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German Irregular Verbs

You have learned that you can simply conjugate a verb by adding the appropriate ending to the stem of the verb. There are also some German irregular verbs where the stem changes as well.

But first let’s go back and review what a stem is. The stem of a verb is the part of the verb that is left once you take away the –en or – n ending. In regular verbs the stem does not change no matter what ending you add on to it.

Stem changes will become familiar to you over time, as many German verbs are “stem changing”. In most cases only the “you” and “he, she, it” form changes, but it wouldn’t be German if there weren’t exceptions. Let’s have a look at the most common German irregular verbs.

Resources for further reading:

Here is the pronunciation of sein, the most common German irregular verb.

  • ich bin - I am
  • du bist - you are (informal)
  • er/sie/es ist - he/she/it is
  • wir sind - we are
  • ihr seid - you are (plural)
  • sie sind - they are
  • Sie sind - you are (formal)

Pronouncing German Irregular Verbs

The three most common German irregular verbs are, without any doubt, sein (to be), haben (to have) and werden (to become). Let's see how they are conjugated in the present tense. Since these are all irregular verbs, their stems cannot be deduced from the base verb, as it happens with regular verbs.

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ich bin

I am

du bist

you are (informal)

er/sie/es ist

he/she/it is

wir sind

we are

ihr seid

you are (plural)

sie sind

they are

Sie sind

you are (formal)

ich habe

I have

du hast

you have (informal)

er/sie/es hat

he/she/it has

wir haben

we have

ihr habt

you have (plural)

sie haben

they have

Sie haben

you have (formal)

ich werde

I become, I will

du wirst

you become, you will (informal)

er/sie/es wird

he/she/it becomes, he/she/it will

wir werden

we become, we will

ihr werdet

you become, you will (plural)

sie werden

they become, they will

Sie werden

you become, you will (formal)

If you pay close attention to the plural conjugations of haben and werden, you will see these are regular conjugations that attach the correct ending to the verb stem (hab-, werd-). This is a trick: in most cases, the plural subject pronouns conjugations in verbs that are marked as irregular behave like those in regular verbs in the present tense! Sein, to be, is obviously a rare exception.

Now, in the present tense of other irregular verbs, some stems can undergo a vowel change from e to i. We can see this behavior in werden, but also in verbs like geben (to give) and helfen (to help). Other verbs change the e into ie, like lesen (to read), and others take on an umlaut, a two dots sign that is placed over the stem vowel, like fahren (to go, to travel). These changes can be found in the second and third person singular.

Essentially, the stem can change in the following ways:

  • e > i
  • e > ie
  • a/o/u > ä/ö/ü

Now let's see the conjugation of fahren. We will then see a few example sentences featuring these verbs, and others.

ich fahre

I drive

du fährst

you drive (casual)

er fährt

he drives

sie fährt

she drives

es fährt

it drives

wir fahren

we drive

ihr fahrt

you drive (casual)

sie fahren

they drive

Sie fahren

you drive (formal)

For example:

Fährt sie dich in die Schule?

Does she drive you to school?

Können Sie langsamer fahren?

Could you drive more slowly? (formal)

Kannst du langsamer fahren?

Could you drive more slowly? (casual)

Wir fahren durch die Stadt.

We are driving through the city.

Ich gebe ihm ein Geschänk.

I give him a gift.

Er gibt mir ein Geschänk.

He gives me a gift.

Ich fahre nach Berlin.

I drive towards Berlin.

Er fährt nach Berlin.

He drives towards Berlin.

Wir lesen ein Buch.

We read a book.

Meine Schwester liest ein Buch.

My sister reads a book.

Ich spreche nur Deutsch.

I only speak German.

Mein Vater spricht nur Englisch.

My father only speaks English.

Ich sehe ein Mann und eine Frau.

I see a man and a woman.

Er sieht ein Mann und eine Frau.

He sees a man and a woman.

Ich schlafe gern lange.

I gladly sleep for long.

Du schläfst gern lange.

You (informal) gladly sleeps for long.

Ich nehme ein Bier.

I'll take a beer.

Nimmst du auch ein Bier?

Will you take a beer as well?

Other irregular verbs are regular in the present tense, but have an irregular past participle and past tense. An example is denken (to think).

ich denke

I think

du denkst

you think (informal)

er denkt

he thinks

As you can see, this pattern is entirely regular. However, the stem changes in the past tenses.

er dachte

he thought

Dachte, not denkte. Another verb that follows this pattern is bringen (to bring).

ich bringe

I bring

du bringst

you bring (informal)

er bringt

he brings

ich brachte

I brought

What verbs are irregular and what verbs aren't? You cannot tell unless you look the word up in a dictionary, but English may come to the rescue. Many German irregular verbs, in fact, have irregular conjugations in English as well. Think about the verbs we've covered in this lesson: to think, to read, to bring, to go, to speak, to become... these are all irregular English verbs!

Here are a few recommended German lessons to try next!

Bis bald!

Paul Weber: Rocket German

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