1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Identify whether werden is being used in its root meaning or as a future-tense indicator.
  • Identify and translate sentences using future or future-perfect tenses.
  • Identify and translate probability statements.
  • Identify and translate relative clauses.
Last revised on September 10, 2014.

2. The Verb Werden

This verb is one of the most important verbs in the German language to master because it has a range of quite different uses and meanings. Three are covered in this unit, another (passive voice) in the next unit, and another in Unit 15 (subjunctive). So it is important for you to practice distinguishing the different usages.

When used by itself as a simple, “full” verb, werden means “to become,” “to turn into,” or in colloquial English, “to get,” as in:

Wir werden nicht älter, wir werden nur besser.
We don’t get older, we just get better.

It has an irregular conjugation:

Present tense:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich werde wir werden
2nd du wirst ihr werdet
3rd er/sie/es wird sie/Sie werden

Simple past tense:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich wurde wir wurden
2nd du wurdest ihr wurdet
3rd er/sie/es wurde sie/Sie wurden

Perfect Tenses

Werden uses the auxiliary verb sein and the past participle geworden. Examples using the third person singular and plural are:

Present perfect:

Er ist alt geworden.
He has become old. / He became old.

Sie sind alt geworden.
They have become old. / They became old.

Past perfect:

Diese Maschine war zu alt geworden.
This machine had become too old.

Diese Maschinen waren zu alt geworden. 
These machines had become too old.

Last revised on February 1, 2017.

3. Future and Future Perfect Tenses

Werden and its present tense forms can also be used with an infinitive of a verb to form the future tense in German. For example:

Dieses Auto wird sicher schneller fahren.
This car will surely go faster.

Sie weiß nicht, ob sie heute abend kommen werden.
She doesn’t know if they will come this evening.

Note: The dependent infinitive (fahren and kommen in these examples) stands in final position.

Future perfect tense is not used frequently but it is wise to be aware of it. Examples of it are:

Unser Direktor wird eine Reise um die Welt gemacht haben.
Our director will have travelled around the world.

Wir werden über 15.000 km geflogen sein.
We will have flown over 15,000 kilometers.

Note: The auxiliary verb (haben or sein) that accompanies the dependent infinitive appears after the past participle. To summarize: future perfect is composed of a present tense form of werden plus a past participle and its auxiliary:

werden + past participle + haben or sein

Last revised on September 12, 2014.

4. Werden in Probability Statements

The verb werden can furthermore be used with an infinitive and usually the word wohl, but sometimes doch or schon, to express probability. As you will see, the examples look exactly like future tense and future perfect statements. The difference is the addition of wohl, doch, or schon, which can change the meaning dramatically.

A present tense probability statement:

Er wird wohl Deutsch studieren.
He is probably studying German. [or:] He is probably a German major.

A past tense probability statement:

Er wird wohl Deutsch studiert haben.
He probably (studied / has studied) German.

Follow these steps whenever you see a sentence that looks like a future or future perfect statement that contains wohl, doch or schon as an adverb:

  1. Attempt to translate the sentence with both the verb tense (future or future perfect) and wohl/doch/schon in their "normal" meanings.
  2. Compare that result with when you attempt to translate the sentence as a probability statement, in which case two meanings change:
    1. Understand the verb tense as present instead of what looks like future, or as past instead of what looks like future perfect.
    2. Understand wohl/doch/schon as the "probability" adverb: "probably / surely / likely" etc.
  3. Pick the reading (step #1 or #2) that makes more sense. If they both could make sense, then pick #2. In other words, generally werden + doch/schon/wohl
  4. indicates a probability statement (option #2), unless that doesn’t make real-world sense.

Work out your own translations of the five examples on this page to experience this decision-making process.

More examples:

Der spricht aber fließend! Er wird doch Deutsch studieren!?
Wow, that guy speaks fluently! Surely he’s a German major!?

Sie werden dir schon die Wahrheit sagen.
I’m confident they will tell you the truth. (Note: not a probability statement, just regular future tense and regular schon.)

Sie werden dir schon viel Geld gekostet haben.
They likely cost you a lot of money.

Last revised on March 7, 2017.

5. Relative Pronouns and Relative Clauses

In Unit 6, we dealt with dependent clauses as introduced by subordinating conjunctions. Now we will deal with another type of dependent clause, the relative clause which is introduced with the German equivalent of “which,” “that,” “who,” “whom,” etc. Examples in English:

I saw the cat which my dog hates.
I saw the cat that ate the mouse.
I saw the man who owns the cat.
I saw the house in which they live.

The German relative pronouns in the different cases are exactly the same as the definite article, except for those underlined below. They are translated either as “who” and its forms (“whose”, “whom”) or  as “which,” “that,” and “what”:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative der die das die
Accusative den die das die
Dative dem der dem denen
Genitive dessen deren dessen deren

Compare these with the definite articles in Unit 2. The differences are in the genitive (“of which,” “whose”), where we see dessen and deren, and in the dative plural (“to which,” “to whom”), where we see denen.

In much older German texts, we will find another form of the relative pronoun, welch-, which is declined like the der– words as shown in Unit 3. There is no genitive form of welch– as a relative pronoun.

Relative pronouns are used to introduce relative clauses. In the English sentence, “The book that he is reading is very interesting,” the relative clause is, “that he is reading,” and the main sentence is: “The book is very interesting.” The meaning of a relative clause is to modify the item in the main sentence to which the entire relative clause refers – in this case, “book.”

There are two rules in German that make recognizing relative clauses easier than in English:

  1. German only rarely omits the relative pronoun as we often do in English: "The book he is reading is interesting." Thus, normally, the relative pronoun will be the first word in the clause, unless it is used with a preposition, which will precede it – see example #6 below.
  2. German marks both the beginning and the end of the relative clause with commas.

Examples of relative pronouns and clauses:

  1. Der Computer, der [nominative case-masculine] in diesem Zimmer steht, ist neu.

    The computer (which is) standing in this room is new.
  2. Der Computer, den [accusative-masculine] ich habe, ist neu.
    The computer (which) I have is new.
  3. Der Professor, dessen [genitive-masculine] Buch ich lese, ist wohlbekannt.
    The professor whose book I am reading is well-known.
  4. Der Student, dem [dative-masculine] ich das Buch gebe, heißt Hans.
    The student to whom I give the book is called Hans.
  5. Die Arbeiter, denen [dative-plural] wir Computer geben, sind intelligent.
    The workers to whom we give computers are intelligent.
  6. Die Maschine, mit der [dative-feminine] ich arbeite, ist komplex.
    The machine with which I am working is complex.

The meaning of a relative pronoun can be determined if you note the following:

  1. The relative pronoun agrees in both gender and number with the word it refers to. Therefore, in our examples, if the noun in the main sentence is masculine and singular then the relative pronoun is masculine and singular, etc.
  2. The case of the relative pronoun agrees with the role it plays within the relative clause, not by the role of the word in the main sentence to which it refers.

Thus, in example #1 it is nominative since it is the subject, in #2 accusative since it is the direct object, in #3 the genitive, in #4, #5, and #6 the dative since it is the indirect object or is governed by a dative preposition or verb.

Paying attention to the agreement of gender and number can be crucial for reading comprehension. German can be much clearer and more efficient than English since one can (and sometimes must) rely on this agreement to determine exactly what is referring to what.

Last revised on February 1, 2017.

6. Question Words as Relative Pronouns

Just as in English, question words such as wo, was, and wie sometimes function as unspecific relative pronouns, and in this case they do not signal a question. Recognize how word order signals to you that this is a relative clause and not a question:

Sie ist sich unsicher, was sie bestellen wird.
She is not sure what she will order.

Ich weiß, wo Franz Kafka geboren ist.
I know where Franz Kafka was born.

These express a less specific kind of relationship between the two phrases than a relative pronoun does. Compare the second example above with:

Ich sah das Haus, in dem Franz Kafka geboren ist.
I saw the house in which Franz Kafka was born.

A famous example of this kind of question-word usage is in the first line of a Goethe poem: Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn, …


You may find the
Review Units 5-8 exercise more valuable now or as a later review opportunity.

Last revised on October 6, 2014.