German/Grammar/Intransitive verbs

Intransitive verbs


Now that we have something for the verbs to talk about, we can introduce verbs. This will allow us to produce the simplest form of a sentence, namely a pronoun (person or thing) + a verb (what the person or thing is doing).



The first thing to note is that verbs are more highly inflected in German than in English, meaning that you must modify the ending of the verb according to how it is used. Recall that for verbs, it's customary to say that it must be conjugated, while for other types of words you would say declined. This exists in English but in a very reduced form compared to German, for example we say "He talks" but "They talk", with the added "-s" being the way you conjugate "talk" in English. The factors which affect how a verb is conjugated include tense, mood, person and number. Again, to avoid information overload we will only cover the present tense and indicative mood and leave the others for later sections. So we will be taking about declarative statements of things that are going on at the present time. We've already covered the remaining factors, person and number, in the previous section; note that gender does not affect verb conjugation in German. Verbs are not affected by case, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say the verb determines the case of other words.

Conjugating a verb


We'll start with a relatively simple verb, spielen, "to play". (German dictionaries list verbs in this -en, or infinitive form; the use of the infinitive in actual sentences will be discussed elsewhere.) It is intransitive, meaning it only requires a subject (the thing the verb is talking about) to function. For the subject, we can use (but are by no means limited to) the personal pronouns from the previous section. In German, the verb comes second in a simple statement, which means the subject must go first in a subject + verb sentence.

To conjugate a verb, you must remove the -en ending of the verb to form what is called the stem, and attach the appropriate conjugated ending according to the person and number of the subject. The following table shows which ending to add:

Verb endings (Present, Indicative)
Person Singular Plural
First -e -en
Second (informal) -st -t
Second (formal) -en
Third -t -en

To see how this works, we'll combine this table of endings with the table of pronouns in the previous section to make simple sentences with spielen.

Sentences with spielen
Person Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
First Ich spiele.
"I play."
Wir spielen.
"We play."
Second (informal) Du spielst.
"You play."
Ihr spielt.
"You play."
Second (formal) Sie spielen.
"You play."
Third Er spielt.
"He plays."
Sie spielt.
"She plays."
Es spielt.
"It plays."
Sie spielen.
"They play."

Note that, although the third person sie (meaning "she") and sie (meaning "they") are the same in German, you can tell them apart with the verb ending. Also note that the translations "He/She/It plays" are only meant meant to be guide; in reality, as seen in the previous section, there is no way to reliably translate *er/sie/es" to "he/she/it" without context. Finally, note that in some cases the ending is -en, the same ending as the infinitive. This should be seen as a coincidence; even though they appear and sound the same, so the spielen in wir spielen should be regarded as different than the infinitive spielen.



In some cases, strictly following the table above would result in combinations that would be difficult to pronounce, so an extra -e- is added to make the word flow over the tongue. Specifically, if the stem ends with -d-, -t-, -m- or -n-, then an -e- is added if there isn't already one in the ending. For example with the verb reden ― "to talk", you would say Du redest, Ihr redet, or Er/Sie/Es redet. This rule is easy to remember since it's based purely on making the words easier to say. Similarly, if the stem ends in an s sound, so with -s-, -ss-, -ß-, or -z- then the -s- in the -st ending is redundant and dropped. So for sitzen - "to sit" you would say Du Sitzt.

For a few verbs the infinitive ends in -rn or -ln instead of -en; in this case you just remove the '-n' to get the stem. The -e- that would normally be included in some endings is dropped for consistency, except for the first person singular (ich) where the ending remains -e. For example, for the verb wandern - "to hike", you would say Ich wandere, Wir wandern, or Du wanderst. Again, once you get used to the sound of German in general, this rule isn't too hard to remember because the extra -e- just sounds unnecessary.

Present tense in German


Since we're using the present tense in this section, it may be a good time to mention the differences between the present tense in German and the present tense in English. As with English, if you're talking about something that's occurring now then you use the present tense in German.

  • Wir reden. ― "We're talking." (Present tense in both German and English.)

This includes the case where the action has been going on for a while and continues to happen, in which case English would use a past tense.

  • Wir reden seit zwei Stunden. ― "We've been talking for two hours." (Present tense in German and past tense English.)

Similarly, for events that are about to happen, and when a specific time frame is mentioned, German prefers the present tense while English has the option to use the future tense.

  • Wir reden morgen. ― "We'll talk tomorrow." (Present tense in German, future tense in English.)

Another difference is that while English has three ways to express that something is happening in the present, for example "We talk", "We're talking", and "We do talk", in German there is only one method, Wir reden. This can present a challenge when translating German to English because the German sentence may in interpreted in different ways to get different possible versions in English; hopefully context will provide enough information to decide which alternative is the best fit.

Some common intransitive verbs


Here are some common intransitive verbs to practice conjugating. Irregular verbs are not included since they will be covered elsewhere. Some of these may have meanings that are not intransitive.

  • arbeiten ― "to work"
  • kochen ― "to cook"
  • leben ― "to live"
  • spielen ― "to play"
  • reden ― "to talk"


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