The Basics of German Present Tense Verbs

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Most German verbs follow a predictable pattern in the present tense. Once you learn the pattern for one German verb, you know how most German verbs are conjugated. (Yes, there are some irregular verbs like haben and sein that don't always follow the rules, but even they will usually have the same endings as other verbs.)

The Basics

Each verb has a basic "infinitive" ("to") form. This is the form of the verb you find in a German dictionary.

The verb "to play" in English is the infinitive form. ("He plays" is a conjugated form.) The German equivalent of "to play" is spielen. Each verb has a "stem" form, the basic part of the verb left after you remove the -en ending. For spielen the stem is spiel- (spielen - en).

To conjugate the verb—that is, use it in a sentence—you must add the correct ending to the stem. If you want to say "I play" you add an -e ending: "ich spiele" (which can also be translated into English as "I am playing"). Each "person" (he, you, they, etc.) requires its own ending on the verb.

If you don't know how to conjugate verbs correctly, people may understand your meaning, but your German will sound strange. German verbs require more different endings than English verbs. In English we use only an s ending or no ending for most verbs: "I/they/we/you play" or "he/she plays." In the present tense, German has a different ending for almost all of those verb situations: ich spielesie spielendu spielster spielt, etc.

Observe that the verb spielen has a different ending in each of the examples. 

German has no present progressive tense ("am going"/"are buying"). The German Präsens "ich kaufe" can be translated into English as "I buy" or "I am buying," depending on the context.

The chart below lists two sample German verbs—one an example of a "normal" verb, the other an example of verbs that require a "connecting e" in the 2nd person singular and plural, and the 3rd person singular (du/ihrer/sie/es)—as in er arbeitet.

We have also included a helpful list of some representative common stem-changing verbs. These are verbs that follow the normal pattern of endings, but have a vowel change in their stem or base form (hence the name "stem-changing"). In the chart below, the verb endings for each pronoun (person) are indicated in bold type.

spielen - to play
DeutschEnglishSample Sentences
ich spieleI playIch spiele gern Basketball.
du spielstyou (fam.)
Spielst du Schach? (chess)
er spielthe playsEr spielt mit mir. (with me)
sie spieltshe playsSie spielt Karten. (cards)
es spieltit playsEs spielt keine Rolle.
It doesn't matter.
wir spielenwe playWir spielen Basketball.
ihr spieltyou (guys) playSpielt ihr Monopoly?
sie spielenthey playSie spielen Golf.
Sie spielenyou playSpielen Sie heute? (Sie, formal "you," is both singular and plural.)

Conjugating the German Verb Arbeiten

This one is only slightly different from the others. The verb arbeiten (to work) belongs to a category of verbs that add a "connecting" e in the 2nd person singular and plural, and the 3rd person singular (du/ihrer/sie/es) in the present tense: er arbeitet. Verbs whose stem ends in d or t do this. The following are examples of verbs in this category: antworten (answer), bedeuten (mean), enden (end), senden (send).

In the chart below we have marked the 2nd and 3rd person conjugations with *.

arbeiten - to work
DeutschEnglishSample Sentences
ich arbeiteI workIch arbeite am Samstag.
du arbeitest *you (fam.) workArbeitest du in der Stadt?
er arbeitet *he worksEr arbeitet mit mir. (with me)
sie arbeitet *she worksSie arbeitet nicht.
es arbeitet *it works--
wir arbeitenwe workWir arbeiten zu viel.
ihr arbeitet *you (guys) workArbeitet ihr am Montag?
sie arbeitenthey workSie arbeiten bei BMW.
Sie arbeitenyou workArbeiten Sie heute? (Sie, formal "you," is both singular and plural.)


Sample Stem-Changing Verbs
DeutschEnglishSample Sentence
In the examples below, er stands for all three third-person pronouns (ersiees). Stem-changing verbs only change in the singular (except for ich). Their plural forms are completely regular.
er fährt
du fährst
to travel
he travels
you travel
Er fährt nach Berlin.
He's traveling/going to Berlin.
Ich fahre nach Berlin.
I'm traveling/going to Berlin.
er liest
du liest
to read
he reads
you read
Maria liest die Zeitung.
Maria's reading the newspaper.
Wir lesen die Zeitung.
We read the newspaper.
er nimmt
du nimmst
to take
he takes
you take
Karl nimmt sein Geld.
Karl's taking his money.
Ich nehme mein Geld.
I'm taking my money.
er vergisst
du vergisst
to forget
he forgets
you forget
Er vergisst immer.
He always forgets.
Vergiss es! / Vergessen Sie es!
Forget it!