Choosing Between Haben and Sein.

Why Learn the Forms of Haben and Sein?

Sein and haben are almost always the first verbs you learn if you want to speak German.

Sure, you might want to know how to say “Ich heiβe (insert name here)“ to introduce yourself.

But how do you tell the person you’re speaking to your age, your state of being or that you have a question?

It’s simple: Use haben and sein!

Memorizing and recognizing forms of haben and sein will allow you to comprehend reading passages and help you in writing as well. You’ll learn that verbs must be conjugated to match the subject of the sentence, so being able to identify the verb will point you in the direction of the subject. By understanding this relationship, you’ll be able to read and write better German.

The last characteristic to understand about the verbs haben and sein is that haben is a regular verb, and as such, it follows a regular pattern in terms of conjugation. Sein, on the other hand, is an irregular verb that has very specific conjugations that you’ll need to memorize.

Let’s work through the forms of each verb to help contextualize the differences.

What Are the Forms of Haben and Sein?

We’ll begin by discussing haben first, as it follows a very specific regular verb conjugation pattern. When we say haben, we’re using the infinitive of the verb. That means we’re essentially saying the English “to have” phrase, but in German.

To identify the subject of the sentence, we must change the infinitive of haben accordingly.

  1. The first step in conjugation is to begin with your infinitive: haben.
  2. Then, we drop the -en ending that typically denotes the infinitive form. Now we have hab. In some cases, you’ll need to lose the b too.
  3. Next, we have to consider our subject, and choose the appropriate ending.

Here are the common regular verb endings for each subject:

ich (I): -e

→ habe

du (you): -(e)st

→ hast

er/sie/es (he/she/it): -t

→ hat

wir (we): -en

→ haben

ihr (you all): -t

→ habt

Sie/sie (You (formal)/they): -en

→ haben

As you can see, there are some identifiable patterns to keep in mind. The wir and Sie/sie forms always use the infinitive ending (-en), so conjugation for these subjects is simple.

In the case of haben, the du and the er/sie/es forms lose the b.

haben → du hast, er/sie/es hat

Sein is a verb all its own, much like the English “to be.” Forms of sein are usually memorized by German speakers and kept fresh in the mind with frequent use.

Choosing Between Haben and Sein

As a general rule of thumb, expressing or translating instances of “to be” correlates to sein in German.

Similarly, using haben for the English “to have” is most often appropriate.

There are, as goes for any language, exceptions to this rule. You might consider these exceptions to be idioms of a certain sort, as they’re most often characterized by the German way to express a certain thing.

Some exceptions include saying “I am thirsty,” which translates to Ich habe Durst. As you can see, we use haben to express this desire for liquids, even though in English we use “to be.”

You might also use haben instead of sein when expressing, “I am scared” as Ich habe Angst in German. Most often these exceptions work in this way, with haben standing in for “to be,” but as you learn German, you’ll become familiar with these outliers.

How to Conjugate Haben and Sein: Past, Present and Future

Present Tense

Since most of our everyday speech is spoken in the present tense, you’ll see haben and sein most often in the following forms.

Remember that we discussed the formulation of the present tense conjugation for haben—and regular verbs—previously. We begin with the infinitive, drop the -en ending and use the appropriate endings based on our subject:

ich habe

du hast

er/sie/es hat

wir haben

ihr habt

Sie/sie haben

The conjugations for sein are as follows. Again, these forms should be memorized since they’re irregular.

ich bin

du bist

er/sie/es ist

wir sind

ihr seid

Sie/sie sind

Let’s put what we’ve learned into action. I want to say, “I have a cat” in German. Since we are using “have,” we’ll choose haben. Our subject is ich, so the corresponding conjugation is habe. Last but not least comes eine Katze (a cat) to form:

Ich habe eine Katze.

What if you want to say how old you are? For this instance, we use sein, and since our subject is the same (I), we use ich bin. If you’re 13 years old, you would use dreizehn Jahre alt. Putting it all together, we have:

Ich bin dreizehn Jahre alt.

Simple Past Tense

After you’ve familiarized yourself with the present tense, take a look back in time to focus on the past. The simple past tense is a quick way to describe the past, much like the conversational past tense, which we’ll discuss next.

Haben and sein become hatten and waren in the simple past tense. Hatten follows the same rules of regular verbs:

ich hatte

du hattest

er/sie/es hatte

wir hatten

ihr hattet

Sie/sie hatten

And so does waren!

ich war

du warst

er/sie/es war

wir waren

ihr wart

Sie/sie waren

Wait a minute, you say! How can the ich and the er/sie/es form be the same? Isn’t that why haben has different forms in the present tense?

The trick of simple past is that the ich and er/sie/es forms are identical, no matter if the verb is regular or irregular. It just means you have one less verb form to memorize!

If you want to say, “We had a meeting yesterday,” choose the wir, past tense form of haben and you get:

Wir hatten gestern ein Treffen.

Or to say, “She was at home today,” choose the sie past tense form of sein and you get:

Sie war heute zuhause.

Conversational Past Tense

In many ways, the simple past and the conversational past tense do the same job.

However, the conversational past is constructed in a different way: haben and sein act as helping verbs to the main verb. Both of these verbs are conjugated in the present tense, with the past participle of the main verb occurring at the end of the sentence.

Here’s what the conjugations for haben look like:

ich habe gehabt

du hast gehabt

er/sie/es hat gehabt

wir haben gehabt

ihr habt gehabt

Sie/sie haben gehabt

Sein works the same way:

ich bin gewesen

du bist gewesen

er/sie/es ist gewesen

wir sind gewesen

ihr seid gewesen

Sie/sie sind gewesen

If you want to say, “She has been (was) glad,” you’ll need to use sein twice in the German sentence: (1) sein conjugated as sie ist and (2) the past participle of sein, gewesen.

Sie ist froh gewesen.

As you can see here, we use “to have” in English to produce a sentence like “We have but “to be,” or sein, in German. If you say:

Wir haben eine Party gehabt.

You mean, “We had a party.”

We talked about haben and sein being regular and irregular respectively, but verbs can be transitive or intransitive as well.

Transitive verbs show motion from A to B, and when main verbs are transitive, they take haben as a helping verb in the conversational past tense.

Intransitive verbs—those that don’t show motion—take sein. As you can see from the examples above, haben and sein take themselves as helping verbs when they are also the past participle.

Future Tense

As you might already guess, the future tense describes an event that will happen. The German verb for “will” is werden and is conjugated in the following way:

ich werde

du wirst

er/sie/es wird

wir werden

ihr werdet

Sie/sie werden

Along with werden, we also need the verb that express what will happen. We say, “You will be a doctor” in German by using werden twice:

Du wirst Doktor werden.

How about, “You will be invincible”? Try this German line using sein:

Du wirst unbesiegbar sein.

What if you want to spread the good news and say, “They will have a child”? Use haben and say:

Sie werden ein Kind haben.

We use the corresponding conjugation of werden for the subject and the infinitive of either haben or sein.

Conditional Tense

There are many other tenses you’ll learn as you work with German, but what if you want to say, “I would be” or “I would have”?

We call this the conditional tense and form it using wären and hätten which are forms of sein and haben respectively.

Haben is conjugated in the present tense via regular verb rules:

ich hätte

du hättest

er/sie/es hättet

wir hätten

ihr hättet

Sie/sie hätten

The same rules apply to wären:

ich wäre

du wärst

er/sie/es wärt

wir wären

ihr wärtet

Sie/sie wären

“I would be late” translates to Ich wäre spat and “He would have a test” becomes Er hätte eine Prüfung.

Alternatively, you can also use würden (“would” in English) plus an infinitive form of your verb:

ich würde

du würdest

er/sie/es würde

wir würden

ihr würdet

Sie/sie würden

The two examples above become:

Ich wäre spät sein.

and

Er würde eine Prüfung haben.

Source: FluentU

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