allowed, permitted

Können - to be able to

Mögen - to like, to want

Müssen - to have to, must

Sollen - should, is supposed to

Wollen - to want


The Präsans and the Prätaritum of the German auxilliary verbs (sein, haben, werden)?

Präsens Präteritum

Ich bin war
habe hatte
werde wurde

Du bist warst
hast hattest
wirst wurdest

Er/sie/es ist war
hat hatte
wird wurde

Wir sind waren
haben hatten
werden wurden

Ihr seid wart
habt hattet
werdet wurdet

sie/Sie sind waren
haben hatten
werden wurden


The past participle:

In English, the perfect tense is formed with the present tense of the verb “to have” and the past participle of the main verb:

Have you written the report? Yes, I have written it.

In German it’s the same, except that sometimes sein (to be) is used instead of haben (to have). But before we get to that, we have to learn how to form German participles.

Weak verbs:

To form the past participle of weak verbs, add ge to the beginning, then drop the en or n and add t to the end. So kaufen, for example, would become gekauft.

Strong verbs:

Strong verbs take the ge- but keep their regular (–n or –en) infinitive ending. But they also often have a vowel shift, so the participle is the third and last irregular form that you have to learn for each strong verb – the first two being the present-tense vowel shift (if any) and the past stem.

Strong verbs are often given with all three irregular forms immediately after them, present-past-participle, like this:

halten (hält, hielt, gehalten) – to stop
riechen (riecht, roch, gerochen) – to smell
helfen (hilft, half, geholfen) – to help

(Annoyingly, some language dictionaries and textbooks leave out the present form in their list of strong verbs and just give past-participle. Try to find one that has all three, or just use the deck Verbs/Irregular verbs.)

Notice that the vowel in the participle can match the:
infinitive (halten/gehalten),
the past (roch/gerochen)
or neither (geholfen).

So unforunatelly the only way to learn them is by heart since there are no rules to follow.

Mixed verbs:

Mixed verbs are all of the second type, with the vowel in the participle matching the one in the past:

brennen (brennt, brannte, gebrannt) – to burn
bringen (bringt, brachte, gebracht) – to bring
denken (denkt, dachte, gedacht) – to think
kennen (kennt, kannte, gekannt) – to know (people)
nennen (nennt, nannte, genannt) – to name
rennen (rennt, rannte, gerannt) – to run
senden (sendet, sandte, gesandt) – to send
wenden (wendet, wandte, gewandt) – to turn
wissen (weiß, wusste, gewusst) – to know (facts)

Auxiliary verbs:

As for the auxiliary verbs: the participle of sein is gewesen, for haben it's gehabt, and for werden it's geworden or just worden, depending on the context.

The only other exceptions to the above rules are a group of weak verbs that end in -ieren.

These get the t but not the ge. So studieren (to study) becomes studiert in the participle (not gestudiert).

In other respects these -ieren verbs are completely weak, and they are some of the easiest German verbs to remember, because you can usually just drop the ending and get pretty close to the English verb. A few more examples:

diskutieren – to discuss
installieren – to install
informieren – to inform
fotografieren – to photograph existieren – to exist
markieren – to mark
integrieren – to integrate
realisieren – to realize / implement

Although the English forms are very similar, many of these –ieren verbs actually come to German through French, and they can occasionally come from German roots as well. Here are a few that are a little more distant from English:

buchstabieren – to spell (from the German Buchstabe, a letter of the alphabet)
etablieren – to establish (from the French établir)
jonglieren – to juggle (Fr. jongler)
regieren – to rule, govern (Fr. régir)
kaschieren – to conceal (Fr. cacher)


The Perfect Tense:

Once you know a verb’s participle, the Perfekt is formed by adding it to the present tense of haben or sein:


Ich habe gelacht.
I laughed.

Es hat funktioniert.
It worked.

Habt ihr gegessen?
Have you (guys) eaten?


Du bist aber gewachsen!
Have you ever grown!

Wir sind wieder zu Hause angekommen.
We arrived back home.

Sind sie da geblieben?
Did they stay there?

Your first instinct might be to translate every Perfekt statement in German with the perfect tense in English:

"I have laughed," "It has worked," etc.

But as you can see above, the most natural translation is usually the simple past (preterite) tense. There is effectively no connection between the Präteritum/Perfekt distinction in modern German, which is mainly a written/spoken one, and the preterite/perfect distinction in English, which is about the relationship between past and present.

Most verbs take haben with the participle, but some of the ones that take sein are pretty common. In general, sein is for verbs showing a change of location (movement) or a change of state/condition (transformation).

For example:

gehen – to go
kommen – to come
laufen – to walk, run change of state:
sterben – to die
wachsen – to grow
genesen – to recover, convalesce

There are some regional differences; generally, as you go further South you'll hear more verbs used with sein. For example, in Bavaria it's more common to say ich bin gesessen (I was sitting) but in the rest of Germany it's ich habe gesessen.

The Plusquamperfekt is used for an event that had already occurred before some other point in the past. It’s the same as the Perfekt, only it uses the past tense (Präteritum) of haben/sein instead of the present tense:

Es hatte bereits angefangen zu regnen, als Stefan nach Hause kam.
It had already started to rain when Stefan came home.

Wir waren bis zur Brücke gekommen, bevor uns einfiel, dass wir unser Geld vergessen hatten.
We had come to the bridge before it occurred to us that we had forgotten our money.

Damals hatten wir noch nie ein echtes Schloss gesehen.
At the time, we had never seen a real castle before.


Perfekt vs Präteritum:

In English, the preterite is used about 90% of the time, and the perfect is usually reserved for situations where a past action has ongoing implications or relevance in the present.

For example:
"have you seen the Godfather movies?"
(perfect – if you haven’t, you still could)

versus "did you see the circus while it was in town?"
(preterite – it’s too late to see it now).

In German, this distinction no longer really exists. There is a single concept of the past (die Vergangenheit) and the Präteritum and Perfekt tenses are interchangeable in expressing it.

In practice, Germans use the Perfekt for about 90% of speech; they only use the Präteritum in speech for the auxiliary and modal verbs and a few very common strong or mixed verbs. Overusing the Präteritum in speech will make you sound like a snob or a robot, depending on the context.

Here are the rules you should follow in spoken German:

1. Always use the preterite for sein:

Ich war glücklich.
I was happy.

Es war schönes Wetter auf der Insel.
The weather on the island was nice.

Warst du zu Hause?
Were you home?

Wir waren noch nie in Griechenland.
We've never been to Greece.

2. Always use the preterite for modal verbs:

Ich konnte es nicht sehen.
I couldn't see it.

Das solltest du schon gestern machen.
You were supposed to do that yesterday.

Durfte er nicht mitkommen?
Wasn't he allowed to come along?

Wir wollten aber nicht.
But we didn't want to.

3. Use the perfect tense for everything else:

Ich bin ihm am Sonntag begegnet.
I met him on Sunday.

Was hast du ihm gesagt?
What did you say to him?

Es ist vor langer Zeit gemacht worden.
It was done a long time ago.

Meine Vorfahren haben Deutschland vor 150 Jahren verlassen.
My ancestors left Germany 150 years ago.

You'll hear native speakers using more exceptions than these, of course, but they tend to be verb-by-verb (and often regional) preferences that you have to just pick up by ear.

Written German always uses the Präteritum more than spoken German, but just how much varies according to the context.

The Präteritum is most favored in novels, history and other literary/academic writing.

Journalistic content generally leans towards the Präteritum too, although not quite as much. In fact, most news stories begin with either the Präsens or the Perfekt before switching back to the Präteritum.

This usage of the Perfekt is one of the few remaining echos in German of that "relevance to the present" distinction. It just sounds a little more up-to-the-minute, more like news to begin a story that way.

Once you get to less formal writing -- personal emails, online posts, text messages,... it's much harder to offer any clear guidelines. You will definitely see a lot more Perfekt in these formats than you would in a novel, often because we tend to affect a looser "spoken" register (in any language) in these kinds of casual writing. But there's also more use of the Präteritum than in speech. The exact mix of the two depends on the person and the context.

All students of German are told to avoid the Präteritum in speech, but few take it seriously enough. The fact is, many native speakers are unaware that certain preterite forms even exist in their language unless they've learned about them in advanced grammar classes. This is especially true of the second-person preterite forms, since books and newspapers are almost never written in the second person.


The Future Tenses (and Futuristic Present):

The basic future tense in German is the Futur I; it’s formed with the present tense of the verb werden, and the infinitive of the main verb.

In English it is the same with will:

Ich werde dort ein Hotel suchen.
I will look for a hotel there.

Ich werde das Geschirr spülen.
I will do the dishes.
[literally, spülen is more like "rinse"]

To form the Futur II (future perfect), use werden + past participle + haben/sein.

Again it's similar in English: will have. The only difference is that, as always in German, the non-conjugated verbs move to the end of the clause:

Wenn ihr ankommt werde ich ein Hotel gefunden haben.
By the time of your arrival, I will have found a hotel.

Bis heute Abend werde ich das Geschirr gespült haben.
By this evening, I will have done the dishes.

In English there is also the more casual form "I’m going to..." to replace "I will..."
This form does not exist in German, so don’t try to translate it literally:
Ich gehe zu [verb] would not make sense. Just use werden instead.*

The futuristic present (Futuristiches Präsens) refers to a tendency in both languages to use the present tense for future events.

In English it is done in two main situations: when we have arranged to do something in the near future
("I’m going to the movies tomorrow") and when referring to an action that will take place according to a fixed (usually printed) schedule or timetable ("The train leaves in half an hour").

German also uses the present tense for these situations:

Meine Freundin besucht mich nächstes Wochenende.
My girlfriend visits [is visiting] me next weekend.

Der Zug fährt in 10 Minuten ab.
The train departs in ten minutes.

(Note that in English the progressive aspect is often used in these situations, "is visiting", which doesn’t exist in German.)

There are a few situations where German uses the futuristic present and English does not. The most important is an offer or promise to do something:

German (Präsens):
1. Ich zahle es dir Morgen zurück.
2. Ich hole dir eine Jacke.

Literal English (present):
1. I pay you back tomorrow.
2. I get you a jacket.

Correct English (future):
1. I’ll pay you back tomorrow.
2. I’ll get you a jacket.

There’s another case where use of the present is optional: predictions or speculation. In the case of speculation, we usually use may/might/maybe in English, and German uses vielleicht (perhaps):

German (Präsens):
Morgen regnet es.
Vielleicht gehe ich nächste Woche.

German (Futur I):
Morgen wird es regnen.
Vielleicht werde ich nächste Woche gehen.

English (future):
Tomorrow it will rain.
I may go [Maybe I’ll go] next week.

*(To be more specific: the verb phrase “going to” in English usually means that a future event is already planned or expected (“I’m going to do my homework later”) rather than the announcement of a decision (“I’ll do my homework later”). In German, “going to” will often have werden, or possibly schon or noch.

Ich werde meine Hausaufgaben später machen; Ich mache meine Hausaufgaben schon/noch. But an announcement is in the futuristic present: Ich mache mein Hausaufgaben später.)


The Konjuktiv II:

The Konjunktiv II mood is much more common than the Konjunktiv I. It’s used to express wishes, desires, speculation, conditionality, and other “unreal” conditions, and it usually translates in English with words like were, would, or could:

If I were rich, I would buy it.
Wenn ich reich wäre, würde ich es kaufen.

Although there are three ways to form the Konjunktiv II, you probably don't have to. Because in practice, the only verbs that are always conjugated in the Konjunktiv II are the modal and auxiliary verbs.

And among them, the main one you’ll use is werden, which works like would in English:

Would you help me with this?
Würdest du mir damit helfen?

Ich würde

Du würdest

Er/sie/es würde

Wir würden

Ihr würdet

sie/Sie würden

The other modal verbs as conjugated as follows:

Sein: wäre, wärest, wäre; wären, wäret, wären

Haben: hätte, hättest, hätte; hätten, hättet, hätten