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Verbs: infinitive form

A verb infinitive is the form of verb that is found in the dictionary.


This is an example of a sentence using an infinitive: ‘Learning German is fun -> Deutsch lernen macht Spaß..

The infinitive is also used in the future tense, in the conditional, and with modal verbs.

Um… zu… means ‘in order to’, for example:

  • Ich fahre nach Deutschland, um mein Deutsch zu verbessern -> I’m going to Germany in order to improve my German.
  • Um schlank zu werden, habe ich eine Diät gemacht -> In order to get slim, I went on a diet.

Note that there are two bits in each sentence:

  • One fact (in the present/past/future)
  • One piece of extra info (a reason, using um… zu…)

The um… zu… bit can be in the first half or the second half – the second half is more common though. Um starts the section. The infinitive verb is at the end and zu comes just before. Any left overs go in-between um and zu.

In English, we don’t always say ‘in order to’ – sometimes we just say ‘to’, for example: ‘I’m going to Germany in order to improve my German’ or ‘I’m going to Germany to improve my German.’

In German, however, you have to use the full phrase ‘um… zu…’ – it can be tempting to miss out the ‘um’. These (higher level) structures follow the exact same pattern:

  • (an)statt… zu… (instead of)
  • ohne… zu… (without)
  • Ich spiele Gitarre, anstatt Hausaufgaben zu machen -> I’m playing guitar instead of doing my homework.
  • Ich habe 20 Stunden gearbeitet, ohne bezahlt zu werden -> I worked 20 hours without getting paid.

Impersonal phrases with ‘zu’ + infinitive

Impersonal phrases are phrases that begin ‘it is…’, for example ‘It is important to study a language’.

Common impersonal phrases

  • Es ist wichtig… – It is important…
  • Es ist interessant… – It is interesting…
  • Es ist gut… – It is good…
  • Es ist schwierig… – It is difficult…
  • Es ist schlecht… – It is bad…

You can easily create variations by putting es ist and an adjective of your choice. Use these in sentences, with zu (to) and an infinitive:

  • Es ist schwierig, Chinesisch zu lernen -> It’s difficult to learn Chinese.
  • Es ist schlecht, zu viel Bier zu trinken -> It’s bad to drink too much beer.
  • Es ist nützlich, deutsche Grammatik zu verstehen -> It’s useful to understand German grammar.
  • Es ist interessant, Leute aus anderen Ländern kennenzulernen -> It’s interesting meeting people from other countries (note:kennenlernen is a separable verb).

Future plans and intentions using ‘zu’ + infinitive

There are certain phrases that refer to future plans and ambitions which follow the pattern above. These can be very useful when you’re talking about the future.

Future phrases

zu Translation Infinitive Translation
Ich hoffe, …zu… I hope to… Ich hoffe, Arzt zu werden. I hope to be a doctor.
Ich beabsichtige, …zu… I intend to… Ich beabsichtige, mit 35 in Rente zu gehen I intend to retire at 35.
Ich plane, …zu… I intend to… Ich habe vor, andere Leute zu helfen. I intend to help others.
Ich habe vor, …zu… I intend to… Ich habe vor, andere Leute zu helfen. I intend to help others.
Ich versuche, …zu… I try to…/I’m trying to… Ich versuche, immer gut gelaunt zu sein. I try to always be in a good mood.

Common mistakes made by English speakers

  1. In um… zu…sentences, leaving the umout.
  2. Not putting the infinitive at the end.
  3. Missing zu out in the zu+infinitive sentences.

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