Learning German verb conjugation

During German lessons, you notice how German verb endings change depending on the subject they accompany. English verbs do the same but only add the suffix -s in the third person singular present tense. The flection of the English verb does not change in any other person, singular or plural, apart from the verb to be, which is irregular throughout in most languages.

How does verb flection work in the German language? Are there any hints or tips, and why does a dictionary only give you the third person singular present tense when the verb is irregular?

German verbs can be categorised into regular (weak) and irregular (strong) verbs. Weak verbs because the verb is not strong enough to change its stem, whereas irregular verbs are called strong due to their ability to change their stem.  First, let’s look at the flection or conjugation of regular verbs in the present tense. Most infinitives in German end in -en, and some infinitives end in -n. Remove the suffix –en or -n, and you are left with the verb’s stem or root. To the stem, you add the endings depending on the subjects they accompany. The only verb endings in the singular are -e, -st -t; in the plural, the infinitive is used in the first and third person plural, and the second person adds -t. Verbs whose stem ends in -t or -d or in a consonant cluster, for example, -fn or -kn, add  -e- after the stem in the second and third person singular and the second person plural. Examples are reden, arbeiten, öffnen and trocknen.

Irregular verbs in the present tense only ever change in the second and third person, and the stem change you find in the third person singular also happens in the second person singular. Hence, to save ink and paper, the publishers of dictionaries only show you the irregularity in the third person. All dictionary publishers assume that you do have specific knowledge of German grammar. There are some learners’ dictionaries that are more intuitive to use. Ask our German tutor for dictionary recommendations.

Why use a dictionary in the first place when we have apps and online dictionaries? That is to better cement vocabulary. Comprehension is better overall when reading printed text as your brain might slip into a skim mode when reading digital text instead of deep-reading mode. Plus, you may discover a new word by going through the dictionary’s index. An app is, of course, a good add-on when travelling.

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