Grammar

Master the German Irregular Verbs

german irregular verbs
die Unregelmäßigkeit – the irregularity / Image by SimonaR via Pixabay

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 the German irregular verbs in less than a few hours. Choose wisely. For those who are alreayd thinking of rather watching those ridiculously boring youtube videos 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, like e.g. the irregular verbs. It is the stuff of years of research done by linguists that sit in cosy archives with a bottle of fresh fennel-tea from yesterday to figure out how these exceptions came to be. In this article I will rather follow a practical approach as you will reach your lifespan in the next 50-60 years and might not have that much time and wealth at hand as the above mentioned scientists. Let me shortly explain the problem to you and then provide you with a sweet learning technique to deal with it efficiently.

 

The good news

The German irregular verbs for one are not too manifold. The authors at Wikipedia estimate that there are around 200 irregular verbs for German 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 irreg. 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 are able to build the regular verb forms, so you might be able to recognize and understand that irregular verbs can almost always be identified by their „ending“.

 

The German Regular Verbs

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 Verbs

Now let‘s analyze an irregular verb, „fahren“ e.g. 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. Hence the fact that these “endings” are missing is giving away the fact that this verb is irregular.

 

Umkehrschluss

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 two 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 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 verb forms. So that is at max 2 letters times 200 words= 400 letters. Of course thats 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 rather true that they have not learned it (or paid attention to where they have put the car keys when they came home stern 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 to actually involve your brain and its vast prior knowledge that you have gathered over the last decades -supposed you are older than 10 years.

 

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 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 theses 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 have done 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 how a football feels like? Like fish smells? Like 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 socalled keyword. The most important word next to the verb whose forms you would like to learn. The aim is to firmly associate „drive“ with „Uganda“. This is done by 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 for completion: The Perfekt can be prepared 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 like 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 toll you my utmost respect) and try if you can 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 on 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). Probably shorter though. 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.

Yours Michael

 

Epilogue

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.

18 thoughts on “Master the German Irregular Verbs

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for the effort,
    Where is the comment you were talking about? “”” The answers can be found in the comments.”””
    thanks in advance

    1. Hi Hasan,
      they must have gotten lost with my last reset of my homepage a while ago. I will add them now, so in about 20mins you might want to check that page’s comment section again. Thanks for the hint. Viel Erfolg, Michael

  2. THE ANSWERS:
    Infinitive-Präteritum-Partizip II-keyword(s)
    beißen – biss – gebissen – Mimi & Kiwi
    fliegen – flog – geflogen – Otto & Oslo
    ziehen – zog – gezogen – Mongolia
    treten – trat – getreten – raven
    beginnen – begann – begonnen – Rambo & tango
    fangen – fing – gefangen – liana
    hängen – hing – gehangen – pirate
    tragen – trug – getragen – tuba
    fahren – fuhr – gefahren – Uganda
    kommen* – kam – gekommen – Marocco

  3. Hi,

    Thanks for the prompt reply,
    I was bit confused about something,

    — hängen – hing – gehangen – pirate

    is pirate suppose to be a word even starts with I or second letter i, and last letter “a” instead of “e”, or sehen for example,
    Vielen Dank, Thanks alot,

    and how about leiden verb, which rule it will apply to, and how to choose the best fit,

    1. Dear Hasan,
      the article should explain precisely which vowels (a,e,o,u,i) to look at to make sense of the “pirate”. The first vowel indicates the change of the stem(!) vowel of the verb in the Präteritum, while the second vowel indicates the change of the stem-vowel of the Partizip II (the form you need to build the Perfekt-past). I do not understand the correlation with “sehen” that you have made. Also do I not understand your question regarding “leiden”. Would you be so kind and reformulate these points more clearly? Best regards, Michael

      1. Thank you for replying,
        From my understanding, i got the idea that these 10 sentences, if i memorized, i can use them as a form, which i can memorize other verbs as well,

        I meant if i want to find the Präteritum and the Partizip II of word “leiden”, which is “litt”&”gelitten”,
        From my understanding, i got the idea that these 10 sentences, if i memorized, i can use them to find all other verbs as well,
        So, I can find the Präteritum &Partizip II, of “leiden” or any other verb from these sentences (forms).
        Or did i misunderstand it?.

        P.S
        Is this in the complete set of the video’s you have for A1 Grammer,

        Thanks in advance,

        1. Dear Hasan,
          I have to ask you to either read the article through one more time and as thoroughly as possible, as I do not have the resources to explain the technique again in detail in the comments or as you suggested to take a look at my videos. That topic is covered in the A1 course. Those videos are much easier to follow and they come with huge handouts, or better books with exercises and complete lists that will save you a lot of time and trouble. You can find them here: http://smartergerman.com/shop/
          I hope you understand, and one day I might try to simplify this article. Right now I simply don’t have the resources.

          Best regards and success with your German.
          Michael

  4. Hello. I´ve just started to learn German. But German is so difficult! All these articles and the prepositions! And this long list of irregular verbs! I hate it. For example: stoßen,stieß, wurde gestoßen? Are you Germans kidding me? Tell me, why is German so difficult?

  5. Extremely helpful, the most sticky knowledge so far in my german learning. Thank you.

    If I understand correctly – to learn the other irregular verbs and their praeterite/perfekt forms, I must make up my own visualisation sentences for each verb? Is this correct?

    1. Hi Matthew, thank you for your lovely feedback. Yes, the few irregular verbs that are not covered by the app you can tackle easily yourself by identifying their pattern, then picking the appropriate memory-image (Lasso / Inca / US-Americen etc) and visualize them as good as possible. Some where hard to illustrate but we covered the vast majority of useful verbs for a beginning learner (until B2 level that is). The bonus videos will show you how to multiply the ~80 verbs presented in the app. Viel Erfolg mit Deinem Deutsch.

  6. This is great material, thanks for the effort!
    I’ll try to come up with something, but let me ask: Can I use the same game for other things like, if the verb is Accusative or Dative, if the perfect is Haben or Sein?

    1. Hi Raphael, the principle of substitution or enhancing abstract information to make it memorable can be adapted to remember ACC or DAT. BUT: Those mnemonics are only an emergency solution. DAT & ACC are easier understood than memorized. You know my A1-B1 Grammar Course right? Also the Preaching Techinque from the How to Learn German Faster course is lovely.

  7. thanks for your technique ,,, what i have understood , that i should formulate a keyword
    and impeded inside it the change in vowel for the given verb . ( which work with picture connection and imagination) i have got that .

    my first question … should create keyword for every irregular verb ?

    and second ,,, how about when the verb change it’s vowel in present should i also impeded that in the key word

    ex) farhen —> fährt , fuhr , ist gefahren ( Ugända)

    1. I wouldn’t create my own keywords. Too much hassle. You could simply use my free app which provides you with all necessary keywords.
      But as lovely as that app and technique is, I’ve found that there is a much more intuitive way of dealing with this matter
      which I teach in my Everyday German Online course. Check the course out here: https://courses.smartergerman.com/p/learn-german-online-course-a1-b1
      The technique will be explained in the first lesson which you can preview for free there. It is called “Preaching”.
      Enter the coupon: AUFGEHTS on the checkout page for a 10% discount on the single payment option.

      How verbs change in the present tense is neatly explained in my Everyday Online Course. There is no need to memorize anything for that
      as the changes are very limited and easy to remember as soon as you know that a verb is irregular.
      Ugända is a neat cheat though 😉 but unnecessary as all irreg. verbs with an “a” in their stem change to -ä- in the present tense.

      Enjoy
      Michael

  8. Really helpful mnemonics. Are OslO and mOngOlia duplicates or is there other information in the two keywords I should look for?

    Same question for kIwI and fIsh sentences.

    Vielen dank.
    Steve

    1. They are simply diff. memory hooks. You could stick to one or simply make new ones that you seem fit.
      As lovely as that app and technique is, I’ve found that there is a much more intuitive way of dealing with this matter
      which I teach in my Everyday German Online course. Check the course out here: https://courses.smartergerman.com/p/learn-german-online-course-a1-b1
      The technique will be explained in the first lesson which you can preview for free there. It is called “Preaching”.
      Enter the coupon: AUFGEHTS on the checkout page for a 10% discount on the single payment option.
      Enjoy
      Michael

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