In this post we’ll get to grips with German infinitives. What do we actually mean when we talk about the infinitive of a German verb? When do you use the infinitive in German and can you use it on its own as a bare infinitive or do you have to use the zu infinitiv (Infinitiv mit zu)? How similar are German and English here? Eh? Read on! All will be revealed, with lots of helpful examples. Here’s your ultimate guide to German infinitives.
First, though, a very quick jargon buster!
Verbs, infinitives…I’m not sure I grasp all this in English!
A verb is sometimes called a “doing word”. Yes, many verbs express action but also verbs expressing an event, process or state (to eat, to describe, to be, to remain, to exchange).
In English the infinitive is the verb form that’s listed in a dictionary, for example “be” (rather than “am”, “were”, “being” etc), “sing” (not “sung”, “will sing”, “singing” and so on), “eat”, “feel”, “work”, “listen”. It’s the form that we can put “to” in front of. Take “listen”, for example. We can say “to listen”, but not Xto listenedX or Xto listeningX.
We sometimes use the English infinitive with “to”, sometimes without. “I saw him pour the tea” is an example of the bare infinitive. “I asked him to pour the tea” is the to-infinitive.
What is the German infinitive?
In German, the infinitive or dictionary form always ends in -n (and usually in -en). For example essen, beschreiben, sein, bleiben, wechseln, ändern. It’s an unconjugated or non-finite form. That’s to say, it doesn’t undergo any of the stem or ending changes to show who’s doing the action and when. The conjugated forms are finite verbs.
Just as in English we have the to-infinitive, In German when the particle zu accompanies the infinitive, we speak of the zu infinitive (Infinitiv mit zu). A phrase containing a zu infinitive is an infinitive clause (Infinitivsatz).
When the infinitive appears without zu (or “to” in English), it’s the bare or plain infinitive.
When is the German infinitive used?
Here’ a contents overview of your “How to use German infinitives” guide. You can click on the links to jump straight to any section.
German infinitives used nouns
Besides der Infinitiv or der Grundform another German word for “infinitive” is die Nennform – the naming form. This is very fitting, because an infinitive simply names an action or state, so it’s really a kind of noun. It’s a verbal noun and, in German, the infinitive is often used as a noun, especially in technical and literary writing and on official signs:
Ich höre das Singen nicht – I don’t hear the singing/I cannot hear the singing
Das Rauchen ist streng verboten – Smoking is strictly forbidden
Like all German nouns, the verbal noun begins with a capital letter. Verbal nouns are all neuter: das Singen, das Rauchen. As you can see from the above examples, the English equivalent is usually -ing form: singing, smoking.
When to use the bare infinitive in German
We’ve seen that the infinitive (when not used as a noun) can be a bare or plain infinitive or a zu infinitives. In the next two parts of this guide, we’ll look more closely at how to use both. First, when do you use the bare infinitive in German?
Bare infinitive with werden (Future I)
The compound future tense or Future I is formed with werden as the auxiliary or “helper” verb (das Hilfsverb) plus the main verb in bare or plain infinitive, not the zu infinitive. It’s the same in English (where we use will as the auxiliary).
Ich werde meinem Chef anrufen (not XIch werde meinem Chef anzurufenX) – I will call my boss (not XI will to call my bossX).
Bare infinitive with modal verbs
Use the bare infinitive with the six modal verbs
The modal verbs are müssen (to have to/must), können (to be able to/can), dürfen (to be allowed to/may), wollen (to want), mögen (to like, also may) and sollen (to be supposed to/ought). These modals express the attitude or standpoint of the speaker towards a state or action of the main verb (the one in the plain infinitive). They often indicate desire, likelihood, ability, permission or obligation.
Here are some examples:
Wir konnten gar nicht schlafen – We couldn’t sleep at all
Darf ich sie heute besuchen? – May I visit you today?
Ich habe ihm leider nicht Bescheid sagen können – I unfortunately could not tell him
Alles mussten früh anfangen – Everything had to start early
You’ll often see the same pattern in English (modal verb + bare infinitive) but there are some differences in places where the English modals are defective (they lack a form).
Er musste gehen (bare infinitive) we use “He had to go” (to-infinitive) because English doesn’t have a past form of must, instead we have “to have to” as a set construction. Not: XHe musted goX.
Mögen in the Konjunktiv II – möchten often means “would like to”, so look out for to-infinitive equivalents in English:
Ich möchte etwas trinken – I should like to drink something
Wir möchten dir helfen – We should like to/want to help you
Wollen often means “to want to”:
Er will ins Theater gehen – He wants to go to the theatre
Bare infinitive with lassen (to let, to have something done)
Lassen means to let (allow) and also to cause something to be done (have something done). Use the bare infinitive.
Er ließ mich nicht sprechen – He didn’t let me speak
Lass ihn doch hereinkommen! – Do let him come in!
Wir lassen Sie, das Fahrrad reparieren – We’ll leave it to you to repair the bicycle
Alle sechs Wochen, lasse ich mir die Haare schneiden – have my hair cut every six weeks
Bare infinitive with hören, sehen
The verbs hören (hear) and sehen (see) are followed by the plain infinitive. In English, we use the present participle (-ing form) here:
Er hört sie weinen – He can hear/hears her crying
Ich sehe ihn jetzt kommen – I (can) see him coming now
Wir sehen die Wolken heranziehen – We can see the clouds gathering
Don’t forget that in the perfect tense (or the pluperfect), you use the modal infinitive after the infinitive that the modal is modifying, not the past participle:
Er hat aber um 2 Uhr zum Arzt gehen müssen (not XEr hat aber um 2 Uhr zum Arzt gehen gemusstX) – But he had to go to the doctor’s at 2
It’s the same pattern in the perfect tense when a verb is used with hören, sehen and lassen: you use the bare infinitive not the past participle:
Wir haben sie singen hören – We heard them singing
Ich hatte das Auto reparieren lassen – I had had / had got the car repaired
Habt Ihr sie sprechen hören?– Did you hear her speaking?
Wir haben dich kommen sehen – We saw you coming
Bare infinitive with fahren, gehen, kommen, schicken
In this sentence pattern, the bare infinitive expresses the purpose of the motion:
Wir gehen jetzt essen – We’re going to eat
Kommt ihr heute nachmittag mit uns schwimmen? – Are you coming swimming with us this afternoon?
Er fährt noch schnell einkaufen – He’s just going to do some quick shopping
Ich habe ihn nicht kommen sehen – I didn’t see him coming
Gehen wir danach essen? – Are we going to eat afterwards?
Wir haben unseren Sohn einkaufen geschickt – We have sent our son shopping/to do the shopping
Notice that the English uses the to infinitive or the -ing form with these verbs.
Bare infinitive with haben + verb of place; bleiben; finden
If you have an infinitive used with haben plus a verb of place, with bleiben or with finden, use the bare infinitive.
Sie hat ihr Auto vor der Tür stehen – She’s got her car standing at the door
Wir haben einen Freund in Berlin wohnen – We have a friend living in Berlin
Er ist im Garten sitzen geblieben – His stayed sitting in the garden
Wir haben die Katze auf dem Stuhl schlafen gefunden – We found the cat sleeping on the chair
Here, again, English uses the -ing form.
Bare infinitive with lernen, lehren, hilfen
Ich lerne jetzt Deutsch sprechen – I’m learning to speak German at the moment
Wir lernen zusammen Tennis spielen – We are learning together to play tennis
You’ll also hear the zu infinitive used with these verbs, especially in longer infinitive clauses:
Heinz hilft mir jeder Woche das Zimmer aufräumen/aufzuräumen (Heinz helps me every week to clear/tidy up the room).
Bare infinitive instead of imperative (instructions and commands)
You will also come across the bare infinitive in instructions (for example in a recipe) or polite commands instead of the imperative (die Befehlsform; the command form). This is the German “infinitive as an imperative” (Infinitiv als Imperativ). It’s often a shorter than using the imperative form and less personal, so good for official instructions and signs.
Münzen hier einwerfen – Insert coins here (e.g. of instruction on an automatic ticket machine. The imperative would be: Werfen Sie die Münzen (bitte) hier ein)
Bitte nicht aussteigen! – No alighting! (Imperative: Steigen Sie bitte nicht aus! Do not alight)
Einfahrt freihalten! – Keep clear! (Common sign by an entrance to indicate that you should block it by parking)
Nicht rauchen! – No smoking
Nicht hinauslehnen! – Do not lean out (e.g. of train window. With reflexive pronoun (mich, dich, sie etc) is dropped).
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When to use the zu infinitive in German
Above, we’ve seen when you use the German bare or plain infinitive. Next question: do we need to use the German Zu-Infinitiv, the infinitive with zu?
Let’s start with verb combos! We’ve seen that when a German infinitive is used with some verbs, you need the bare infinitive. With other verbs, as set out below, you need the zu infinitive.
The good news is that most of the time, English would use its to-infinitive in a similar way. Pay attention to the English translations of the example phrases, though, as zu and to infinitives don’t always correspond. We’ll come back to those at the end of this post.
Zu infinitive with verbs of attitude, intention, plans; advice or a polite suggestion
The verb + zu infinitive pattern commonly occurs with verbs that express attitude or intention, plans.advice, plans.
Ich hoffe, euch bald wiederzusehen – I hope to see you guys again soon
Wir haben vor, dich am Freitag zu besuchen – We intend to visit you on Friday
Katrin plant, eine Fahrkarte nach Berlin zu kaufen – Katrin plans to buy a ticket to Berlin
Ich habe vor, nach München zu fahren – intend to drive to Munich
Ich beabsichtige ins Büro zu gehen – I intend to walk to the office
It’s the same with advice or a polite suggestion:
Ich empfehle Ihnen, die zweite Zugverbindung zu nehmen – I recommend that you take the second train connection
Er schlägt vor, heute nachmittag ins Theater zu gehen – He suggests going to the theatre this afternoon
Zu infinitive with semi-auxiliary verbs
You’ll also use the zu infinitive after some verbs that modify the following infinitive verb in some way and are thus known as semi-auxiliary verbs. Some of the more common ones include bleiben (in the sense to to remain to be done), brauchen (to need) in the negative – need not – the most common negative to müssen), drohen (threaten), haben (to express obligation, necessity), pflegen (to be accustomed to, to be used to – literary), scheinen (seem), sein (expressing possibility or necessity: often means the same here as one of können, mögen or sollen), versprechen (to promise referring to something involuntary that’s “in store”, “promises to happen”), wissen (when the meaning “know how to”, not just “know”):
Ihnen scheint es, zu gefallen – It seems to please you
Diese Kooperation verspricht ein Erfolg zu werden – This cooperation promises to be successful
Ich habe versucht, bei ihr anzurufen – I tried to phone her
Er weißt gut zu planen – He knows how to plan well
Das Gebäude droht einzustürzen – The building threatens to collapse
Don’t get these so-called semi-auxiliary verbs confused with the modal verbs (also called the modal auxiliaries). These verbs (können, müssen, dürfen, sollen, mögen, wollen) also modify the meaning of the infinitive but they are not followed by the zu infinitive (see section on modals above).
We can use haben and sein as semi-auxiliary and the zu infinitive to convey a similar meaning to an equivalent expression using a modal. Haben, this sense, could convey necessity or obligation (rather like müssen or sollen) and sein with zu usually express possibility (können).
Ist der Lehrer zu sprechen? (= Kann ich mit dem Lehrer sprechen) Can I speak with the teacher?
Was haben wir zu bezahlen (=Was müssen wir bezahlen). What do we have to pay?
Don’t mix up this usage of haben with the next one: zu infinitive with fixed “haben” expressions.
Zu infinitive with fixed “haben” expressions
We also need zu before the infinitive after fixed verb/noun expressions with haben, such as Lust haben (to desire, want), Glück haben (to be lucky, as luck would have it), Zeit haben (to have time), Angst haben (to be anxious, afraid), die Absicht haben (to intend), den Wunsch haben (to wish):
Ich habe Lust, ein Eis zu essen – I want to eat an ice cream (here the verb is “Lust haben”)
Sie haben Glück, noch eins zu bekommen – You’re lucky to get a second one
Ich habe nicht die Absicht, das Ticket zu stornieren – I don’t intend to validate the ticket
In Dortmund habe ich nur fünf Minuten Zeit, umzusteigen? – Do I only have five minutes to change (trains) in Dortmund?
Ich habe Angst, den Zug zu verpassen! – I’m afraid of missing the train
Zu infinitive with “es” expressions
Use the zu infinitive with impersonal “es” expressions:
Bei der Bahn ist es wichtig, früh zu buchen – With German railways, it’s important to book early
Es war wunderbar, dich wiederzusehen – It was wonderful to see you again
Es ist besser, einen Sitzplatz zu reservieren – It’s better to reserve a seat
Es ist wunderbar, wieder nach Deutschland reisen zu können – It’s wonderful to be able to travel to Germany again
Ich finde es gut, früh aufzustehen – I find it good to get up early
Prepositions with the zu infinitive
Prepositions are words that commonly show a relationship in space (behind, in front of, on etc) or time (before, after) between two or more people, places or things. They sometimes also show a logical relationship, as in the following preposition (all three of which we must use with the zu infinitive).
um….zu – in order to. For example:
Sie ist zu jung, um alles allein zu machen – She’s too young to do everything alone
Er arbeitet zu schnell, um genau sein zu können – He works too quickly to be able to be accurate
Brauche ich eine Fahrkarte, um in den Zug einzusteigen? – Do I need a ticket in order to board the train?
(an)statt…zu– instead of + -ing. For example:
Wir haben geschlafen, (an)statt zu arbeiten – We slept instead of working). Achtung! English differs, see [next section])
ohne…zu – without + -ing. For example:
Er hat das Haus verlassen, ohne die Tür zu schiessen – He left the house without closing the door Achtung! English differs, see [next section])
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German infinitives and word order
In German, the infinitive – plain or zu – will usually stand at the end of its clause. (Remember, a clause is simply a phrase that contains a “finite” – that’s to say conjugated – verb):
Er wird das Haus nicht kaufen – He will not buy the house
Wir konnten sie nicht sprechen – We were not able to speak to/with her
Ich will den Lehrer fragen – I want to ask the teacher
Ich fange an zu lesen – I’m beginning to read
Er hat oft versucht, dich anzurufen – He has often tried to phone you
Es ist gut, sich mich guten Freunden zu unterhalten – It’s good to talk to good friends
Er ist zur Bäckerei gegangen, um Brot zu kaufen – He’s gone to the bakery to buy bread
Es ist schön, viel Geld verdienen zu können – It’s good to be able to earn a lot of money
Though the infinitive is usually in last place, when a subordinate clause contains an infinitive used with werden (Futur I) or with a modal auxiliary and an infinitive, werden or the modal push the infinitive back to the second from last position:
Wir wissen, dass er morgen früh um 8 Uhr in die Stadt fahren wird – We know, that he’ll drive into town at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning
Er sagte, dass er nicht kommen kann – He said that he can’t come
(Remember, a subordinate clause – also called a dependent clause or, in German, Nebensatz – is one that adds information to a main clause to which it is linked by a subordinating conjunction (such as weil, dass, obwohl). It can’t stand alone like a main clause or Hauptsatz).
The zu infinitive and separable verbs
Some German verbs have separable prefixes, for example: aufstehen (to stand up or to get up, e.g. from a chair or out of bed) or einkaufen (to buy in, i.e. to shop), anrufen (to telephone), wiedersehen (to see again).
Ich stehe morgens um 6 Uhr auf – I get up at 6 o’clock in the morning
Kaufen Sie in Burgheim ein? Do you shop in Bergheim?
When separable verbs are in the zu infinitive, the zu comes between the prefix and the basic verb:
Ich habe vor, am Freitag um 6 aufzustehen – I intend to get up at 6 on Friday
Wir raten dir, in Bergheim einzukaufen – We advise you to shop in Bergheim
Wann beabsichtigen Sie, die Reise anzutreten? – When do you intend to start the journey?
Key differences in usage German infinitives and English infinitives
As we’ve seen from the translations of the many German examples in this post, there’s a lot of overlap between how the infinitive is used in German and English.
But there are times when one language prefers a bare infinitive and the other prefers the zu/to infinitive or one language uses an infinitive pattern but the other language prefers a completely different structure.
Here, to finish, are some of the main usage differences in German and English verbal infinitives that English natives should be alert to.
English – ing form for German infinitive
German sometimes uses an infinitive where we’d use the -ing form of the English verb (with lassen in the sense of to stop, to leave, with bleiben, finden, haben followed by verb of place; with verbs of perception like hören and sehen).
Sie haben uns warten lassen – They kept us waiting
Er blieb sitzen – He remained sitting
Ich habe sie singen hören – I heard her singing
You’d also usually see the English -ing form when the German infinitive is used as a noun:
Ich höre das Schreien eines Kindes – I hear a child’s crying
Borgen macht Sorgen – Borrowing causes worrying
Ich lernte das Schwimmen – I learned swimming or I learned how to swim
Lachen ist die beste Medizin (here the best idiomatic translation would avoid the verb: Laughter is the best medicine)
English infinitive in indirect questions, German subordinate clause
In English we can use the to-infinitive after a question word in phrases like “I don’t know what to do”, “I don’t know where to go”, who to see and so on. We can also say “I don’t know what I should do”, where I should go etc. To express these ideas in German, you have to use different pattern: a subordinate clause, typically with sollen (sometimes müssen):
Ich weiß nicht, was ich machen soll/muss – I don’t know what to do/what I should/have to do
Ich weiß nicht, wohin ich gehen soll – I don’t know where to go/where I should go
The situation is similar when a phrase is introduced with tell / sagen. In English we can either use the to-infinitive (“I told her to do it”) or “report” what we said in a subordinate clause: “I told her that she should do it”, whereas in German you have to use the second pattern:
Ich sagte ihr / Ich habe ihr gesagt, dass sie es machen sollte – I told her to do it / I told her that she should do it.
You can’t say XIch habe ihr es zu machen gesagtX or XIch habe ihr gesagt, es zu machenX.
English want/would like + to infinitive, German wollen/möchten, dass
With a sentence like “He wants you to phone” or “He would like you to phone”, you can’t use an infinitive clause (zu infnitiive) in German. Instead, you say “Er will, dass Sie anrufen” or “Er möchte, dass sie anrufen”.
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