Auxiliary verbs

(Using auxiliary verbs in German grammar)

Table of contents – auxiliary verbs

On this page you will find the following:

  1. What are auxiliary verbs?
  2. Particularities
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What are auxiliary verbs?

A limitation of auxiliary verbs (in German: Hilfsverben) is that they cannot form the predicate of a German sentence independently. They still need a non-finite form of the main verb. Therefore, an auxiliary does not assume a lexical function but provides information about the grammatical person, number, mood, and tense. The German auxiliary verbs are ‘haben’ (have), ‘werden’ (will), and ‘sein’ (be). Note, however, that these can also be main verbs depending on their usage. In contrast to English grammar, there are no verbs in the German language that can be only auxiliary verbs.

  • The auxiliary verbswerden’ (will), ‘haben’ (have), ‘sein’ (be) fulfill various functions:
    • On the one hand, they help to construct compound tenses that include a non-finite verb form of a main verb too:
      • „Wir hatten uns ein neues Auto gekauft.“ (We had bought a new car.)
        • Plusquamperfekt (pluperfect tense)
      • „Die Meiers sind gestern abgereist.“ (The Meiers left yesterday.)
        • Perfekt (perfect)
      • „Claudia und Markus werden sich morgen den neuen Film im Kino ansehen.“ (Claudia and Markus are going to watch the new film at the cinema tomorrow.)
        • Futur I (future)
    • On the other hand, auxiliary verbs are required for forming the passive voice and being part of it in connection with a full verb and its non-finite form:
      • „Unser neues Haus wird gerade gebaut.“ (Our new house is being built at the moment.)
        • Präsens (present tense)
      • „Unser altes Haus wurde bereits abgerissen.“ (Our old house has already been demolished.)
        • Präteritum (past/preterite)
      • „Das Maisfeld wird bald bestellt werden.“ (The corn field will be tilled soon.)
        • Futur I (future)
    • Finally, there is the progressive form, which is, however, only common in colloquial language. This form is also constructed with the auxiliary verb ‘sein’:
      • „Wir sind noch am Durchrechnen, ob es sich lohnt.“ (We’re still figuring out if it’s worth it.)
        • typical for the spoken language

Information: Here you can find the conjugation forms of ‘haben’, ‘werden’ and ‘sein’.

Particularities when using auxiliary verbs

A particularity of some auxiliary verbs is the possibility to be utilised as full verbs and copular verbs. Furthermore, they may express modality by adding a preposition to the phrase. Compare:

  • Usage of the verb ‘haben’ (to have) as a full verb to indicate possession:
    • „Peter hat ein teures Fahrrad.“ (Peter has an expensive bicycle.)
    • „Michaela hatte immer gute Noten in der Schule.“ (Michaela always got good grades in school.)
  • Use of ‘werden’ (will) and ‘sein’ (to be) as copular verbs:
    • „Herr Maier ist der Bürgermeister.“ (Mr Maier is the mayor.)
    • „Nils wird bald Student.“ (Nils will soon be a student.)
  • Moreover, the verbs ‘sein’ and ‘haben’ may also express modality. For this, however, they require the preposition ‘zu’ (to) and an infinitive that follows:
    • „Wir haben noch einige Arbeit zu erledigen.“ (We still have some work to do.)
      • This sentence with ‘haben’ and preposition corresponds to the statement:
      • „Wir müssen noch einige Arbeit erledigen.“ (We still must do some work.)
    • „Die Maschine ist sehr einfach zu bedienen.“ (The machine is very easy to operate.)
      • Likewise, the sense of this utterance is similar to:
      • „Die Maschine kann sehr einfach bedient werden.“ (The machine can be operated very easily.)

Further explanations referring to the ‘Auxiliary verbs’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Using auxiliary verbs in German grammar’ and could also be helpful: