German Infinitive Clauses [How to Master zu + Infinitive Verbs]

german infinitive clauses

After reading this post you will understand:

  • What German infinitive clauses are
  • Which verbs demand an infinitive clause
  • How to form correct sentences with infinitive clauses

What are German Infinitive Clauses?

German infinitive clauses are dependant clauses which means they generally come after a main clause.

The reason they are called infinitive clauses is because the verb is used in it’s infinitive form, the form you will find in the dictionary. In German they usually end -en.

To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at a simple example:

Ich beginne, das Buch zu lesen.I begin to read the book.

In this example, the sentence had been split into two parts. The main clause, and the infinitive clause:

Ich beginne, das Buch zu lesen.Main clause + infinitive clause

The infinitive clause always ends with zu + infinitive verb. In this case the infinitive verb is lesen (to read). The good thing about German infinitive clauses is that because they only use the verb in the infinitive, dictionary form, you don’t have to worry about conjugating the verb. It will usually end -en.

The main clause and the infinitive clause are always separated by a comma (,)

german infinitive clauses

When to Use zu + Verb in a Sentence

So now you know what a German infinitive clause looks like, but when do we use them?

One of the most common reasons for using an infinitive clause is because a certain verb or phrase demands it.

Here are some common verbs which introduce an infinitive clause:

  • anfangen (to begin)
  • aufhören (to stop)
  • beginnen (to begin)
  • erlauben (to allow)
  • sich freuen (to be glad)
  • verbieten (to forbid)
  • vergessen (to forget)
  • versuchen (to try)
  • vorhaben (to intend / plan)
  • vorschlagen (to suggest)

[Jump to full list]

If any of these verbs are used in the main clause, we have to then use an infinitive clause:

Ich versuche, Deutsch zu lernen.I try to learn German

You can see in this example, in the main clause the verb versuchen (to try) is used. Because of this, we need to use an infinitive clause after it.

If we want to express a goal or purpose, we use the phrase ‘um … zu + infinitive verb’. Think of this as being like ‘in order to’.

Ich arbeite, um Geld zu verdienen.I work (in order) to earn money.

How German Infinitive Clauses Are Used in Sentences

So now you have an understanding of what German infinitive clauses are and when we use them. Let’s take a look at some more examples:

Meine Mutter erlaubt mir, ins Kino zu gehen.My mother allows me to go to the cinema.
Es ist verboten, ins Kino zu rauchen.It is forbidden to smoke in the cinema.
Ich vergesse immer, Trinkgeld zu geben.I always forget to tip.

I’m sure you can see a pattern here. Infinitive clauses are straightforward once you get to know which verbs trigger them. Sometimes we’ll use other verbs in a sentence which can change the word order a bit:

Infinitive Clauses & Separable Verbs

Separable verbs may appear in either the main clause or the infinitive clause. You may have noticed that some of the verbs which demand an infinitive clause are separable verbs:

  • anfangen (to begin)
  • aufhören (to stop)
  • vorhaben (to intend)
  • vorschlagen (to suggest)

If one of these appears in the main clause, it is separated as normal. It then demands an infinitive clause. Here is vorschlagen in action:

Ich schlage vor, das wir in dieses Restaurant gehen.I suggest we go to this restaurant.

There are plenty of other separable verbs which may appear in an infinitive clause. When they do, they are not separated, and they go to the end of the sentence in infinitive form as usual.

However because we still need to use the preposition zu, instead of zu going in front of the infinitive like we have seen before (zu + infinitive verb) it does something a bit strange.

The preposition zu goes between the separable prefix and the base verb. Let me show you. In this example we’ll use the separable verb einkaufen (to shop).

Sie hat vergessen, einzukaufen.She forgot to shop.

In this example we have used the verb vergessen, which demands an infinitive clause. The infinitive clause in this case is only one word: einzukaufen. In this separable verb ein- is the prefix and kaufen is the base verb.

Since we have used a verb which demands an infinitive clause (vergessen) and that infinitive clause happens to be a separable verb, we put zu after the prefix:

prefix + base verb = prefix + zu + base verb

einkaufen = einkaufen = einzukaufen

Infinitive Clauses & Multiple Verbs

This brings us onto another possible situation. What if an infinitive clause contains 2 or more verbs? Following on from the previous example, instead of saying ‘she forgot to shop’ we might want to say ‘she forgot to go shopping’. This introduces a second verb to the infinitive clause:

Sie hat vergessen, einkaufen zu gehen.She forgot to go shopping.

In this example, you might notice that because we now have 2 verbs, we have the following pattern:

infinitive verb + zu + infinitive verb

einkaufen + zu + gehen

Even though einkaufen is a separable verb, if there is a second verb we ignore what we learned previously, and follow that new pattern.

If we are using multiple verbs in a German infinitive clause, we may also see the following:

Heute habe ich vor, Kaffee zu trinken und Kuchen zu essen.Today I intend to drink coffee and eat cake.
Sounds like a good plan!

There’s quite a lot going on in this sentence. Firstly, in the main clause we have used a separable verb which demands an infinitive clause (vorhaben = to intend). This is separated and conjugated as normal.

Then in the infinitive clause, we are talking about two different activities: trinken (to drink) and essen (to eat). Since we are using two infinitive verbs, each of them needs to have zu in front of it.

If we want to add even more verbs, we must add zu in front of each of them:

Heute habe ich vor, Kaffee zu trinken, Kuchen zu essen und dann zu schlafen.Today I intend to drink coffee, eat cake and then sleep.

Infinitive Clauses & Nouns

If a verb is being used to describe a noun, it becomes an infinitive clause. Here’s an example:

Ich hatte keine Zeit, ins Fitnessstudio zu gehen.I didn’t have time to go to the gym.

We have the main clause, which doesn’t contain one of our ‘verbs which demand an infinitive clause’. However we do want to use another verb to talk about a noun.

  • Fitnessstudio = the noun
  • gehen = the verb

As a rule, whenever we have a main clause and then want to use a verb to describe a noun we use the following pattern:

Main clause + noun + zu + infinitive verb

Sie hatte keine Lust, eine Diät zu machen.She didn’t feel like going on a diet.

noun + zu + infinitive verb

eine Diät + zu + machen

List of Verbs & Phrases That Demand Infinitive Clauses

So now you know what German infinitive clauses are and how to form them. Here is that list of common verbs which demand an infinitive clause again:

anfangento beginhoffento hope
aufhörento stoplernento learn
beginnento beginsich leistento afford
entscheidento decideplanento plan
erlaubento allowvergessen to forget
sich freuento be gladversprechento promise
glaubento believeversuchento try
helfento helpvorhabento intend
vorschlagen to suggest

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