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Consider this sentence:

du spinnst

It means you're crazy. Now, where did the 'are' come from? One may assume from this example that the 'are' comes with the verb but in other cases we have to explicitly write out 'are' using conjugations of sein (bin, bist etc). Eg:

Du bist müde

Question: When do we need to explicitly add a sein and when do we not need to ?

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  • I suggest you add an example where you found usage of conjugated "sein" . Dec 14, 2021 at 8:46
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    There's an incredibly complete answer below, but it feel like someone should note the core of this issue, which is "Here, English does with an adjective what German does with a verb". Dec 14, 2021 at 20:13

2 Answers 2

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English:

You are crazy.

  • you
    a subject pronoun (second person, singular)
  • are
    a copulative verb,
    a form of to be (second person, singular, indicative, present tense, active voice)
  • crazy
    an adjective in predicative usage

This is the correct German translation:

Du bist verrückt.

  • du
    a personal pronoun (second person, singular)
  • bist
    a copulative verb,
    a form of sein (second person, singular, indicative, present tense, active voice)
  • verrrückt
    an adjective in predicative usage

But in German you can express the same meaning in another sentence:

Du spinnst.

  • du
    a personal pronoun (second person, singular)
  • spinnst
    an intransitive verb
    a form of spinnen (second person, singular, indicative, present tense, active voice)

As you can see, this is a completely different construction. It is the same construction as in this sentence:

Du schläfst.

  • du
    a personal pronoun (second person, singular)
  • schläfst
    an intransitive verb
    a form of schlafen (second person, singular, indicative, present tense, active voice)

which is in English:

You sleep.

  • you
    a subject pronoun (second person, singular)
  • sleep
    an intransitive verb
    a form of to sleep (second person, singular, indicative, present tense, active voice)

English has more tenses than German (German has only 6 tenses, English has 16), and so you can also build this sentence in English which is not possible in German:

You are sleeping.

But here "sleeping" is not an adjective as was "crazy". And "are" is not a copula verb as it was in the sentence before. Here is the analysis:

  • you
    a subject pronoun (second person, singular)
  • are
    an auxiliary verb
    a form of to be (second person, singular, indicative, present tense, active voice)
  • sleeping
    an intransitive verb
    a form of sleep (present participle)

Such a construction does not exist in German.


Meaning of spinnen

The German verb spinnen originally means: "to produce thin threads from an animals wool by using a spinning wheel" This procedure usually was performed by women who sat there together with other spinning women, and while they turned wool into threads, there were talking to each other and telling stories. Very often they told crazy and fantastic stories which were far away from reality. And so the verb "spinnen" added a new meaning: Telling crazy stories. Later, when spinning wheels no longer were used, the original meaning got lost, and "spinnen" only had the meaning of telling crazy things, and then the verb transformed it's meaning again and "to tell crazy stories" became "to be crazy".

English has no verb with this meaning. It only has an adjective. So, when you want to translate the German sentence "du spinnst" into English, you can't use the same construction as in German. But you can build an English sentence with the same meaning that uses a different construction: a copula verb and an adjective instead of the German nontransitive verb.


When to use sein

You asked about when to use a form of sein. Well there are two versions of German sein, as there are two versions of English to be:

Copula

A copula (pural: copulas or copulae) is a verb that connects (couples) the subject with something else. This can be a noun group ("a teacher") or an adjective ("sick"):

Walter is a teacher.
Walter ist ein Lehrer.

Barbara is sick.
Barbara ist krank.

And this works with identical rules in German and in English.

Auxiliary verb

An auxiliary verb is a verb that is there only for grammatical reasons without carrying any meaning (it is not part of the sentences proposition)

In English and in German you use auxiliary verbs to construct different tenses:

Laura is running.

Here the word "is" adds no meaning to the sentence that is not already in the words "Laura" and "running". It just is here to express the grammatical tense (here: present progressive or present continuous). Other tenses need other forms of to be or other auxiliary verbs:

Laura did run.
Laura will run.
Laura has been running.

Note, that all of the following sentences are wrong because "sick" is not a verb and therefor the form of "to be" can't be an auxiliary verb:

Barbara did sick.
Barbara will sick.

German uses auxiliary verbs in a similar manner. It just has other tenses:

Laura ist gelaufen.
Laura wird laufen.

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    You are mixing up modes (Indikativ, Konjunktiv I, Konjunktiv II, Imperativ) with tenses (Präsens, Präteritum, Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt, Futur I, Futur II). You also have 3 grammatical persons and 2 numbers and active and passive voice and German verbs are conjugated to all of these qualities, and then you also can derive 2 different participles from most verbs. This all blows up conjugation tables because you need an entry for each combination. But we still have only 6 tenses. Dec 14, 2021 at 10:21
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    "so you can also build this sentence in English which is not possible in German" Actually, there are dialects where "Du bist am Schlafen" is considered correct.
    – Polygnome
    Dec 14, 2021 at 14:47
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    @Polygnome I'm wondering whether there are dialects in which it is not correct. Dec 14, 2021 at 15:28
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    @orithena "Du tust am schlafen dranne sein"
    – Polygnome
    Dec 14, 2021 at 19:18
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    @GerardH.Pille "build this sentence in English which is not possible in German". It is possible, it should be Du bist schlafend. without an additional e, as you suggested. However, this construction is not in common usage. Dec 15, 2021 at 8:54
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The phrase du spinnst uses a verb, spinnen, not an adjective. For some reason German speakers allow "being crazy" to be a verb on it's own, but if you insist on an adjective then I think du bist verrückt has about the same meaning. (I gather that spinnen refers more to something that's actually happening, more like "acting crazy" or "talking nonsense". Meanwhile verrückt seems very similar to the British "daft".)

In general, well, German and English are different languages; they have different verb tenses and say the same thing in different ways, sometimes even using different parts of speech. So German just uses sein differently than English uses "be" and there are too many differences to list here. There is no 'rule' to learn for this; you have to figure out the meaning of the German sentence, then think about how to convey the same (or similar) meaning in English.

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    Quote "There is no 'rule' to learn for this": This is definitely wrong. There are rules and you can learn them. That the rules are complicated and numerous doesn't mean they don't exist. Dec 14, 2021 at 7:22
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    @Hubert Schölnast: My thinking is that if the process could be reduced to a set of rules and procedures then the folks at Google would have figured them out by now and Google Translate would work perfectly. There are many things to consider besides the words, such as context and what a human would consider a likely meaning under the circumstance, things that can't really be captured by a 'rule'. For example if you're talking to a spider then du spinnst means something entirely different.
    – RDBury
    Dec 14, 2021 at 8:03
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    To distinguish between a spider and a person is one of the many rules that exist and can be learned. But now you need other rules that tell you that many spiders don't build webs, so in the sentence "Die Tarantel spinnt" it still must mean that the spider is crazy, while in "Spiderman spinnt" you need to analyze the context to get the correct meaning. And this all is done by existing and learnable rules. But as said before: They are numerous and complicated. But they exist. Without these rules communication would not be possible. Dec 14, 2021 at 10:12
  • @HubertSchölnast Most people communicate perfectly, completely unaware of these so-called rules. Language follows habits, scientists studying languages imagine there are rules. Dec 14, 2021 at 22:30
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    @GerardH.Pille: You are perfectly correct. But rules that are unaware to their users are still rules. And they have been learned by the people who use them. The set of rules of which we are aware ans that we can write in books (rules you need to know when you constuct a car) is called "explicit knowledge". The set of rules of which we are not aware and that can't be written in books is "implicit knowledge" (rules you must know to ride a bike without falling down). But both sets contain existing rules that must be learned. Dec 15, 2021 at 14:30

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