A section of A guide to German
English is one of the simpler languages for verbs. German is slightly more complicated, although from what I hear it is a lot simpler than many other languages in which there are thousands or millions of potential verb forms.
Mood and tense
Verbs come in moods and tenses, and these are mostly the same for English and German. Moods indicate whether a verb is definitely true, hypothetical, or a command; tenses specify things further. There are three moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative.
The indicative is used for definite actions, whether they be past, present or future. "I spoke", "I speak" and "I will speak" are all indicative. The indicative tenses in German are the perfect or past participle (corresponding to "I have spoken"); the preterite or simple past ("I spoke"); the present ("I speak"); and the future ("I will speak"). There is no tense corresponding directly to the present continuous, "I am speaking".
The subjunctive is used for hypothetical actions. It is sometimes claimed that the subjunctive is nearly dead in modern English, but this is not true. In the sentence, "If I had enough money, I would buy it", the words "I had" and "I would buy" are subjunctive - they refer not to definite actions but to hypothetical ones. Similarly in German these two forms of the subjunctive exist, although they are used slightly differently. German also has a present subjunctive, which is almost dead in English and is also slowly declining in German. This tense is used to refer to actions which may or may not be true - in reported speech, or in constructions like "It is essential that he succeed".
The imperative is used for giving orders and comes in just one form in English. "Give me the pen" and "Please do not touch" are imperatives. There are four forms in German, but they all mean essentially the same thing.
The infinitive - the name of the verb - in English is formed with the word "to" - "to play", "to be", "to have" etc etc. German infinitives end in -en, -ern or -eln, except for two irregular exceptions. Examples are spielen ("to play"), sehen ("to see"), steigern ("to increase") and basteln ("to make"). The -en ending is the most common.
The nominative pronouns in German are ich, du, er/sie/es, wir, ihr and sie, corresponding to "I", "you", "he/she/it", "we", "you (plural"), and "they". When spelt with a capital S, Sie is the formal address for the second person in either the singular or plural.
The verb stem is the part up until -en; for verbs ending in -ern or -eln, the stem is the part up until the -n. To form the present indicative, the following endings are added to the stem:
1st person: -e 1st person: -en
2nd person: -st 2nd person: -t
3rd person: -t 3rd person: -en
Thus for the verb spielen, the forms are ich spiele, du spielst, er/sie/es spielt, wir spielen, ihr spielt and sie spielen.
Many irregular verbs change the vowel in the second and third person singular - for example nehmen, "to take", is ich nehme, du nimmst, er/sie/es nimmt. Two verbs are very irregular in the present: haben, "to have", and sein, "to be". The present for these verbs is ich habe, du hast, er/sie/es hat, wir haben, ihr habt, sie haben; and ich bin, du bist, er/sie/es ist, wir sind, ihr seid, sie sind.
The simple past, or preterite, is also formed by conjugation. In English this corresponds to "I played" or "I was". In German, apart from in a few common verbs, such as sein and haben, this tense is mainly used in writing and formal speech. The following endings are added to the verb stem:
1st person: -te 1st person: -ten
2nd person: -test 2nd person: -tet
3rd person: -te 3rd person: -ten
So for spielen, it is ich spielte, du spieltest, er/sie/es spielte, wir spielten, ihr spieltet, sie spielten. Most irregular verbs change the vowel in the preterite. The situation is a bit complicated and is discussed below.
The past tense is formed by an auxillary verb and the past participle. In English the auxillary is almost always "to have"; in German, as in many languages, it is often "to be". Sein is used as the auxillary, rather than haben, when the verb implies movement to a particular place, such as gehen, "to go", or a change of state, such as sterben, "to die". Thus you say "they are gone abroad", rather than "they have gone abroad". The auxillary forms are the same as the verb in its normal role - ich habe, du bist, or whatever it may be.
The past participle of regular verbs is formed by adding the prefix ge- and the suffix -t to the stem; the participle of spielen, for example, is gespielt. Almost all irregular verbs have irregular past participles, with changes to the stem vowel and/or the suffix -en rather than -t, although haben is one exception. There is one group of regular verbs which also forms the past differently - those ending in -ieren, which do not add the suffix ge-. Thus the past participle of studieren is studiert. One of these is irregular - verlieren, "to lose", which has the past participle verloren.
The future tense is formed by the auxillary verb werden and the infinitive. Werden, which also means "to become", is irregular and conjugates thus: ich werde, du wirst, er/sie/es wird, wir werden, ihr werdet, sie werden. So "I will play" is ich werde spielen, while "she will know" is sie wird wissen.
Most subjunctive sentences are of the form "if a, then b". In English, to form the first part, you use a form that is identical to the preterite - you say, for example, "if I had enough money..." To form the second part you use "would" - "...I would buy one." German uses the "would" method almost exclusively, except for a few common verbs. The German equivalent of "would" is the auxillary würden, which conjugates regularly. The main exceptions are haben and sein, for which you say ich hätte, du hättest, er/sie/es hätte etc, and ich wäre, du wärst, er/sie/es wäre etc. For these two verbs it is unusual to use the würden construction. The alternative to würden for other verbs is simply to use the preterite form, for example ich kaufte for the verb kaufen, but this is also rare.
Thus to say "If I had enough money, I would buy one", you say wenn ich genug Geld hätte, würde ich einen kaufen. To say "If I wrote a book, it would be big" you say wenn ich ein Buch schreiben würde, wäre das groß.
The present subjunctive, used for expressing uncertainty, is a version of the present indicative different in two ways - it is completely regular, and the third person singular ends in -e instead of -t. If you were reporting someone else's speech, for example, you might say er mache instead of er macht to emphasise that it is hearsay. For the verb sein, the present subjunctive forms are ich sei, du seiest, er/sie/es sei, wir seien, ihr seit, sie seien.
The informal imperative for a single person is the verb stem plus -e, so "sing the song" is singe das Lied. The -e may be dropped. If the verb changes its vowel in the second person singular, the imperative is the new verb stem, always without a final -e. Thus "take this" is nimm das, not nehme das, because nehmen is irregular. In the plural, the informal imperative is the same as the present indicative, i.e. the verb stem plus -t. Thus "sing the song" said to more than one person is singt das Lied.
For formal address, the imperative is the infinitive followed by Sie. "Take this", said in the formal way (e.g. to a stranger) is nehmen Sie das. In notices and warnings, when there is no specific object of the imperative, it often simply takes the form of the infinitive - "Please Do Not Swim" would be Bitte Nicht Schwimmen.
The passive voice
The passive is used in constructions like "the man is bitten by the dog". In English it uses the verb "to be" and "by"; in German it uses werden and von. Thus the above sentence in German is der Mann wird von dem Hund gebissen; "the man was bitten by the dog" is der Mann wurde von dem Hund gebissen, and "the man has been bitten by the dog" is der Mann ist von dem Hund gebissen worden. Note that although the usual past participle of werden is geworden, when it used in passive constructions it is simply worden.
This is a small set of verbs which are used in conjunction with other verbs. In English, the modals include "should", "could" and "might". They differ from other verbs in several ways, e.g. they have no infinitive corresponding to "to play" (you don't say "to should"), and they have no -s form in the third person (you don't say "he shoulds"). German modals also differ from other verbs and correspond roughly, but not completely, to the English ones.
The modals in German are: dürfen ("may", "to be allowed to"); können ("can"); mögen ("to like" and "may" in the sense of "may happen"; müssen ("must"); sollen ("should"); and wollen ("to want"). Their use is simple - to say, for example, "we want to play", you say wir wollen spielen.
Most of them are irregular in the singular, with a vowel change in the stem. In addition, they do not end with -e in the first person singular or -t in the third person, just like in English you don't say "she musts". For example, the conjugation of dürfen is ich darf, du darfst, er/sie/es darf, wir dürfen, ihr dürft, sie dürfen. The other irregular changes are ich kann (etc.) for können, ich mag for mögen, ich muss for müssen, and ich will for wollen. (From können derives ich konnte, meaning "I could" in the sense of "I was able to", and ich könnte, meaning "I could" in the sense of "I would be able to".)
When the modal verbs are used in the perfect along with another infinitive, their past participle is the same as their infinitive. For example, "I have been able to do it" is ich habe es machen können, and "I should have done it" is ich hätte es machen sollen. Otherwise, their past participles are gedurft, gekonnt, gemocht, gemusst, gesollt and gewollt.
Notes on irregular verbs
There are two types of irregular verbs: strong and mixed. Strong verbs end with an -en in the past participle and may also undergo a vowel change. Singen, for example, becomes gesungen (just like "sing/sung"). Their preterite forms do not conjugate according to the ich -te, du -test etc convention tabulated above. Rather they act like verbs of their own, except that there are no endings on the first and third person singular. Sang - meaning "sang" - conjugates like this: ich sang, du sangst, er/sie/es sang, wir sangen, ihr sangt, sie sangen.
Mixed verbs end with a -t in the past participle, like regular ("weak") verbs, but undergo a vowel change. Kennen, for example, is gekannt in the past participle. Their preterite forms, which are also irregular, take the same system of ending as regular preterites: for kennen, for example, it is ich kannte, du kanntest, er/sie/es kannte, wir kannten, ihr kanntet, sie kannten.
Many irregular verbs fall into patterns, and/or have similar English equivalents. For strong verbs there are a number of patterns of vowel change for infinitive/preterite/past, such as i-a-u, e-a-o and ei to i or ie. For example: springen, sprang, gesprungen ("to jump"); stinken, stank, gestunken ("to stink"); sprechen, sprach, gesprochen ("to speak"); brechen, brach, gebrochen ("to break"); heißen, hieß, gehießen ("to be called"); schmeißen, schmiss, geschmissen ("to chuck"). There are also patterns of second/third person vowel change, such as e becoming i and a becoming ä.
One pattern among mixed verbs is for e to become a, as in senden/gesandt ("to send"), wenden/gewandt ("to turn").
Many German verbs have prefixes, and there are two types. Inseparable prefixes remain with the rest of the verb at all times. Separable prefixes go to the end of the clause when the verb is finite (not an infinitive or past participle).
Some prefixes are always inseparable: be-, emp-, ent-, er-, ge-, miss-, ver-, wider-, and zer-. When the verbs are pronounced, the stress falls on the syllable after the prefix - be-KOMM-en, ent-STEH-en. These act like other verbs in every way except that they do not take the prefix ge- in the past tense. For verstehen ("to understand"), "we understand" is wir verstehen, while "understood" is verstanden (no ge-).
There are many verbs with separable prefixes, such as abwaschen ("to wash up") and ankommen ("to arrive"). The infinitive is pronounced with the stress on the prefix - AB-waschen, AN-kommen. When the verb is not a past participle or infinitive, the prefix goes to the end of the clause. To say "I'm washing up in the kitchen", you say ich wasche in der Küche ab. The past participle of separable verbs is formed by placing the prefix before the main verb's past participle, so the plural of aufwachen is aufgewacht, the plural of ankommen is angekommen.
The separable verb resembles many verbs in English, such as "to pick up", but the prefix must go to the end of the clause - you cannot say ich wasche ab in der Küche. Separable verbs usually take the literal meaning of the infinitive plus the prefix. It is important not to confuse true separable verbs with those that are simply used with a preposition, e.g. steigen auf, "to climb up". These are used just like in English - "I'm climbing up a tree" is ich steige auf einen Baum - but many prepositions double up as separable prefixes; aufsteigen, a true separable verb, means "to be promoted".
The prefixes durch-, hinter-, über-, um-, unter-, voll- and wieder- are sometimes separable, sometimes inseparable. There can even be two different verbs, with the same infinitive and prefix, but one separable and one not. Unterhalten, for example, means "to hold under" (the literal meaning of unter+halten) when separable and "to converse" (non-literal) when inseparable.