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Ich lerne schwimmen.

I have learned that one can use sein as a modal verb like in that sentence but when I was writing a text in the class I wrote this:

Man lernt für sich selbst verantwortlich sein.

But my teacher said I should write "zu sein" instead. I'm now confused, when can I use lernen as a modal verb and when not?

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The verb "lernen" is not a modal verb. German has 6 modal verbs, and they are:

  • dürfen

    Ich darf schwimmen. - I may swim.

  • können

    Ich kann schwimmen. - I can swim.

  • mögen

    Ich mag schwimmen. - I want to swim.

  • müssen

    Ich muss schwimmen. - I have to swim.

  • sollen

    Ich soll schwimmen. - I'm supposed to swim.

  • wollen

    Ich will schwimmen. - I want to swim.

No other verb is a modal verb.

The construction, that is valid for modal verbs can also be used for other verbs, but this doesn't turn those other verbs into modal verbs.

This construction is "Verb + Infinitiv":

Ich gehe schwimmen. - I go swimming.
Ich lerne schwimmen. - I learn swimming.
Ich sehe dich vorbeigehen. - I see you passing by.
Ich höre das Kind schreien. - I hear the child crying.

And there are similar sentences, where you have to add the word "zu":

Ich habe vor zu schwimmen. - I plan to swim.
Ich hoffe bald zuhause zu sein. - I hope the be home soon.

So, here are the rules:


Verb + Infinitiv (ohne »zu«)

You can use the infinite form of the second verb without "zu" if the first verb is:

  • a modal verb
    (see the examples above)
  • a verb of perception
    sehen, hören, fühlen, spüren, ...

    Ich höre dich husten. - I hear you cough.

  • a verb of movement
    gehen, laufen, rennen, fahren, fliegen, schwimmen, ...

    Ich gehe einkaufen. - I go shopping.

  • the verb lassen

    Ernst lässt Ilse fahren. - Ernst lets Ilse drive.

  • the verb bleiben (in the sense of staying at the same position)

    Das Bild bleibt hängen. - The picture stays hanging.


Verb + "zu" + Infinitiv

You have to use the infinite form of the second verb with "zu" if the first verb is:

  • a verb that expresses a plan
    probieren, vorhaben, planen, ...

    Ich probiere zu kochen. - I try to cook.

  • a verb that expresses an opinion
    denken, meinen, glauben, hoffen

    Ich hoffe Klaus zu treffen. - I hope to meet Klaus.

  • a verb that expresses an agreement or a result
    abmachen, beschließen, gelingen, vereinbaren

    Jakob hat beschlossen zu gehen. - Jakob decided to go.

  • a verb that describes a beginning
    anfangen, starten, beginnen, ...

    Der Motor beginnt zu laufen. - The engine starts to run.

  • a verb that expresses a decision
    wagen, sich entscheiden, schwören, geloben, ...

    Sie wagte zu sprechen. - She dared to speak.


Verbs that can be used in both ways

You can use Infinitive with or without "zu" when the other verb is one of these:

  • lernen - to learn
  • lehren - to teach
  • helfen - to help

You can freely decide in those cases, but there are preferred cases as shown below. Some people would even say, that the cases, that are marked here as "rare" are wrong. So, you better shouldn't use the rare versions.

If the infinitive follows immediately after the first verb, then the form without "zu" is preferred:

  • preferred:

    Ich lerne schwimmen.
    Kurt hilft tragen.
    Daniela lehrt tanzen.

  • rare. Better don't use this form:

    Ich lerne zu schwimmen.
    Kurt hilft zu tragen.
    Daniela lehrt zu tanzen.

If there is something between the first verb and the infinite verb, you better add the word "zu":

  • preferred:

    Ich lerne im Wasser zu schwimmen.
    Kurt hilft die Kiste zu tragen.
    Daniela lehrt uns Walzer zu tanzen.

  • rare. Better don't use this form:

    Ich lerne im Wasser schwimmen.
    Kurt hilft die Kiste tragen.
    Daniela lehrt uns Walzer tanzen.

| improve this answer | |
  • Wow that was excellent. Thank you! – Mario Bedoun May 28 at 22:08

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