German/Grammar/Future tense

Future tense


So far we've only covered the present tense, but now is a good time to introduce another one. There are actually two past tenses in German, and both are complex enough to merit sections of their own. The future tense is relatively simple though, and will give us a chance to introduce a few additional concepts which will be useful in other ways.



The future tense is, as you might expect, used to make statements about the future. As mentioned earlier, German tends to use the present tense when a specific time is given or when something is imminent. English does this as well, for example "I'm working tomorrow," "Goodbye, I'm leaving for work," but in German this happens a bit more and the future tense is used correspondingly less.

English forms the future tense using a helping verb. The most common such verb is "will", for example "I will see you soon." The verb "shall" is used in the same way only it's a bit more formal: "I shall see you soon." Yet another possibility, this time rather informal, is the verb "go": "I'm going to see you soon." In this case the construction is more complicated since it requires a second helping verb "be" and uses "to". In general, a helping, or auxiliary verb is a verb that is combined with another verb to change its meaning in some way. As we mentioned earlier, we're calling this type of phrase a verb complex. For example "will see" is a verb complex formed by "will" and "see". In English, a verb complex is normally (but not always) kept together so it can be aptly called a verb phrase. This isn't true in German though, as we'll see in a moment, so we won't use this term.

In German, only part of a verb complex is conjugated according to the subject. The part that's conjugated is called the finite part, and the rest is called the nonfinite part. You can see this in English to a certain degree, for example in the sentence "He wants to see you," the verb "want" is conjugated according to "he", but "to see" is not conjugated. So "wants" is the finite part of the "wants to see" verb complex, while "to see" is the nonfinite part; in fact, it's the infinitive. There are circumstances in German where a verb complex does not have a finite part, but this is rare in normal conversation.

Forming the future tense


In German, the future tense is formed by combining the helping verb werden, conjugated according to the subject, with the infinitive of the main verb. We've already met werden in its sense "to become", but this is another sense and you must use the other elements of the sentence to figure out which sense is meant. In general, the finite part of a verb complex goes in V2 position, while the nonfinite part is normally placed at the end of the sentence. (In more complex sentences this rule has to be rephrased; we'll say more about this when we cover conjunctions.) At least this is the rule for sentences where the V2 rule would normally apply, but in sentences where some other rule applies then the finite part would be placed according to that rule instead.

The German cognate of "will" is wollen, and one of its infections is will, but this is used to express a desire or intention to do something rather than a prediction of the future. (This will be discussed in more detail in a later section.) English sometimes uses "will" in this way too, which can make its meaning ambiguous. In German, wollen is not used to form the future tense, so this ambiguity does not occur, though the difference in meaning between wollen/will and "will" can be confusing to English speakers.

For example, to change

  • Ich sehe dich. - "I see you."

from the present tense to the future tense, we add the helping verb werden, conjugated according to ich so werde, and place that in V2 position instead of sehe. The infinitive of the main verb sehen, is placed at the end.

  • Ich werde dich sehen. - "I shall see you."

Moving the main verb to the end of the sentence is contrary to the trend in English, which tends to keep it's verb complexes together so none of the pieces get lost.[note 1] As sentences get more complex, the two parts of the verb complex can be become widely separated. This can seem odd to English speakers, who are used to the main verb coming near the beginning of a sentences and don't want to wait until last word to find out what's gong on.


  • Sie wird ein Auto kaufen. - "She's going to buy a car."
  • Wird er hier bleiben? - "Is he going to remain here?"
  • Ich werde gewinnen. - "I will win."

The position of nicht


We said that when nicht is used with a verb, it comes last, except when something has a higher priority. Infinitives do have a higher priority and nicht will be placed just before the infinitive:

  • Ich werde nicht gewinnen. - "I will not win."

Adverbs with the future tense


Since the future is always uncertain, it's common to use an adverb to express your confidence in a prediction. Some adverbs that are usable for this are:

  • sicher, sicherlich, bestimmt, gewiss - "surely", "certainly"
  • wahrscheinlich , vermutlich - "probably", "presumably"
  • vielleicht, möglicherweise, eventuell - "possibly", "perhaps", "maybe"

The sentence bracket


With the verb in two parts, there are three regions for the rest of the sentence elements to go. This is the basis for a structural model of German sentences used in many grammars, especially ones in German. The two parts of the verb themselves are called the sentence bracket (Satzklammer in German). The region before the finite verb is called the front field (Vorfeld). As we have seen, it often contains the subject but can contain nearly any other sentence element and can be regarded as the sentence topic. The region between finite and nonfinite verbs is called the middle field (Mittelfeld), and this holds most if not all of the remaining parts of the sentence. The region after nonfinite part of the verb complex is called the back field (Nachfeld). This is normally empty in simple sentences like those we've covered so far. There are grammatical rules for which sentence elements can and cannot go in the back field, but it's not really necessary to know them in conversational German; it suffices to know the back field is reserved for longer, somewhat self contained phrases that would not fit well in the middle field. We won't use this terminology much, but you should be familiar with it because it's often used by German speakers as a frame of reference for explaining the finer points of grammar. In addition to the two parts of the verb complex and the three fields, there are the preambles and postambles mentioned in an earlier section, but they don't really affect the grammar of the main sentence. Altogether that makes seven possible segments in the anatomy of a sentence (preamble, front field, finite verb, middle field, nonfinite verb(s), back field, postamble), but in practice most of them will be empty most of the time.

  1. In the Sherlock Holmes story "A Scandal in Bohemia", Holmes identifies the writer of a letter as German by the phrase "This account of you we have from all quarters received." He quips "It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs," referring to the main verb "receive" being pushed to end. This isn't quite fair though since German, as has been mentioned, considers the beginning and the end of a sentence as places of honor; the less important parts are relegated to the middle of a sentence.


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