Getting Started with the Present Tense
Tenses work in German just like they work in English – they show the time associated with a particular event. The present tense (or
Gegenwart or Präsenz, in German) is used to discuss things that are happening right now. In English, conjugating the present tense is pretty simple: let’s look at the sentence “I’m reading your novel.” In English, there are actually three different constructions of the present tense: the simple, the progressive, and the emphatic.
Simple: “I read your novel.”
Progressive: “I’m reading your novel.”
Emphatic: “I do read your novel.”
Each construction has a slightly different connotation.
- The simple refers to ordinary, mundane events that generally occur at one point in time, although they could also be part of a routine. Examples: “I eat breakfast at 7:00 A.M. each day,” or “I see the man behind the dumpster.”
- The progressive refers to something that is more ongoing, rather than something that just happens at one point in time. Examples: “I’m dating your brother right now,” or “We’re eating lunch; can I call you back?”
- The emphatic is usually used to counteract an assertion from someone else – if your mother buys you a pair of dreadful slacks, but you know that you are supposed to like them, you might say, “I do like these pants.” The emphatic can also be used to express strong feelings without contradicting what someone else has said.
I Thought You Said This Was “Pretty Simple!”
The good news is that it’s even easier in German to write in the present tense. There’s only one construction of the present tense – in German, we use adverbs to express the idea of an ongoing situation or an emphatic expression. Let’s say that you want to go to the store and buy some milk and bread. At the store, someone asks you what you are doing, and you want to say, “I’m buying some milk and bread.”
The only thing that makes German a little more complicated is that you have to learn conjugation endings for each person (1st, 2nd, 3rd). From the example sentence above, the word “to buy” is “kaufen” in German. The pronoun “I” is in the first person ("ich"), so the sentence would read like this: “Ich kaufe etwas Brot und Milch.”
But what if you were buying them instead? Or we were buying them? Or they were buying them?
Conjugating the Present Tense
“Conjugating” a verb means making it fit the subject.
1st person singular (“I”) – ich kaufe
2nd person singular (“you”) – du kaufst
3rd person singular (“he,” “she,” “it”) – er, sie, oder es kauft
1st person plural (“we”) – wir kaufen
2nd person plural (“you all”) – ihr kauft
3rd person plural (“they”) – sie kaufen
2nd person formal (“Sie”) – Sie kaufen
And That’s It?
Well, yes, if you’re using a regular verb. Some are irregular verbs, like lesen, which means “to read.” In a lexicon, if you look up a verb, you look it up by the infinitive in German. If, after the infinitive, you see a different-looking form in parentheses, that’s the “du”-form – the 2nd person singular form. You use that to help you figure out the third-person singular conjugation – everything else is the same. After lesen, you would see (liest). The conjugation would be: ich lese, du liest, er liest, wir lesen, ihr lest, sie/Sie lesen.
For the verb “to be” (sein), it’s completely irregular. The conjugation (which just needs to be memorized – there’s no way around it) is: ich bin, du bist, er ist, wir sind, ihr seid, sie/Sie sind.
This post is part of the series: Learning the German Tenses
Here’s how to conjugate the six tenses in German.