Verb Tenses

Verb Tenses

  • Throughout this page, reference will be made to the distinction between strong and weak verbs.  Click here to read about this, or follow the links on this page.
  • There is unfortunately no alternative to memorizing the forms of the strong (irregular) and mixed verbs (which are also irregular, but follow the ending patterns of the weak verbs). Here is a great annotated list of these verbs. Rather than trying to actively memorize them, we recommend that you read through this list once a day to get a feeling for these verbs, until you feel confident that you’ve developed a healthy “conjugation instinct.” When deciding how to conjugate a given verb, you can then think: “Have I studied this verb (or its stem) before?” If yes, then hopefully your instinct will tell you what the form will be, based on your having read over it multiple times. If you don’t remember studying the verb (or its stem), chances are it’s a weak (regular) verb, and so you can follow the regular conjugation patterns for it. More advice for learning the forms of the strong, weak and mixed verbs is here.
  • Modal verbs follow somewhat different conjugation patterns. Click here to learn more
    about modal verbs when you have read this page.
Practice Exercises

NOTE: Click here for details about some unfamiliar terminology you’ll find on these sites (especially re: the Subjunctive!)

Netzverb Wörterbuch Also provides tables of noun endings.

Verbix Verb Conjugator Available for multiple languages.

Cactus2000 German Verb Tables Home of the “KonjugationsHase” (conjugation bunny). Who knew grammar could be so cute? Also includes Passive and “Statal Passive” forms further down the page.

Conjuguemos Verb Conjugation Practice Choose a tense, then choose a game – or the very useful flashcard mode – to practice!

Präsens [Present Tense] Overview of Past Tenses in German
Perfekt [Perfect Tense/Conversational Past] Präteritum [Narrative past, Simple Past, Imperfect]
Plusquamperfekt [Past Perfect] Futur [Future Tense]
Imperativ Reflexive Verben
Verbix Verb Conjugator This very cool site will show you the conjugation of pretty much any verb you can think of in any language you can think of. Click here for the direct link to German, but do check out the main site for (linguistic) fun sometime!.

Practice Exercises

  • Ist das logisch? In order to get used to the forms of the Perfect Tense, decide whether the sequences of actions are logical or illogical.
  • Morgenroutinen Practice the Perfect Tense by saying what various people did this morning.
  • Warum müssen diese Kinder nachsitzen [=go to detention]? Practice the Perfect tense by saying what these bad little boys and girls have done.
  • Reisefotos Practice the Perfect tense by writing descriptions of the photos in this exercise.
  • Im Jahre 1000 Get used to the forms of the Präteritum by deciding whether these statements about the year 1000 are true or false.
  • Die Geschichte der Universität Michigan Practice the narrative/simple past by supplying the missing information in this history of the University of Michigan.
  • Märchen Practice the Past Perfect (Plusquamperfekt) by combining sentences about Grimm fairy tales using “nachdem.”

Practice Exercises on Other Sites

  • Rotkäppchen Practice the Präteritum (Narrative Past) by filling in the correct verb forms in a series of statements based on the fairy tale. This exercise, compiled by Dr. Olaf Böhlke at Creighton University, includes feedback and hints for each item.

Präsens [Present Tense]

Regular verbs

Regular verbs follow the following conjugation pattern in the present tense:

gehen to go, to walk
ich gehe wir gehen
du gehst ihr geht
er/sie/es geht sie/Sie gehen

Having trouble remembering e.g. what “ihr” means?  Click here to review the meanings of the nominative pronouns. This poster contains two ihr-forms, one past, one present [“You humans made us sick. Now you’re eating our disease”]:

Stem-changing verbs

Stem-changing verbs have stem-changes only in the 2nd and 3rd person singular.  As an example, here is the verb “sehen,” which has a stem-change from “e” to “ie”:

sehen to see
ich sehe wir sehen
du siehst ihr seht
er/sie/es sieht sie/Sie sehen

Types of stem-changes

The following stem-changes are common:

  • e ==> i: ich esse ==> du isst; ich vergesse ==> du vergisst; ich werde ==> du wirst
    (see below); ich sterbe ==> du stirbst

    • this change is common for verbs with a short e, but also occurs for three important verbs with a long e: ich gebe ==> du gibst; ich nehme ==> du nimmst; ich trete ==> du trittst
  • e ==> ie: ich sehe ==> du siehst; ich lese ==> du liest; geschehen [=to happen ==> no ich-form] ==> es geschieht
    • this change is common for verbs with a long e
  • a (or au) ==> ä (or äu): ich fahre ==> du fährst; ich lasse ==> du lässt; ich schlafe ==> du schläfst; ich laufe ==> du läufst; ich saufe ==> du säufst

The following stem-changes occur only once:

  • o ==> ö: ich stoße ==> du stößt [push, shove]
  • ö ==> i: erlöschen ==> das Feuer/das Licht erlischt [=goes out]

Haben, sein, werden

These important verbs are conjugated as follows in the present tense. These patterns should be second nature to you, as you will be using them again and again to form the other tenses and verb forms:

haben to have
ich habe wir haben
du hast ihr habt
er/sie/es hat sie/Sie haben
sein to be
ich bin wir sind
du bist ihr seid
er/sie/es ist sie/Sie sind
werden to become
ich werde wir werden
du wirst ihr werdet
er/sie/es wird sie/Sie werden

I go vs. I am going

German has no equivalent to the English “-ing” form. ==> “I am going” and “I go” are both translated by the regular present tense in German:

I go. Ich gehe.
I am going. Ich gehe.
Ich bin gehen.
I eat. Ich esse.
I am eating. Ich esse
Ich bin essen.

More details

Click here to see more details, e.g. about verbs like “arbeiten” whose stem ends in a -t, about the conjugation of the verbs “wissen” and “tun,” or about how to translate the “Do” that often introduces yes/no questions in English.

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Overview of Past Tenses in German

English has all kinds of ways to express past events, and there are subtle differences in meaning between them: I went, I have gone, I was going…

German has two past tenses, which we are calling “Perfekt” and “Präteritum” in this course, and there are no differences in meaning between them.  The difference is simply that “Perfekt” (the two-word-past-tense) is used in informal contexts (speaking and informal writing), and “Präteritum” (the one-word-past tense) is used in more formal writing and speaking.

Perfekt [=Perfect Tense] Two-word
Ich bin gegangen
Informal Either form translates “I went,” “I have gone” and “I
was going”
Präteritum [=Narrative Past, Simple Past, Imperfect] One-word
Ich ging

Students often wonder why the two-word form, which seems more complicated, would be informal, while the seemingly simpler one-word form is formal.  It turns out that formal language is actually very often much simpler than informal language: as one example, think how much harder it would be to teach someone everything involved in saying “I ain’t gonna learn no &*%#@ Präteritum” and saying “I will not learn the Präteritum.”

When to use the Präteritum in speaking

The formal/informal distinction is actually not so clear-cut. You will in fact see some two-word forms in formal writing, and hear some one-word forms in informal speech.  There are few clear rules regarding this.  You need to know that Präteritum is usually used in speaking for the following verbs:

haben sein modal verbs: können, müssen, dürfen, mögen, wollen, sollen
konnte, musste, durfte, mochte, wollte, sollte etc.

For the modal verbs, the reason for this is that to form the perfect tense with a modal verb, one actually needs a double infinitive construction, which sounds awkward in speaking: it is much simpler to say “Ich musste Kenny töten” than “Ich habe Kenny töten müssen.” [I realize this contradicts the argument I just made above about informal language generally being more complicated than formal language… 🙁 ]

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Perfekt [Perfect Tense]

Basically, the perfect tense is formed by combining haben or sein with the past participle of the verb.  So you need to know the rules for the formation of the past participle, and the rules for deciding between “haben” and “sein” as the auxiliary verb.

Warm-up: an example for fun

Karl, was hast du getan? [Lamas mit Hüten] Listen for the many examples of the Perfect Tense in this short video about a murderous lama. Some of the harder sentences from the video, and some useful expressions, are listed below. Then, read the grammatical explanations that follow, and finally, watch the video again and see if the Perfect Tense forms now make more sense to you.

  • Da liegt ein toter Mensch in unserem Haus = There’s a dead human lying in our house.
  • Wie kommt der denn hier rein? = How did he get in here?
  • Karl, was hast du getan? = Karl, what did you do?
  • Ich war’s nicht = It wasn’t me
  • Erzähl mir, was passiert ist= Tell me what happened
  • Ich hab ihn noch nie in meinem Leben gesehen = I’ve never seen him before in my life
  • Warum hast du diese Person umgebracht? = Why did you kill this person?
  • Ich töte (keine) Leute = I (don’t) kill people
  • Ich bin auf ihn zugegangen = I went up to him
  • Ich hab ihn 37 mal in die Brust gestochen = I stabbed him in the chest 37 times
  • Das wusste ich nicht = I didn’t know that
  • Mein Fehler = My mistake
  • Ich hatte einfach Heißhunger auf Hände = I was just really, really hungry for hands
  • Ich hatte Hunger auf Hände, also lass mich = I was hungry for hands, so just leave me alone
  • Was ist nur in dich gefahren, Karl? = Whatever got into you, Karl [i.e. how could you do something like this]?
  • Das sind zwei verschiedene Sachen = Those are two different things.

haben vs sein

If in doubt, use habenSein is used if

  • the verb describes motion (e.g. running, jumping, skipping, but not e.g. writing or nodding one’s head, which do involve motion, but are not primarily “about” that motion) or a change of location (e.g. travelling or moving from one house to another [umziehen])
  • the verb describes a change of state (e.g. waking up or falling asleep, but not sleeping itself, which is a constant state)

In addition, even if the verb describes motion, “sein” is not used if the verb has an accusative object (e.g. “Ich bin gefahren,” but “Ich habe das Auto gefahren”).


The verbs sein, bleiben [=to stay], passieren [=to happen], geschehen [=to happen] and gelingen [=to succeed] use sein as their auxiliary, even though they do not really describe motion or changes of state.


The following table summarizes the main points by some contrastive examples:

sein haben
Ich bin gerannt / gesprungen / gelaufen / gehüpft /  gegangen[Motion] Ich habe gegessen / getrunken / gelesen / gelacht /  gesungen/ Tennis gespielt / Fußball gespielt / meine Tante besucht [=visited]…
[Note that many of these activities involve motion, but are not primarily “about” moving]
Ich bin gefahren
Ich habe den Porsche gefahren
[Motion, but the verb has an accusative object]
Ich bin geflogen
Ich habe das Flugzeug geflogen
[Motion, but the verb has an accusative object]
Ich bin eingeschlafen [=fell asleep], Ich bin aufgewacht
[=woke up]
[Changes of state]
Ich habe geschlafen
[A constant, very pleasant state]
Ich bin gestorben [=died]
[Change of state]
Ich habe Barney getötet [=killed]
[I changed Barney’s state, but not my own]
Ich bin nach Kuba geschwommen
Ich habe/bin geschwommen
[If you are not swimming to get somewhere, you can use haben or sein with schwimmen. Haben is more common. More details (which you do NOT need to master for German 101-232) are on this page (auf Deutsch!)]

Formation of the past participle

Strong [Irregular] vs Weak [Regular] Verbs

Past participles of strong [irregular] verbs end in -en. Past participles of weak [regular] verbs end in -t.  Past participles of mixed verbs (the 8 or so weak verbs that are nevertheless irregular) also end in -t.

Rules for the “ge”

  • Normally, “ge-” is placed in front of the past participle: geschlafen, gelacht, gesagt, gesehen…
  • Separable prefix verbs have the “ge” between the prefix and the rest of the verb: ferngesehen, aufgemacht, aufgestanden, mitgekommen…
  • Verbs with inseparable prefixes such as “be-,” “ent-,” “ver-,” and “ge-” do not get a “ge” in their past participles: bezahlt, entdeckt, verstanden, gefallen…
  • Verbs ending in -ieren are always weak and don’t add “ge”: studiert, dekoriert, alarmiert…


The following table summarizes the main points regarding the formation of the past participle:

[irregular] verbs
[regular] verbs

Du hast gesehen/ gegessen/geschlafen

Du bist gelaufen/gegangen/gestorben

Du hast gelacht/gesagt/ gearbeitet

Du bist gewandert/gehüpft

Du hast gebracht/ gekannt/gedacht/
gebracht/gewusstDu bist gerannt.
Prefix Verbs

Du hast mitgenommen/ ferngesehen/ abgenommen

Du bist umgezogen/ weggegangen/ eingeschlafen

Du hast eingekauft/ abgeholt

Du bist aufgewacht

Du hast mitgebracht

Du bist weggerannt.

Prefix Verbs

Du hast verstanden/ begonnen/bekommen

Du bist entkommen/ entstanden

Du hast entdeckt/ verkauft/übersetzt

Du bist entflammt [=burst into flames]

Du hast erkannt

Du bist verbrannt

hast studiert/ diskutiert/probiertDu bist explodiert/ kollidiert

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Präteritum [Narrative Past, Simple Past, Imperfect]

As discussed above, this tense does not differ in meaning from the perfect tense, but is used
in more formal writing, whereas the perfect tense is for more informal conversation.

Präteritum endings differ for strong and weak verbs.

Here is the pattern of endings for the strong verbs in this tense:

gehen to go, to walk
ich ging wir gingen
du gingst ihr gingt
er/sie/es ging sie/Sie gingen

Notice that this pattern of endings (i.e. no ending for the first and third person singular) is already familiar to you from the pattern of endings for the modal verbs in the present tense.  The verb “sein” actually follows this pattern without any irregularities:

sein to be
ich war wir waren
du warst ihr wart
er/sie/es war sie/Sie waren

Here is the pattern of endings for the weak and mixed verbs in this tense:

sagen to say
ich sagte wir sagten
du sagtest ihr sagtet
er/sie/es sagte sie/Sie sagten

Again, this pattern of endings (i.e. no ending for the first and third person singular) will already be familiar because it is the same as the pattern of endings for the common “pseudo-modal verb” “möchte” in the present tense.  The verb “haben” follows this pattern without any irregularities:

haben to have
ich hatte wir hatten
du hattest ihr hattet
er/sie/es hatte sie/Sie hatten

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Plusquamperfekt [Past Perfect]

I lied a little bit in the past tense overview above. German does have another past tense: the Plusquamperfekt. As in English, it is not usually necessary to use this tense. It is used to emphasize that a past event had happened before another past event.

Forming Plusquamperfekt

This is very easy: just take the Perfect Tense form of the verb and replace “haben” or “sein” with the corresponding form of “hatte” or “war” respectively:

Infinitive Perfekt Plusquamperfekt Translation
gehen Sie ist gegangen [=She went] Sie war gegangen She had gone [before some other thing happened]
essen Er hat gegessen [=He ate] Er hatte gegessen He had eaten [before some other thing happened]
aufwachen Ihr seid aufgewacht [=You all woke up] Ihr wart aufgewacht You all had woken up [before some other thing happened]
denken Wir haben gedacht [=We thought] Wir hatten gedacht We had thought [before some other thing happened]


Note that the “other” clause accompanying a clause in the Plusquamperfekt can be in the Präteritum (in more formal writing) or the Perfekt (in speaking or informal writing). It is occasionally possible for both clauses to be in the Plusquamperfekt, as in the last example.

Bevor sie ins Bett ging, hatte sie einen Brief geschrieben.

Bevor sie ins Bett gegangen ist, hatte sie einen Brief geschrieben.

Before she went to bed, she had written a letter.
Sie war müde, weil sie in der Nacht alle 2 Stunden
aufgewacht war.
She was tired, because she had woken up every two hours
during the night.

Nachdem Sie die Fruchtbarkeitspillen zweimal genommen hatte, wurde sie mit Fünflingen schwanger.

Nachdem Sie die Fruchtbarkeitspillen zweimal genommen hatte, ist sie mit Fünflingen schwanger geworden.

After she had taken the fertility pills twice, she became pregnant with quintuplets.
Ihre Freunde hatten sie gewarnt, aber sie hatte nicht auf sie gehört. Her friends had warned her, but she had not listened to them. [These two past events, the warning and her not listening to it, both took place before the event mentioned in the previous sentence (the pregnancy with quintuplets) and are in the past
perfect tense for that reason.]

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This is formed by conjugating the verb werden in the present tense, and leaving the main verb in the infinitive.

If the sentence already contains a time expression indicating the future (morgen, nächstes Jahr etc.), you can just use the present tense since it’s then understood that you’re discussing the future.  But for the following examples we’ll pretend that’s not an option….


Ab morgen werde ich jeden Tag meine Füße waschen. Starting tomorrow I will wash my feet every day.
Nächste Woche werde ich ein neues Paar Strümpfe kaufen. Next week I will buy a new pair of socks.
Meine Eltern werden mir das Geld dafür geben. My parents will give me the money for that.
Dann wird mein Hund nicht mehr winselnd wegrennen, wenn ich nach hause komme. Then my dog will not run away whimpering anymore when I come home.

Wollen vs Werden

Because English uses “will” to indicate the future, students are often tempted to use “wollen” to form the future in German, but this just means that you want to do something, not that you
will do it.

Ab morgen werde ich jeden Tag meine Füße waschen. Starting tomorrow I will wash my feet every day.
Ab morgen will ich jeden Tag meine Füße waschen. [not future tense] Starting tomorrow I want to wash my feet every day.
Nächste Woche werde ich ein neues Paar Strümpfe kaufen. Next week I will buy a new pair of socks.
Nächste Woche will ich ein neues Paar Strümpfe kaufen. [not future tense] Next week I want to buy a new pair of socks.

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The imperative is used for commands.

Formal (Sie-) Imperative

This is alarmingly easy.  Just use the infinitive of the verb followed by “Sie”:

Bitte geben Sie mir den Schnuller, Herr Maier. Please give me the pacifier, Mr. Maier.
Herr Maier, essen Sie das nicht! Don’t eat that, Mr. Maier!

Informal (Du-) Imperative

To form this, use the present tense du-form of the verb, and then knock off the (s)t ending.  Doing this will automatically give you the appropriate stem-changes for stem-changing verbs,
with one exception: stem-changes from a ==> ä and from au ==> äu and o ==> ö do not carry over into the Du-Imperative. By analogy with the Sie-Imperative, one is often tempted to
add the pronoun “du” after the verb, but this is not used with the Du-Imperative.

Infinitive Present tense du-form Du- Imperative Translation
gehen Du gehst Geh weg!
Geh du weg!
Go away!
essen Du isst [note the stem change from e ==> i] Iss
mich nicht!
Iss du die Sardelle!
Don’t eat me!
halten Du hältst [note the stem-change from a ==> ä.  This is not carried over into the imperative form] Halt [Hält] mich fest!
Halt du mich fest!
Hold me tight!
sehen/ schauen Du siehst [note the stem change from e ==> ie]/ Du schaust Sieh/Schau
mir in die Augen!
Sieh du mir in die Augen!
Look into my eyes!

Click here for more detailed charts and more examples

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Reflexive Verben

Here are just the most basic facts about reflexive verbs:

  • A verb is reflexive if the object of the action is also the subject of the action, i.e. if someone is doing something to him- or herself, as when I introduce myself or I buy myself a new Bruce Springsteen CD.  There are many common sense parallels here between German and English, but some verbs are reflexive in German and not in English, and vice versa.
  • The reflexive pronoun comes “ASAP” in the sentence, i.e. generally immediately after any other pronouns in the sentence, bearing in mind that the verb’s position is fixed and all
    the other sentence elements must work around it.
  • The reflexive pronoun will be in the accusative if the person performing the action of the reflexive verb is the only object of that action.  If another object is specified, the reflexive pronoun will be in the dative.  Thus if I just say that I am washing myself, I use an accusative reflexive pronoun (Ich wasche mich), but if I specify the part of myself that I am washing, I use a reflexive pronoun in the dative, because now that part of my body
    is the direct object of the action and I’m just the recipient/beneficiary of that action (e.g. Ich wasche mir die Füße).
  • You only really need to remember this distinction in the ich- and du-forms, because for all other forms of the reflexive pronoun, the accusative and dative forms are the same:
Reflexive Pronouns
Reflexive Pronouns
ich mich mir
du dich dir
er/sie/es sich sich
wir uns uns
ihr euch euch
sie/Sie sich sich


Putzt du dir jede Woche die Zähne? Do you brush your teeth every week?
Nein, aber ich wasche mir alle fünf Minuten die Hände. No, but I wash my hands every five minutes.
Dann kannst du dich ja nie entspannen! Then you can never relax!
Große Genies haben keine Zeit sich zu entspannen! Great geniuses have no time to relax!

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