German Conjugation: Master and Learn the Essential Basics

Learn how to conjugate in German in this comprehensive guide.

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German conjugation is a crucial grammar topic and refers to the variation of German verbs to express basically who does something or what happens at a specific time. In particular, it refers to the changing of verb forms including stems, endings and composition.

German conjugation rules depend on the person (I, you, we, etc.), tense (present tense, simple perfect etc.), voice (active, passive), and mood (indicative, conjunctive, imperative), and we also have to distinguish between regular and irregular German verbs.

Let’s break it down in more detail:

Person: Shows who or what performs the action. Important for German is also the number, so if it is only one person (I, you, he, she, it) or more than one (we, you, they).

Tense: Shows when the action is, was or will be performed (in the present, in the past or in the future).

Voice: Like in English, we can express a certain relationship between the subject and the action in German. It is distinguished between an active voice (I write the book) and passive voice (The book is written by me).

Mood: We can change the mood of a verb to express a certain attitude. In German there are three different moods: indicative to state facts (It rains a lot.), conjunctive to express possibility, hypothetical facts or desire (It could rain later.), and imperative to give commands (Clean your room!).

All these aspects are reflected in German verb conjugation depending on what you want to say in which context. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to succeed in German conjugation. To keep it simple we’ll show German conjugation rules for the most frequent tenses and verbs in active voice and indicative mood. Let’s start.

Verb endings: -en, -eln, -ern

Let’s first take a look at the general structure of German verbs. As a German learner it is important to memorize the fundamentals about German verb forms. This is necessary for German conjugation rules since we always start from the basic verb form when modifying a verb – the infinitive. This is the form you find in a dictionary (to be, to make, to go etc.).

In German, the infinitive consists of a verb stem and a specific infinitive ending, example: spielen (to play)

The verb stem is the part of the verb that remains when you remove the infinitive ending. In the example above, the verb stem is spiel and the ending -en. The vast majority of German verbs end in -en, for example: kommen (to come), machen (to make), arbeiten (to work) etc.

Apart from that, there are two other possible endings for German verbs:

  • -eln: handeln (to act), klingeln (to ring)

  • -ern: ändern (to change), erinnern (to remember)

As you can see, we have three groups of German verbs: one large group of verbs that end in -en, and two much smaller groups of verbs that end in -eln and -ern.

Now you already know the basics about German verbs. Make sure to keep them in mind because whenever you want to conjugate verbs, you'll come back to it again and again.

Present tense conjugation

In German, we use the present tense to talk about general events and facts or when we do something at the moment of speaking or in the future (check out our ultimate guide to German tenses).

The conjugation rules for the present tense in German are quite simple. However, you need to pay attention to whether a verb is regular or irregular and which infinitive ending it has in order to know which conjugation pattern to follow. There are small but important differences. Don't worry, we'll break it down step by step.

Regular German verbs

Let’s start with a German conjugation chart for the easiest case: regular German verbs.

Conjugation chart for spielen (to play)

German English
ich spiele I play / I am playing
du spielst you play / you are playing
er/sie/es spielt he/she/it plays / he/she/it is playing
wir spielen we play / we are playing
ihr spielt you play / you are playing
sie/Sie spielen they/you (formal) play / they/you (formal) are playing

Rule: If you want to conjugate regular German verbs that end in -en, you simply remove the -en of the infinitive and add the respective endings of the person:

Conjugation endings

Pronoun Ending
ich -e
du -st
er/sie/es -t
wir -en
ihr -t
sie/Sie -en

It’s good to memorize them as you’ll see and use these endings a lot more in the following.

Let’s see how you do it for the verbs that end in -ern and -eln:

Conjugation chart for ändern (to change)

Pronoun Verb Ending
ich ändere -e
du änderst -st
er/sie/es ändert -t
wir ändern -n
ihr ändert -t
sie/Sie ändern -n

Rule: Remove -n only and add the endings from above. Please note that the forms of wir (we) and sie/Sie (they, formal you) only require an -n at the end (not an -en as in spielen).

Conjugation chart for handeln (to act)

Pronoun Verb Ending
ich handle -le
du handelst -st
er/sie/es handelt -t
wir handeln -n
ihr handelt -t
sie/Sie handeln -n

You can see that it almost follows the same pattern: For verbs that end in -eln, you remove the -n from the verb and add the endings you just learned. Only for the form of ich you should pay special attention since you need to invert -el to -le, and the forms of wir and sie/Sie require only an -n at the end as well.

That’s it for the basics already – quite easy, right?! Let’s move on to the slight exceptions and then the completely irregular German verbs.

Irregular German verbs

1. Verbs with endings -sen / ßen

Verbs ending in -sen and -ßen, e.g. reisen (to travel) and heißen (to be called), aren’t necessarily irregular verbs because they only have a slightly different conjugation: They don’t need an additional -s in the verb ending of du since the verb stem contains s/ß already.

Apart from that, they follow the typical German conjugation pattern.

To conjugate these verbs you remove the ending -en and only add -t for du (not -st as seen in the examples above).

Conjugating verbs with endings -sen / ßen

Pronoun Verb: reisen Veb: heißen
ich reise heiße
du reist heißt
er/sie/es reist heißt
wir reisen heißen
ihr reist heißt
sie/Sie reisen heißen

2. Verbs with a vowel change

Some German irregular verbs have a vowel change in its conjugation in present tense. However, they still follow a certain pattern: They can be verbs that contain an a or e in their verb stem and they only change their vowels for the du and the er/sie/es pronouns.

Let’s have an example for each case: sprechen (to speak) and schlafen (to sleep):

Conjugation of sprechen (to speak) and schlafen (to sleep)

Pronoun Change e -> i: sprechen Change a -> ä: schlafen
ich spreche schlafe
du sprichst schläfst
er/sie/es spricht schläft
wir sprechen schlafen
ihr sprecht schlaft
sie/Sie sprechen schlafen

As you can see, the e changes to i and the a to ä two times. If a verb changes the vowel or not is something that you need to memorize for this kind of verbs. There is no general rule for that. Some verbs with the vowels e and a in their verb stem change, some don’t.

A few more examples are: helfen (to help), geben (to give), fahren (to drive), lassen (to let).

3. Regular verbs with endings -den and -ten

Verbs without a vowel change as presented in the table above and ending in -den, -ten need an -e before the verb ending in du, er/sie/es and ihr.

Conjugating regular verbs with endings -den and -ten

Pronoun Verb: arbeiten Verb: sprechen
ich arbeite rede
du arbeitest redest
er/sie/es arbeitet redet
wir arbeiten reden
ihr arbeitet redet
sie/Sie arbeiten reden

Here you can see that they don’t change the vowels – they keep the e for each pronoun – but the verb stem ends in -t and -d. This is why the -e needs to be added to the endings.

In any other case – that means if the verb changes the vowel – it has regular endings without an additional e:

  • treten (to step) -> du trittst (you step) -> er tritt (he steps)
  • raten (to guess) -> du rätst (you guess) -> er rät (he guesses)

4. Completely irregular verbs

Completely irregular German verbs undergo some more changes and don’t follow the regular conjugation pattern that we’ve seen before – at least not for every person. Let’s have a look at the most important ones that you should definitely keep in mind as they belong to the most frequently used verbs in German:

Conjugation of completely irregular German verbs

Pronoun Verb: sein (to be) Verb: haben (to have) Verb: werden (to become) Verb: wissen (to know)
ich bin habe werde weiß
du bist hast wirst weißt
er/sie/es ist hat wird weiß
wir sind haben werden wissen
ihr seid habt werdet wisst
sie/Sie sind haben werden wissen

The sein, haben and werden conjugations are particularly important as they play a major role in the formation of compound tenses, such as the simple perfect (I have written) and future tenses (I will go).

Some other very important verbs in German are called modal verbs. They are used to express nuances of ability, permission and more:

  • können = to be able to / can
  • dürfen = may / to be allowed to
  • wollen = to want to
  • müssen = must / to have to
  • sollen = shall / to be supposed to

Understanding the usage of these verbs will help you to be effective in daily life conversation.

German modal verbs conjugation is somehow unique including specific vowel changes and endings:

Conjugation of German modal verbs

Pronoun Modal verb: können Modal verb: dürfen Modal verb: wollen Modal verb: müssen Modal verb: sollen
ich kann darf will muss soll
du kannst darfst willst musst sollst
er/sie/es kann darf will muss soll
wir können dürfen wollen müssen sollen
ihr könnt dürft wollt müsst sollt
sie/Sie können dürfen wollen müssen sollen

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Simple past conjugation

In German, we can use the simple past tense – known as “Präteritum” – to describe actions in the past. While it is not as common as the present perfect in German daily life conversation, you will definitely find it more frequently in formal writing.

Here’s what you need to know about conjugation rules:

German regular verbs

German Regular verbs follow a specific pattern and use the typical ending of the Simple Past -te and add the respective personal ending. Let’s use the verbs from the beginning:

Simple past conjugation of German regular verbs

Pronoun Verb: spielen Verb: ändern Verb: handeln
ich spielte änderte handelte
du spieltest ändertest handeltest
er/sie/es spielte änderte handelte
wir spielten änderten handelten
ihr spieltet ändertet handeltet
sie/Sie spielten änderten handelten

Rule: You remove -en or -n, add -te , followed by the personal endings -st (du), -n (wir, sie/Sie) and -t (ihr).

Look out for the following particularity: If the stem ends in -t, -d, -tm or -chn, you need to place an extra -e before the -te.

  • arbeiten (to work) -> ich arbeitete (I worked)
  • reden (to talk) -> du redetest (you talked)
  • atmen (to breath) -> er atmete (he breathed)
  • zeichnen (to draw) -> wir zeichneten (we drawed)

German irregular verbs

For German irregular verbs, the stem changes and they use the same personal ending as the regular verbs. The important thing to note here: -te is not used here. Let’s conjugate the irregular verb gehen (to go).

Conjugation of the irregular verb gehen (to go)

Pronoun Verb: gehen
ich ging
du gingst
er/sie/es ging
wir gingen
ihr gingt
sie/Sie gingen

Other examples of irregular verbs in the Simple past tense are kommen (to come), lesen (to read) and werden (to become).

Conjugation of irregular verbs kommen (to come), lesen (to read) and werden (to become)

Pronoun Verb: kommen Verb: lesen Verb: werden
ich kam las wurde
du kamst last wurdest
er/sie/es kam las wurde
wir kamen lasen wurden
ihr kamt last wurdet
sie/Sie kamen lasen wurden

Talking about German irregular verbs, here are some of the most commonly used ones:

  1. Firstly, the German sein (to be) conjugation and haben (to have) conjugation are quite unique forms which is why you need to memorize them apart from the regular German conjugation rules.

Conjugating the verbs sein and haben

Pronoun Verb: sein Verb: haben
ich war hatte
du warst hattest
er/sie/es war hatte
wir waren hatten
ihr wart hattet
sie/Sie waren hatten
  1. German modal verbs conjugation: We’ve already seen these before in the section on irregular verbs in the present tense, and we’ll take a look at them again here as you’ll use them a lot in this tense. Please note that the sollen and wollen German conjugations actually follow the regular pattern and don’t have any irregularity in the simple past. However, as they belong to the group of modal verbs, we recommend learning them together with the other modal verbs.

Conjugation of German modal verbs

Pronoun Modal verb: können Modal verb: dürfen Modal verb: müssen Modal verb: sollen Modal verb: wollen
ich konnte durfte musste sollte wollte
konntest durftest musstest solltest wolltest
er/sie/es konnte durte musste sollte wollte
wir konnten durften mussten sollten wollten
ihr konntet durftet musstet solltet wolltet
sie/Sie konnten durten mussten sollten wollten

Let’s review

German conjugation may seem a bit daunting at first since there are several rules and irregularities.

This is why you should at first keep the basics in mind that we covered in the beginning: The vast majority of German verbs end in -en, a few others in -eln and -ern. Take it from there and you will easily get the stem and the respective endings for regular German verbs in present and simple past tense.

If you got that you can go ahead and look out for the irregularities, such as vowel changes of the stem or an additional -e in some cases. Some verbs need to be learned separately as the don’t follow any regular patterns at all – at least not for every person, like sein (to be), haben (to have) or the modal verbs, like können (can/to be able to) or wollen (to want).

With some dedication you will soon become an expert of German conjugation. Now it’s time to practise!

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