What Exactly Are Strong German Verbs?
To make things really straightforward, let’s first define strong verbs—as well as their counterparts, weak German verbs.
Weak verbs conjugate according to systematic rules, which is why they’re also referred to as “regular verbs.”
By contrast, strong verbs don’t play by any particular rules when it comes to conjugations. They conjugate irregularly – its irregulated verbs.
Let’s take a look at the difference between strong and weak verbs with examples first in English:
When you talk about having run yesterday, do you say “I runned” or “I ran?”
If “to run” were a weak verb, you would say “runned,” because you would use the core verb (run) and add the regular past tense verb ending (-ed). However, “to run” is a strong verb, which means it has its own, irregular conjugation rules. So “I runned” is wrong. You would say, “I ran.”
Luckily for native English speakers, German has a similar structure to English when it comes to verbs.
How Strong Verbs Work in German
Again, it can be easiest to understand strong verbs by first comparing them to weak verbs.
As noted above, weak verbs follow systematic, predictable conjugation rules. This makes them particularly easy to learn. You don’t have to memorize different forms. You just need to remember which verbs are weak and once you know that, you know the form it’ll take.
Let’s use the weak German verb fragen (to ask) as an example. The regular present tense verb endings are: -e, -st, -t, -en, -t, -en.
ich frage (I ask)
du fragst (you ask)
er/sie/es fragt (he/she/it asks)
wir fragen (we ask)
ihr fragt (you all ask)
sie fragen (they ask)
To conjugate the past participle for weak verbs, you put “ge-” in front of the verb core and “-t” at the end.
The past participle for fragen is gefragt (asked).
To conjugate in the third person imperfect, or simple past tense, you add “-te” to the verb stem.
For fragen, the third person imperfect is fragte (asked).
Strong verbs, however, don’t follow regular conjugation rules and often have a change in the verb stem (the verb stem is the infinitive, or dictionary form of the verb, with -en removed from the end).
For example, to get the past participle of the verb gehen (to go) we need to change the stem (geh) and tack -en on the end.
Gehen past participle: gegangen
To conjugate the simple past tense of strong german verbs, you’ll often change the verb stem and not add anything at all.
The third person imperfect form of gehen is ging (went).
Simply remembering which verbs are strong verbs will help you quite a bit, even before you learn the correct conjugations. We’ll provide a list of strong verbs and their correct conjugations later in this post.
Grammar Hacks for Identifying Strong Verbs
Strong verbs, unfortunately, just need to be memorized. However, there are some tricks you can use to make things easier.
The Past Participle and Third Person Imperfect Test
The most common places you’ll see verb stem changes when working with strong verbs is in the past participle or the third person imperfect—which is why we use those two conjugations to test whether verbs are strong or weak.
Take a look at these phrases formed from the verb sagen (to say). Do you think sagen is a strong or weak verb?
ich habe gesagt (I have said)
er sagte (he said)
Notice that the past participle follows the “ge- + verb stem + -t” rule. Then check the third person imperfect and look for a verb stem change. In this case, there’s none. So sagen is a weak verb.
The English Equivalent Test
You can also use this handy study hack to distinguish strong and weak verbs: verbs with English cognates are often the same type of verb in German.
For example, “to laugh” is a weak verb in English. You say “he laughs” and “I laughed.” See how the stem of the verb doesn’t change? In German, lachen (to laugh) is also a weak verb.
Meanwhile, “begin” is a strong verb in English. You don’t say “he beginned,” you say “he began.” The German equivalent, beginnen, is also a strong verb.
Don’t Forget Mixed German Verbs!
Before we get ahead of ourselves, we should take a moment to notice that there is, in fact, a third category of verbs. You might think strong and weak leave no middle ground, but there are also mixed verbs, which have qualities of both strong and weak verbs. In other words, these verbs enjoy the convenience of those regular, weak verb endings but they also have verb stem changes. Check out this example:
Haben (to have): ich habe gehabt (I have had), er hatte (he had)
In this case, we have a verb that follows weak verb ending rules, but we can also see a verb stem change in the simple past tense (hab becomes hat).
Resources to Master German Verb Types
Memorization relies heavily on repetition and not just spending a long time focusing on something once. Fortunately, for those of us who carry smartphones, there are tons of good apps for memorizing sets of information.
You can use your standard notepad app to keep lists of tricky German verbs, and check it while you’re waiting in line at the market or standing at a bus stop. You can also take advantage of flashcard apps like Quizlet, which have many lists available to help memorize German verb sets. If you can’t find the ideal list you’re looking for, you can always make your own, too.
To get exposure to new German verbs in an authentic environment, check out FluentU. On FluentU, you’ll be able to watch real-world German videos, like movie trailers, music videos, news clips and more, that’ve been supercharged with language learning tools. Each video comes with interactive captions you can use to get the definition of any word you don’t recognize.
40 Essential Strong Verbs for Flexing Those German Muscles
Here’s the good news: most German verbs are weak verbs. That means you can rely on your systematic conjugations for most verb usage. To help you start your journey toward memorizing German strong verbs, we’ve compiled a list of 40 commonly used strong verbs for your learning enjoyment.
The verbs below are also provided with their respective past participle and third person imperfect forms.
Beginnen (to begin)
Bieten (to offer)
Bleiben (to stay)
Bringen (to bring)
Denken (to think)
Dürfen (to be allowed)
Essen (to eat)
Fahren (to drive)
Finden (to find)
Geben (to give)
Gehen (to go)
Helfen (to help)
Kennen (to be familiar with)
Kommen (to come)
Können (to be able/can)
Lassen (to allow)
Laufen (to walk)
Mögen (to like)
Müssen (to have to/must)
Nehmen (to take)
Schlafen (to sleep)
Schwimmen (to swim)
Sehen (to see)
Sein (to be)
Singen (to sing)
Sprechen (to speak)
Stehen (to stand)
Sterben (to die)
Tragen (to carry)
Trinken (to drink)
Tun (to do)
Vergessen (to forget)
Wachsen (to grow)
Waschen (to wash)
Wenden (to turn)
Werfen (to throw)
Wissen (to know)
Wollen (to want)
Ziehen (to pull)
Verb types can sometimes seem like some abstract piece of unnecessary information. And if you really prefer to memorize everything and you don’t like relying on systematic shortcuts, that might just be the case for you. However, for those of us who like to make our lives easier by grouping things together when we can, learning which verbs are weak and which are strong is a great first step toward increasing German vocabulary. Without too much trouble, you’ll find that you already know how to use many verbs if they’re conjugated regularly, and you’ll have more time to focus on those cases that need special attention because of irregularities in how those verbs are conjugated.