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Present Tense

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The English present tense is more complex than the German present tense. English has three forms to consider:

habitual                                             I speak German.
incomplete or progressive
                I am speaking German.
                                           I do speak German.

German has only one present-tense form, which is similar to the English habitual form, but it can be translated into all three English forms:

Ich spreche Deutsch.         I speak German. I am speaking German. I do speak German.

Regular verbs

German regular verbs are those that do not make a change in the stem of the verb when conjugated. The stem of the verb is the infinitive minus the -en ending.

heben                        heb-

fragen                       frag-

Let’s look at a few regular verbs in the present-tense conjugation. Notice that the third-person singular (er, sie, es = he, she, it) is illustrated here by the pronoun er. The third-person plural sie (they) and Sie (you formal) are illustrated by the pronoun sie. When singular sie cannot be differentiated from plural sie, they will be identified as sie s. and sie pl. respectively.

              heben (lift)   fragen (ask)   stellen (put)   brauchen (need)

ich         hebe           frage             stelle            brauche
du         hebst           fragst           stellst           brauchst
er          hebt             fragt             stellt            braucht

wir       heben          fragen          stellen         brauchen
ihr        hebt            fragt             stellt            braucht
sie        heben         fragen           stellen         brauchen

All regular verbs follow the preceding pattern. However, there are some spelling rules to consider.

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1. If a verb stem ends in -s, -ss, -ß, -z, or -tz, the second-person singular (du) present-tense
ending reverts to a -t. The full ending -st is not used.

du reist                    (travel)
du hasst                  (hate)
du schließt             (close)
du heizt                  (heat)
du putzt                 (polish)

2. If a verb stem ends in -t or -d, an -e is added before the conjugational ending in the second person singular and plural (du, ihr) and in the third-person singular (er, sie, es).

               arbeiten (work)            enden (end)

ich           arbeite                         ende
du          arbeitest                       endest
er           arbeitet                         endet
wir        arbeiten                         enden
ihr         arbeitet                          endet
sie         arbeiten                         enden

3. If the verb stem ends in -eln or -ern, the written and spoken versions of the present-tense
conjugation of the first-person singular (ich) often differ.

written version
                     lächeln (smile)                         hämmern (hammer)
ich                lächele                                      hämmere
du                lächelst                                      hämmerst
er                 lächelt                                        hämmert
wir              lächeln                                       hämmern
ihr               lächelt                                        hämmert
sie               lächeln                                       hämmern

spoken version
                                   lächeln (smile)                       hämmern (hammer)
ich                                lächle                                   hämmre
du                                lächelst                                 hämmerst
er                                 lächelt                                   hämmert
wir                               lächeln                                  hämmern
ihr                                lächelt                                  hämmert
sie                                lächeln                                  hämmern

Irregular verbs

German irregular verbs in the present tense are of two types: (1) those that make a vowel change in the stem of the infinitive and (2) those that add an umlaut to the vowel in the stem of the infinitive.

Vowel change in the stem of the infinitive. That vowel change is always from -e- to -i- or -ie- and occurs only in the second- and third-person singular.

                                 geben (give)                     befehlen (order)
ich                           gebe                                  befehle
du                           gibst                                  befiehlst
er                            gibt                                    befiehlt
wir                         geben                                 befehlen

ihr                          gebt                                    befehlt
sie                          geben                                  befehlen

Here are just a few of the irregular verbs that change the vowel -e- in the present-tense conjugation to -i- or -ie-.

brechen (i)         break
essen (i)              eat
helfen (i)            help
lesen (ie)            read
nehmen (i)         take
sehen (ie)           see
sprechen (i)       speak
stehlen (ie)        steal
sterben (i)          die
treffen (i)           meet

Verbs that add an umlaut to the vowel (a or o) of the stem of an infinitive make this change only in the second- and third-person singular.

                                      halten (hold)               stoßen (punch, kick)
ich                                halte                                 stoße
du                                hältst                                 stößt
er                                 hält                                    stößt
wir                              halten                                 stoßen
ihr                               haltet                                  stoßt
sie                                halten                                stoßen

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Here are just a few of the irregular verbs that add an umlaut to a vowel in the present-tense

backen (ä)                  bake
einladen (ä)                invite
fahren (ä)                   travel
fallen (ä)                    fall
fangen (ä)                  catch
laufen (ä)                   run
schlafen (ä)                sleep
schlagen (ä)               hit
tragen (ä)                  wear, carry
waschen (ä)               wash

The verb stoßen is the only verb that adds an umlaut to the vowel o in the irregular present tense. In all other cases, it is the vowel a that takes an umlaut in the irregular present tense.

Three important irregular verbs are haben, sein, and werden. Besides their own basic meaning, these three verbs are also used to form other tenses and must be understood well. Here is their conjugation in the present tense.

                         haben (have)                  sein (be)                  werden (become)
ich                    habe                                bin                          werde
du                    hast                                  bist                         wirst
er                     hat                                    ist                           wird
wir                  haben                               sind                        werden
ihr                   habt                                  seid                         werdet
sie                    haben                               sind                       werden

Modal auxiliaries

The modal auxiliaries are verbs that are conjugated in a special way in the present tense, and they are frequently used in combination with another verb in the form of an infinitive. The present-tense conjugation of a modal auxiliary has one stem form in the singular and another stem form in the plural. This also occurs with the verb wissen. Let’s look at the present tense of the modal auxiliaries and wissen.

                  dürfen (may)      können (can)              mögen (like, may)          müssen (must)
ich             darf                    kann                            mag                                 muss
du             darfst                 kannst                          magst                               musst
er             darf                     kann                             mag                                  muss
wir           dürfen                können                         mögen                              müssen
ihr           dürft                    könnt                            mögt                                 müsst
sie            dürfen                können                          mögen                              müssen

                  sollen (should)            wollen (want)         wissen (know)
ich               soll                             will                         weiß
du                sollst                          willst                      weißt
er                 soll                             will                         weiß
wir              sollen                         wollen                     wissen
ihr               sollt                            wollt                        wisst
sie               sollen                          wollen                     wissen

When the subject of a sentence is a noun, singular nouns will use the third-person singular conjugation of a verb, and plural nouns will use the third-person plural conjugation of a verb.

Er spricht Deutsch.                                He speaks German.
Das Kind spricht Deutsch.                   The child speaks German.
Sie lernen schnell.                                 They learn fast.
Diese Mädchen lernen schnell.            These girls learn fast.

When the subject of the sentence is wer, was, or man, the verb is likewise conjugated in the third person singular.

Wer ist das?                                      Who’s that?
Was liegt unter dem Tisch?            What’s lying under the table?
Man soll fleißig arbeiten.               One should work diligently.

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