haben • sein • werden explained

The 3 most essential German verbs explained: haben, sein, werden

Auxiliary verbs and why they matter

I’m not a big fan of grammar when it comes to learning a language and I believe that it’s well possible to learn any language basically neglecting the grammar. However, there are 3 German verbs that are far more important than all the other ones and understanding how they are used and hence how to use them will kickstart your German.

And here they are

haben, sein, werden

Why do they matter?

Simple answer: They are all over the place all the time and for various purposes. You can’t master the German language without mastering all basic forms of those 3 verbs. Let’s keep this simple, so we don’t get lost in grammatical details. All of these 3 verbs can be used as a regular verb – ‘Vollverb’ – with some kind of object.

For example:
Ich habe einen Hund
Ich bin Lehrer
Ich werde Lokomotivführer

But they also have an additional function which is even more important because they are also used as auxiliary verbs – Hilfsverben – in order to build the different tenses for all other verbs out there.

In case you are not familiar with the term ‘verb’, most verbs are basically action words that describe the action someone takes or has taken or is going to take. For example to play or to sing or to dance. In order to express that any action has taken place in the past or is going to take place some time in the future, you need to combine your main action word with an auxiliary verb like ‘to have’ or ‘to be’ or ‘will’ in order to explain when the action has taken place or will take place.

In German, the auxiliary verbs used for that purpose are haben sein werden

The concept is actually very similar in English, French, or Italian. In English you would use to have, to be and will or going to in order to express the different tenses, like avoir and etre in French, and avere and essere in Italian. So the basic concept is the same but the details differ quite a lot.

Let’s put this into context by looking at some simple examples how to build the different tenses.

If you want to express that you have read something but it was some time ago, you say

I have read.

So you are using a combination of ‘to have’ and your action word ‘to read’

In German that would be

Ich habe gelesen, so you need a form of ‘haben’ in order to build the perfect tense

This is by far the most common way of building the perfect tense in German, but unfortunately, there’s another. The English sentence

I have gone


Ich bin gegangen

So this time, we need a form of ’sein’ in order to build the same perfect tense.

To understand when to use ‘haben’ and when to use ’sein’ is one of the more challenging subjects of the German language. If in doubt: Use ‘haben’, people will easily understand you even if you got it wrong and chances are high that you get it right.

By the way, in French or Italian it’s just as complicated. While it’s usually a good bet to use avoir or avere for building the perfect tense you might still run into a trap, so you are never really safe. But who cares, it’s all about communicating, so don’t let the fear of making mistakes stop you from trying.

But now for some good news. The 3rd verb ‘werden’ is the only verb used to build the future tense for every other German verb out there. All of them, no exception. But the best part is yet to come: While you still need to conjugate ‘werden’ the action verb doesn’t conjugate. You simply use the infinitive form of any action verb. That’s very similar to the use of ‘will’ or ‘going to’ in English

Some examples:

Ich werde lernen
Du wirst spielen
Er, sie es wird lachen
Wir werden helfen
Ihr werdet siegen
Sie werden aufgeben

So instead of learning the future conjugations for hundreds of action verbs individually as you would have to do in French or Italian, you only need to know the conjugation of werden and you can transfer all action into the future. This time, the German grammar is closer to the English grammar than to the French and Italian grammar.

So now that you know why they matter, start learning the most important conjugations for haben, sein and werden and you won’t regret it!