In German, 3 of the most common verbs you’ll encounter are the German auxiliary verbs. Also known as the ‘German helping verbs’ (Hilfsverben), they are used to form the present tense, simple past / imperfect tense (Präteritum) and the past tense (Perfekt).
The 3 German auxiliary verbs are sein (to be), haben (to have), for the past and present tenses and werden (to become) for the future tense. They sometimes stand on their own but are most commonly used with other verbs.
All 3 are irregular verbs, which mean they don’t follow a set pattern when conjugated, and it’s unfortunately just a case of learning each conjugation. After reading this post you will know:
- What the 3 German auxiliary verbs are and how to conjugate them
- How auxiliary verbs are used to form the past & future tenses
- How these helping verbs are used alone in the present tense
German Auxiliary Verb: Sein (to be)
The auxiliary verb sein is very common, and as I mentioned, is irregular, so conjugating it can seem a bit random. Here’s how sein is conjugated:
|you are [informal]
|er / sie / es ist
|he / she / it is
|you are [informal plural]
|wir / Sie / sie sind
|we / you [formal] / they are
Sein & the Present Tense
When used in the present tense, sein can be used on it’s own in certain situations, such as with proper nouns:
|Ich bin Emma.
|I am Emma.
|Wir sind in Bremen.
|We are in Bremen.
To say the time or date:
|Es ist 15 Uhr.
|It is 3 o’clock.
And with adjectives:
|Sie ist sehr fleißig.
|She is very dilligent.
|Mir ist zu warm.
|To me it’s too warm (I am too warm)
|Du bist ein abenteurlustiger Mann.
|You are an adventurous man.
Sein & the Past Tense (Perfekt)
Sein is also conjugated in the same way when used in the past tense. When this auxiliary verb is used with the past tense, we only use it with verbs which indicate movement or change of state.
This is a bit unusual for English speakers so let’s take a look at some examples:
|Ich bin um 7 Uhr augewacht.
|I am at 7am woken.
|I woke up at 7am.
|Sie sind letzte Woche nach Deutschland gefahren.
|They are last week to German driven.
|They went to Germany last week.
|Mein Eis ist geschmolzen.
|My ice cream is melted.
|My ice cream melted.
In the first example we want to talk about having woken up. Going from being asleep to being awake is definitely a change of state, so we have to use sein when we form the past tense.
This is difficult for English speakers because we don’t have this difference in English. We just say ‘I have woken up’, but in German we say ‘I am woken up’.
The second example does the same thing, we’re talking about having gone to another place. We use the verb fahren (to go / drive) which indicates movement. Therefore we have to say wir sind nach Deutschland gefahren (they are to Germany driven) rather than ‘They have gone to Germany’.
This is one of those features of German than you just need to get used to with repeated practice. I remember finding it really frustrating myself when speaking to someone and using ich habe instead of ich bin. The more you practice and make mistakes, the easier it will become. In the end you’ll have a list of verbs in your head that you know need to be used with sein.
Some of the more common verbs indicating movement or change of state are:
|to go / walk
|to fall asleep
|to be born
|to wake up
|to walk / run
|to get up
|to depart / leave
Sein & the Simple Past (Präteritum)
Another way we can use the German auxiliary verb sein is in the simple past. Now while the simple past isn’t often used in spoken German, sein and haben are the exceptions to this rule.
It’s just like us saying in English ‘I was in Bremen’ instead of ‘I have been in Bremen’. Sein & haben in the simple past are used to make sentences more straightforward and less wordy. Let’s take a look at how sein is conjugated for the simple past:
|you were [informal]
|er / sie / es war
|he / she / it was
|you were [informal plural]
|wir / Sie / sie waren
|we / you [formal] / they were
And here some examples:
|Ich war mit meinem Freund.
|I was with my boyfriend.
|Warst du schon mal in Deutschland?
|Were you [informal] ever in Germany?
|Wart ihr auf der Party?
|Were you guys at the party?
German Auxiliary Verb: Haben (to have)
Next up with have the helping verb, haben meaning ‘to have’. Another irregular verb, it is conjugated as follows:
|you have [informal]
|er / sie / es hat
|he / she / it has
|you have [informal plural]
|wir / Sie / sie haben
|we / you [formal] / they have
Haben & the Present Tense
Sometimes in the present tense, haben is used on it’s own, such as with common nouns and to indicate possession.
|Ich habe Kopfschmerzen.
|I have a headache.
|Was für Kuchen haben Sie?
|What kind of cakes do you have? [formal]
|Sie hat 3 Katzen.
|She has 3 cats.
Haben & the Past Tense (Perfekt)
Haben is the most commonly used auxiliary verb to form the past tense. It’s conjugated in the same way as you’ve just seen and is used with all other verbs that don’t require sein. That is, pretty much any verbs which don’t indicate movement or a change of state, will use haben to form the past tense.
Fortunately this makes things simpler for English speakers, as the result is very similar to English. Let’s take a look:
|Ich habe viele Fotos gemacht.
|I’ve taken lots of photos.
|Letztes Jahr hat er 5 deutsche Romane gelesen.
|Last year he read 5 German novels.
|Habt ihr das gesehen?
|Have you guys seen that?
The verbs used in these examples: machen (to do / make), lesen (to read) and sehen (to see) are just a few common verbs. Just remember that if it’s not an [intransitive verb] you’ll use haben with it to form the past tense.
Haben & the Simple Past (Präteritum)
As I mentioned earlier with sein, haben is also often used in the simple past. It’s just in the same way as we use the English word ‘had’.
To form the simple past we need to conjugate haben differently:
|you had [informal]
|er / sie / es hatte
|he / she / it had
|you had [informal plural]
|wir / Sie / sie hatten
|we / you [formal] / they had
Let’s see simple past haben in action:
|Als Kind hatte ich einen Hund.
|As a child, I had a dog.
|Mein Auto hatte eine Panne.
|My car had a breakdown.
|Im Urlaub hatten wir tolles Wetter.
|On holiday / vacation we had great weather.
German Auxiliary Verb: Werden (to become)
The third and final German auxiliary verb is werden, meaning ‘to become’ and is used to form the future tense. It is similar to the English word ‘will’. However the German future tense isn’t used anywhere near as much as the English future tense.
It’s conjugated as follows:
|you will [informal]
|er / sie / es wird
|he / she / it will
|you will [informal plural]
|wir / Sie / sie werden
|we / you [formal] / they will
In theory we can say:
|Morgen werden wir uns in einem Café treffen.
|Tomorrow we will meet in a café.
But it’s quite unusual to say this and instead the present tense is used to describe the future:
|Morgen treffen wir uns in einem Café.
|Tomorrow we meet in a café.
More often it’s used to describe changes in condition or a situation:
|Ich werde immer rot, wenn es mir peinlich ist.
|I always go (become) red when I’m embarrassed.
|Sie wird ab morgen sehr beschäftigt sein.
|From tomorrow she’ll become very busy.
|Das Wetter wird immer besser.
|The weather is getting (becoming) better.