Mastering German Irregular Verbs

Learn the German irregular verbs for good…in less than two hours. How? By learning German smarter. These ten sentences (plus one hidden in the text) can save you lots of time and frustration.

  • Mimi bites into a Kiwi. — beißen
  • Rambo begins a Tango-class. — beginnen
  • He catches the Liana. — fangen
  • Otto flies to Oslo. — fliegen
  • He moves to Mongolia. — ziehen
  • He kicks the raven. — treten
  • He carries a tuba. — tragen
  • The kid cuts the fish. — schneiden
  • The pirate hangs, thanks, Tim Hanks. — hängen
  • He comes from Marocco. — kommen

Warning: In the following you will have to read through an unusually long text that will challenge your YouTubed attention span of 3 minutes. I can only promise that every second invested in reading the following is well invested and will pay off manifold in the future.

By the end, you will know how to deal with German irregular verbs in less than a few hours. Choose wisely. For those who are already thinking of watching those ridiculously boring YouTube videos instead where people just tell you vocabulary: stick with English. Don‘t bother learning German. It‘s too much effort and above all: please don‘t mention the war.

Here We Go Then

Like many languages, not all phenomena of our daily language can be explained by grammar, e.g. irregular verbs. This is the stuff of years of research done by linguists that sit in cozy archives with a bottle of fresh fennel tea from yesterday, working to figure out how these exceptions came to be.

In this article I will instead follow a practical approach, as you will reach your lifespan in the next 50-60 years and might not have as much time and wealth at hand as the above-mentioned academics. Let me quickly explain the problem with German irregular verbs to you and then provide you with a sweet learning technique to deal with it efficiently.

The Good News

There are not that many irregular verbs in German. The authors at Wikipedia estimate that there are around 200 irregular German verbs for learners to deal with. Just to give you some perspective: in French they have counted 570 of those. Even English has more with 283 irregular verbs.

One way to deal with this problem would be to switch to learning Turkish (7 simple irregular verbs) or Chinese with only one exemplar. Just kidding. Let‘s take a quick look at it.

Maybe the problem seems bigger than it actually is. I assume that you know the conjugation of regular verbs, so you might be able to recognize and understand that common German irregular verbs can almost always be identified by their “ending“.

German Regular Verbs

So, we know that regular German verbs, or weak verbs, follow specific grammatical patterns to create their past tense. In the Präteritum-tense the regular form uses a -te- before the personal ending. So if you read “du mach-te-st“ you recognize the regular verb easily by its -te- before the personal ending -st. The past participle -that‘s the word that is always used in the regular Perfekt-tense- ends in -t, like e.g. „ge-mach-t“.

The German Irregular Verb

Now let‘s analyze an irregular German verb, “fahren“. In the present simple, we have:

  • Ich fahre
  • Du fährst
  • Er/Sie/Es fährt
  • Wir fahren
  • Ihr fahrt
  • Sie fahren

The verb changes to “du fuhr-st“ in Präteritum and “ge-fahr-en“ in Perfekt. You can see that there is neither a -te- before the personal ending -st in the Präteritum nor is there a -t at the end of the past participle. The fact that these “endings” are missing is giving away the fact that this verb is irregular.

Irregular Conjugations

The three most common German irregular verbs are ”sein” (to be), ”haben” (to have), and ”werden” (to become). Here is the conjugation of “sein” (to be) in the present tense, the most common German verb in everyday speech:

  • 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)

Here is the conjugation in the present tense of ”haben” (to have), used to express possession and also as one of the auxiliary verbs, just as in English:

Haben (to have):

  • ich habe (I have)
  • du hast (you have – singular, informal)
  • er/sie/es hat (he/she/it has)
  • wir haben (we have)
  • ihr habt (you have – plural, informal)
  • sie/Sie haben (they/you have – formal)

Here is the conjugation pattern ”werden” follows in the present tense:

Werden (to become):

  • ich werde (I become)
  • du wirst (you become – singular, informal)
  • er/sie/es wird (he/she/it becomes)
  • wir werden (we become)
  • ihr werdet (you become – plural, informal)
  • sie/Sie werden (they/you become – formal)

Verb Stem Changes in the Present and Past Tense

German irregular verbs, also known as strong verbs (starke verben), often manifest themselves in the simple past tense and present perfect tense. The simple past forms of the Präteritum are commonly used in written language in German, while the present perfect, or Partizip II, is more prevalent in spoken communication.

Typically, the stem vowels of these irregular verbs undergo alterations in one or both past tenses. In English many verbs show similar patterns of vowel changes, for example: “sing – sang – sung”, compared to “singen – sang – gesungen” in German.

Irregular German verbs frequently have a pattern where they have umlauts such as “ä,” “ö,” or “ü.” So, when conjugating a base verb with a stem containing “a,” “o,” or “u,” it may transform into “ä,” “ö,” or “ü.” For instance, when conjugating the verb “fahren” (to drive), we’ll have the second person singular form for ”you drive” – ” du fährst.” Some German verbs fall into the category of mixed verbs and end with a “t” or “te” like regular verbs but undergo a vowel change similar to irregular ones.

Modal and Auxiliary Verbs

Modal and auxiliary verbs are also irregular, just as in English. Among the frequently used modal verbs are “können” (can), “müssen” (must), “sollen” (should), and “dürfen” (may).

So, in the present tense, ”ich habe” predictably means, as we have seen, “I have”, “ich kann” translates to “I can,” “ich muss” means “I must,” and “ich soll” – “I should.” Then, for “I may” we say “ich darf”, and for “I like” – “ich mag.”


This seems pretty basic and you might wonder why I‘d even invest time in something this obvious. Well, let me share the conclusion with you, that no irregular verb uses -te- in Präteritum and in Perfekt they all use -en at the end.

That this is not totally true will become clear near the end. But that shows us that German irregular verbs are actually pretty regular themselves. But unfortunately, the endings are not really the problem.

What‘s the Problem Then?

Compare the following common verbs:

  • Infinitive:     machen
  • Präsens:        mach.t
  • Präteritum: mach.te
  • Perfekt:         ge.mach.t
  • Infinitive:     fahren
  • Präsens:        fähr.t
  • Präteritum: fuhr
  • Perfekt:         ge.fahr.en

While “machen” keeps its form -mach- intact throughout all tenses “fahren” changes from fahr- to fähr-, fuhr- and back to -fahr-. But you might also notice that it is actually always only a single letter that changes: “a” becomes “ä” becomes “u” becomes “a” again.

As you learn the infinitive form automatically and the present tense is widely used and therefore usually quickly correctly acquired, we can neglect these two forms and focus on the changes in Präteritum and Perfekt: “u” and “a”.

If you know the grammar (I think that is not really the challenge here) and these two letters “u” and “a”, you can easily reconstruct the correct irregular forms. So that is at max 2 letters times 200 words= 400 letters.

Of course that’s nonsense as letters on their own don‘t make any sense and are therefore even more difficult to learn as were the irregular German verbs beforehand. And yet I have taken the luxury to write almost one and a half pages about this matter.

About Time Travel and its Long-lasting effects on your Memory

I hate to waste time but I love to take time to get things right and clear. The time one invests in acquiring information is the most important factor in efficient learning.

Almost always when people say that they have forgotten something it is instead the case that they have not learned it properly (or paid attention to where they have put the car keys when they came home drunk yesterday night waking everybody up).

Jokes aside, unless you have psychological or biological issues, like that of being stone old, you won‘t forget. The problem lies in the proper acquisition.

The Birth of a Salesman

Back to our friend “a” and its colleague “u”. Let‘s say you wanted to learn that “fahren” with the help of “a” and “u” changes to “fuhr” and “gefahren”.

While you could learn these by mere repetition for a hundred times over a certain period of time before your brain shrinks significantly due to the boredom of that task, I would recommend actually involving your brain and its vast prior knowledge that you have gathered over the last decades (supposing you are older than ten, of course!).

One Last Thing Before the Show Begins

Order is a lovely tool, as our memory loves it. It has order for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner. So you will have to make use of it as a homo sapiens sapiens. Wise people – at least that’s what sapiens means, kind of – make use of the things their brain loves so that they can become even wiser.

For the following technique, you will have to keep in mind that we always only deal with so-called vowels (these are the five letters a,e,i,o,u) and that the first vowel we use is always the one used in the Präteritum-form of the German verb and the second one is for the Perfekt-form.

The Secret

If you want to learn the forms of the verb “fahren“ you should learn the following sentence by imagining it. By imagining I mean, close your eyes (after reading these lines, please) for as long as you need to get a clear idea.

Note that I didn‘t write “picture“ instead of “idea“ as imagination is different for all of us. Imagine your mother or someone else if that is not a nice memory. If you can do that, you can imagine the sentence below.

Imagine it as vividly as you can. This is crucial. If you don‘t do that, you might as well learn it like my grandparents did it in elementary school. But let me tell you, they didn‘t like it. Not at all. Vividly means take what comes to your mind after reading the example sentence in a minute and add some flavour.

Try to hear something, to smell or even touch. You can do that I am sure. Can you imagine what a football feels like? How fish smells? How a lemon tastes when you heartily take a bite of it? 

If you can‘t, don‘t give up. Keep trying. It will change your life (I didn‘t say for the better). Here we go. Please imagine, as vividly as possible the following sentence:

He drives to Uganda. (Er fährt nach Uganda)

[You can also replace Uganda with US, Utah, Sumatra or any other place that has the first two vowels u and a. Don‘t take just any other place or the method will not work.]

“What?” [Little John]

Let‘s analyze this example, and then I will provide you with nine further sentences to get you started. You might be able to create your own memory sentences afterwards, or you just buy a ticket to Berlin and join my foundation seminar where you will be provided with everything you need (besides a foot massage) saving you hours of tedious work and also bringing you to the most interesting capital of the 21st century.

In “He drives to Uganda“, Uganda is a so-called keyword. The most important word next to the third person singular verb whose forms you might want to learn. The aim is to firmly associate “drive“ with “Uganda“. This is done in the imagination. If this link breaks, you have wasted your time, so make the image strong.

In Uganda the first two vowels are “U“ and “a“. Do you remember what you use the first vowel for? Correct. For the Präteritum.

So, knowing the grammar enables you to prepare the Präteritum form almost completely: “f_hr”. The only thing missing is the “U“ from our keyword “Uganda“. Add this and you have created the correct form “fuhr“ with ease and fun.

Just to complete the pattern: The Perfekt can be built almost completely as well: To “gef_hren.” add the “a“ from Uganda, et voilá you have just built the perfect Perfekt-form: gefahren.

Achtung, Baby!

The third or any further vowel doesn‘t ever come into play. They are just decoration! Should there be just one vowel, e.g. in fish“, that means that both Präteritum and Perfekt take the i“.

The Small Print

At the beginning of this article there are ten examples of memory sentences for training reasons. Scroll up, imagine them thoroughly and take a longer break afterwards.

Take a walk or go shopping. Then go to the very end of this ridiculously long article (if you have read this far, I owe you my utmost respect) and try to complete the irregular forms of the given verbs. The answers can be found in the comments.

Once Doesn‘t Count

I hope you got the idea and enjoyed reading a bit about German grammar. As always I do not try to be perfect nor 100% correct.

I have a very practical view of teaching German and tend to simplify things for the sake of understanding. Details will come with time and you will have a solid base by then.

You should nevertheless know that not all German irregular verbs end in -en. The following verbs are a bit peculiar. This list might not be complete.

Neither have I handled those few words that change a bit more than the vowel (nehmen, gehen, essen etc.) You will pick it up on the go. I trust in your abilities. If not you know where to find me.

  • wissen,wusste,gewusst
  • kennen,kannte,gekannt
  • rennen, rannte, gerannt
  • brennen,brannte,gebrannt
  • bringen, brachte, gebracht
  • denken,dachte,gedacht
  • haben,hatte,gehabt
  • müssen,musste,gemusst
  • sollen,sollte,gesollt
  • wollen,wollte,gewollt
  • dürfen,durfte,gedurft
  • mögen,mochte,gemocht
  • können,konnte,gekonnt
  • sein,war,gewesen

I have also ignored the topic of creating the Perfekt-tense with haben or sein. There is another article about that (German perfect tense – sein). I might one day write about the difference between German irregular verbs and strong verbs but for now, it is enough if you consider them to be identical.

Enjoy your training and learning the German language. It is simpler than you might think.


After having learned the nine sentences at the beginning of this article take a longer break and don‘t forget to come back to check how much you still remember and to experience how easily you can now construct the German irregular verbs. What are the keywords and the forms of the following German verbs?

  • beißen (to bite)
  • fliegen (to fly)
  • ziehen (to move)
  • treten (to kick)
  • beginnen (to begin)
  • fangen (to catch)
  • hängen (to hang)
  • tragen (to carry)
  • fahren (to drive/go)
  • kommen* (to come)

*the Präteritum only uses one “m“. The answers can be found in the comments to this article.

Do you want to practice more? Try our Irregular Verbs Wizard: iOS and Android. The app is free and has lots of fun artwork to help you remember the key irregular verbs!

FAQs about irregular German verbs

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the conjugation of strong verbs in German.

How many irregular verbs are in German?

There is no fixed number of irregular verbs in German, but estimates suggest there are several hundred. The irregular verbs, also known as strong verbs, deviate from regular conjugation patterns, making their forms unique in certain tenses.

Why is “kommen” an irregular verb in German?

The verb “Kommen” is considered irregular in German due to its deviation from the standard conjugation patterns. In the present tense, it undergoes a vowel change (ich komme) and doesn’t follow the regular conjugation rules observed by most verbs. This irregularity sets it apart from regular verbs in the language.

How do you learn regular and irregular verbs in German?

Learning regular and irregular German verbs involves a combination of memorization, practice, and exposure to the language. Regular verbs typically follow established conjugation patterns, while irregular verbs require specific attention due to their deviations. Consistent practice through reading, listening, and using verbs in context aids in mastering both regular and irregular forms.

How do you form irregular verbs in German?

Forming irregular verbs in German involves understanding the unique conjugation patterns they follow. Unlike regular verbs, irregular verbs may change their stems or vowels in certain tenses. To master them, it’s crucial to study each verb individually, memorize their forms in different tenses, and practice using them in sentences to reinforce their usage in context.

Summing Up: Mastering German Irregular Verbs

While irregular verbs may seem daunting, we can also try to tap into the brain’s love for order and employing imaginative learning and let this unique approach revolutionize traditional methods.

So, bid adieu to tedious repetitions and immerse yourself in a transformative language-learning experience. With just a few hours of investment, navigate the intricacies of German irregular verbs with newfound ease and confidence.