Verbs (action words)

(Use, function, and form of German verbs)

Table of contents – verbs

On this page you will find the following:

  1. What are verbs?
  2. Function in the sentence
  3. Finite and non-finite verb forms
  4. Further explanations and exercises

What are verbs?

Verbs (in German: Verben) are words that express activities, processes, and states. Therefore, they are also called action words. In German grammar, they can be conjugated and are always written in lower case.

  1. A verb belongs to one of these three groups:
    • Main or full verbs do not need another verb and can be used as the only one in the sentence:
      • gehen (to go), trinken (drink), fliegen (fly), werfen (throw), etc.
        • „Ich gehe ins Kino.“ (I’m going to the movies.)
    • Auxiliary verbs cannot appear alone in a sentence and so require an additional main verb:
      • haben (have), werden (will), sein (be)
        • „Markus hat gegessen.“ (Markus has eaten.)
    • Modal verbs express modality and mostly accompany an appropriate main verb too:
      • mögen (to like to), dürfen (be allowed to), sollen (should), müssen (must / have to), können (can), wollen (want)
        • „Man darf hier nicht rauchen.“ (You mustn’t smoke here.)
    • Information: Especially when learning German as a foreign language, the auxiliary verbs (werden, sein, haben) together with the modal verbs (können, wollen, etc.) are often referred to as the group of basic verbs.
  2. Moreover, grammar categorizes Germanic verbs into strong and weak verbs:
    • Strong verbs, for example, change the root vowel in different tenses (the past participle [Partizip II] ends in ‘-en’):
      • trinken → trank → getrunken (drink, drank, drunk)
      • gehen → ging → gegangen (go, went, gone)
      • springen → sprang → gesprungen (jump, jumped, jumped)
      • schreiben → schrieb → geschrieben (write, wrote, written)
      • essen → aß → gegessen (eat, ate, eaten)
    • Weak verbs maintain their root vowel:
      • fragen → fragte → gefragt (ask, asked, asked)
      • machen → machte → gemacht (make, made, made)
      • denken → dachte → gedacht (think, thought, thought)
      • drücken → drückte → gedrückt (press, pressed, pressed)
      • kehren → kehrte → gekehrt (sweep, swept, swept)

Function of the verb in the sentence

A verb (action word) has the task of forming the predicate (i.e., the verb and all its components) in the sentence which represents the grammatical core of the utterance.

Information: Be aware that the notion of the German predicate differs in some respect from the English one. See the predicate for a detailed explanation.

  • Verbs may occur as follows, establishing the central element in a statement:
    • „Heute arbeite ich zu Hause.“ (Today, I’m working at home.)
    • „Die Bank wurde schon zweimal ausgeraubt.“ (The bank has already been robbed twice.)
      • In this sentence, we have a two-part predicate, which means that it consists of two verbs here.
    • „Der Koch ging direkt in den Weinkeller.“ (The chef went straight to the wine cellar.)
    • „Er habe es nicht getan, meint er.“ (He did not do it, he says.)

Finite and nonfinite verb forms

Verbs are further divided into finite and non-finite forms. The finite verb forms are conjugated. In most cases, you can tell by the verb itself (i.e., without personal pronoun) in which grammatical person, number, and tense it stands. Non-finites are unconjugated verb forms. They may still be inflected, but they do not reveal which person, number, or tense is used. Consequently, the following distinction is made:

  • Finite verb forms:
    • Example: machst
      • It is clear that this form of the verb ‘machen’ (to make) is conjugated in the 2nd person singular, Präsens (present).
    • Example: redet
      • Careful: This form of ‘reden’ (to talk) may be the 3rd person singular, Präsens, or the 2nd person plural, Präsens (present).
  • In the German language, only the following three nonfinite verb forms exist. They always appear together with a finite verb:
    • The infinitive:
      • Examples: sprechen (to speak), machen (to do), träumen (to dream), etc.
        • „Ich muss gehen.” (I have to go.)
          • The pronoun ‘Ich’ and the modal ‘muss’ indicate the 1st person singular, Präsens (present) although the infinitive ‘gehen’ does not.
        • „Wir werden zahlen.” (We will pay.)
          • Likewise, this sentence expresses the 1st person plural, Futur I (future), but not just through the word ‘zahlen’.
    • The Partizip Präsens or Partizip I (present participle):
      • Examples: sitzend (sitting), redend (talking), trinkend (drinking), etc.
        • Rauchend fuhr er Auto.” (Smoking, he drove his car.)
          • The 3rd person singular, Präteritum (past), is only expressed by the finite form, not by the present participle.
        • „Die Zeit vergeht fliegend.” (Time flies.)
          • 3rd person singular, Präsens (present)
    • The Partizip Perfekt or Partizip II (past participle):
      • Examples: geflogen (flown), gemacht (done), gesprungen (jumped), etc.
        • „Wir haben über das Thema gesprochen.“ (We have spoken about the topic.)
          • It is the finite ‘haben’ and not the past participle ‘gesprochen’ that conveys the 1st person plural, Perfekt (perfect).
        • „Ihr hattet den Termin vergessen.“ (You had forgotten the appointment.)
          • 2nd person plural, Plusquamperfekt (pluperfect)

Further explanations relating to the ‘Verbs in German grammar’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Verbs (action words) in the German language’ and could be helpful as well: