What You Should Know About 5 Uses of German Infinitives

1. Infinitive with Modal Verbs

The infinitive with a modal verb is the equivalent of saying “I can go” or “I should study” in English. This construction involves a conjugated modal verb plus the infinitive form of a second verb.

The modal verbs in German are dürfen (to be allowed to/may), können (can), müssen (must), sollen (should), wollen (want to), möchten (would like to) and mögen (like to).

So you are now heading to the gardening store.

“Ich möchte einen Garten pflanzen,” (I would like to plant a garden), you tell the woman behind the counter at the little gardening center in the corner of Mauerpark in Berlin.

Dürfen Sie einen Garten haben?” (Are you allowed to have a garden?) she asks you. Ah, she thinks you want to plant a garden in the ground—which you’re in fact not allowed to do in the small courtyard behind your building.

Leider darf ich nur einen Blumenkasten haben,” (Sadly I’m only allowed to have a window box) you tell her. “Welche Blumen sollte ich für einen Blumenkasten kaufen?” (Which flowers should I buy for a window box?)

Geranien und Blumensträuße,” (Geraniums and posies), says the woman.

You buy the flowers, and head on your way.

2. Infinitive as a Noun

This one is quite simple. All you need to do is take the exact same word, capitalize it, and stick das or ein in front of it, since all of these nouns are neutral.

So you are about to plant the window box.

You get home, hurry upstairs and start planting your window box. You spread dirt, arrange your flowers and carefully tamp their roots down with more dirt. This is so easy! Your window box will look as beautiful as those other ones across the way, the ones that are bursting with red geraniums even in November.

You carefully sprinkle Dünger (fertilizers) on your plants’ roots—after all, they need das Essen (the food) too (Note: essen is an infinitive verb meaning “to eat,” as well as the noun das Essen, “the food”). At last, you stand back to admire your work. The buds look so lovely in the spring sunlight—and you can’t wait for them to blossom.

3. Infinitive in the Future Tense

The infinitive in the future tense works in the same way as infinitives with a modal verb. In this tense, you use the helping verb werden (to become) along with an infinitive.

Remember that Germans often just express the future in present tense, using indicative words like morgen (tomorrow) or später (later) to show that they’re talking about the future. But it’s still important to know how to construct the future in German, because chances are you’ll run across it at some point.

Just then, you feel as though you’re going to niesen (to sneeze). Oh no, you really feel das Niesen (the sneeze) coming on. Are you allergic to your new plants? But no, the feeling passes and after admiring your plants for a few more minutes, you head inside. You can hardly wait to watch them grow.

So you are waiting for the flowers to grow.

All night, you can’t wait to see how your flowers will have changed by the next morning. Morgen, werde ich viele schönen Blumen sehen (tomorrow, I will see many beautiful flowers), you think.

But when you wake up and go onto your balcony, you see that the flowers look… exactly the same. If not a little browner and more shriveled.

But it’s all right! You make a plan to care for them. You’re not going to lose these plants the way you lost all those other ones your mom bought for you when you lived in the United States! You decide: Morgen werde ich mehr Dünger kaufen (Tomorrow I will buy more fertilizer). Nächste Woche, werde ich jeden Tag meine Pflanzen begießen (Next week, I will water my plants every day).

4. Infinitive in Zu and Um/Zu Sentences

Um/Zu sentences are sentences with multiple clauses where you express that you’re doing something in order to have a desired effect. The second action, the desired effect, appears in the sentence as an infinitive.

So you are trying to save your flowers.

It’s been a week, and your flowers haven’t blossomed. Far from it. The buds are shriveled and dry. The leaves are droopy. The geraniums across the way are beautiful and yours haven’t even flowered. What’s going on?

Ich gehe in den Laden, um meine Pflanzen zu retten,” (I’m going to the store, in order to save my plants), you tell your roommate, and hurry off to the store where you bought your plants. You tell the woman what’s been going on. “Ich habe meinen Blumenkasten befruchtet, um meine Pflanzen stärker zu machen!” (I fertilized my window box, in order to make my plants stronger), you tell the woman. But they’re dying! What’s going on?

She asks you how often you’ve been fertilizing them. Every day, you tell her. She points to the label on the fertilizer. “You’re only supposed to use this once per week,” she tells you. “Man liest Etiketten, um ein Produkt zu verstehen“ (One reads labels in order to understand a product).

You listen to her advice and stop overfertilizing, but it’s too late. The plants don’t make it.

5. Infinitive with a Conjugated Non-modal Verb

Don’t try this with every verb—but there are a handful of non-modal verbs that you can pair with an infinitive in certain contexts.

These verbs include bleiben (to stay), lernen (to learn), gehen (to go), sehen (to see), hören (to hear), lassen (to leave) and fahren (to go).

So you are about to plant another garden.

The good news in the wake of your failure is that plants and gardening tools are quite cheap in this gardening-obsessed country. You buy another round of plants, install them in your window box, go easy on the fertilizer and wait.

Sometimes you’re tempted to overfertilize or overwater your plants, but then you think to yourself, Ich bleibe ein bisschen warten (I will keep waiting a bit). And sure enough, after a week, you tell your roommate, “Ich sehe sie wachsen!” (I see them growing!). You guess you’ve broken your brown thumb streak and finally managed to cultivate plants—for a little while, at least.

Even if you’ve never been to Germany and have no intention of planting a garden, practicing the five uses of the infinitive in context is an invaluable way to master these forms and crack this simple yet integral part of the German language.

So go out there and practice the infinitive when talking about anything that you’re passionate about or any new activity that you want to try!

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