Man, “preterite-present” - what a name. “Preterite” is really just a synonym for “past tense”, so these are “past-present” verbs, so-called because they form the present tense with the same ending that the strong verbs use to form the past tense (the preterite). They use the past for the present, past-present, preterite-present. Very clever. The Icelandic name - núþálegar sagnir - is just as clever: nú (now), þá (then) - now-then verbs.
Vera isn’t technically part of this group, but I lump it in there because the important thing about the preterite-present verbs for learners is that they’re quite irregular and need to be learned mostly individually, just like vera.
There are only 10 of these verbs (plus vera), but they are monstrously important: they account for about 30% of all verb usage (with about 24% of that coming from vera).
How Do You Know if a Verb Is a Preterite-Present Verb?
You’ll know because you’re going to memorise this list.
- að eiga > to own, to be supposed to
- að mega > can, may, to be allowed
- að kunna > can, to know how to
- að unna > to love (rare, formal: this one can be safely ignored, honestly. I’m including it here out of a sense of completeness. Also, 10 is a nice number)
- að muna > to remember
- að vita > to know
- að þurfa > to need, to need to
- að vilja > to want
- að munu > will
- að skulu > will, shall
Check out my article on the future for more information on the difference between munu and skulu.
You can also check out my article on how to say can for more information on the difference between geta, mega, and kunna.
And if you’re desperate for things to read on the toilet, check out my article on how to say know for more information on the difference between kunna, vita, þekkja, and rata. Or my article on the difference between eiga að, þurfa að, and verða að. Man, I hadn’t realised how much of my job is just explaining these 10 verbs.
In case you don’t know how principal parts work, you can check out my article on them here.
We’ll go into detail on the present tense, past tense, and supine in a bit, but it’s always good to have some principal parts for reference!
The Present Tense
I’ll put up tables with 2 verbs at a time – partly because it’s overwhelming to see a table with all 11 at once, partly because it’s easier to learn things in chunks, but also because they kind of naturally form pairs. Eiga and mega have all the same irregularities, as do unna-kunna and munu-skulu.
Now that I’ve told you you’re getting 2 verbs per table, here’s a whole table just for vera. Hey, it’s an important verb! It’s also very irregular: note the þið and þeir / þær / þau endings; they look more like the past tense than the present tense. It’s a weird verb.
You will probably notice that the preterite-present verbs are actually quite regular in the plural (except vera, munu, and skulu).
Eiga and mega are both hugely important for expressing obligation and permission.
I've gotta be honest: unna isn’t an important word. It’s formal, even borderline archaic, so you’ll almost exclusively see it in written texts. Kunna is useful, though. Just try not to mix it up with vita, þekkja, and rata, or geta and mega.
Muna and vita are both super important, if only so you can answer ég man það ekki (I don’t remember) or ég veit það ekki (I don’t know) any time somebody asks you a question you don’t quite understand.
Þurfa and vilja are also really important. You need them to be able to say ég þarf að fara á klósettið (I need to go to the bathroom) and viltu rétta mér sósuna? (would you pass me the sauce?). Try not to confuse þurfa að with eiga að or verða að.
You might have noticed that vilja is the only verb in this group where the ég form and hann, hún, hán, það form aren’t identical. That’s weird, right? Well, natives seem to agree with you: ég vill is commonly heard among younger people, but keep it out of formal texts. You’ll get torn a new one if you write like that in the newspaper or in an academic thesis.
Ah, munu and skulu, the only two verbs (plus vera) with an irregularity in the plural: note the -uð ending in the þið form.
If you want to disambiguate the two future-referencing verbs, you can check out my article on the future.
The Past Tense
The preterite-present verbs use the same past-tense endings as the -i verbs, which should make them a little easier to learn. However, there are some vowel shifts and other consonant changes that honestly make it easier just to memorise them.
Munu and skulu just straight up don’t exist in the past tense, so you don’t need to worry about memorising those.
If you’re not familiar with the supine (sagnbót), check out my article on it here.
The preterite-present supine always takes the same stem vowel as the past tense. As for the ending, it goes back and forth between -að (like -a verbs) and -t (like -i verbs).
Munu and skulu straight up don’t exist in the supine, so that’s easy!
There are 10 preterite-present verbs (9 if you ignore unna, which is a pretty good idea). They have a lot of similarities – they are considered one category, after all – but their differences make it easier to just learn them one by one. Or two by two, as many of them naturally form pairs.