6 German Modal Verbs You Need to Know and How to Use Them
Do you know how to say you want or can do something in German? If you aren’t sure, than you’ve come to the right place!
Let’s learn the proper ways to express desire and ask for permission, with German modal verbs!
- What’s a Modal Verb?
- How Do You Use a Modal Verb in German?
- The 6 German Modal Verbs You Need to Know Now
- Conjugations of German Modal Verbs
- Further Study with German Modals
What’s a Modal Verb?
Modal verbs are special verbs that allow us to talk about probabilities, obligations, abilities, or make requests.
There are six of them in German:
They are mostly used in conjunction with another verb, putting a spin on said verb. If I say “I can ride a bike,” is telling you I’ve mastered the art of balancing and pedaling. Now, what if I said, “I want to ride a bike”?
Wanting to do something is different from being able to. I may want to be the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company, but can I achieve that in this lifetime? Both of these actions—wanting and being able to—put a different spin on the action of “being a CEO”.
That’s the magic of a modal verb: rather than simply stating an action, modal verbs give you the ability to speak about the possibility of or desire for an action.
Let’s look at a German example now:
Ich gehe ins Kino. — I go to the movies.
This sentence tells us we’re in the present, what the speaker is currently doing. Now let’s add in a word and change it to this:
Ich will ins Kino gehen. — I want to go to the movies.
Adding in the modal verb wollen (to want to) here makes this sentence not about what the speaker is currently doing, but about their desire to do an action.
Modal verbs can also be used to politely make a request or demand. At some point, you have to have heard the controversy of whether you should say “Can I go to the bathroom?” or “May I go to the bathroom?”
Politeness dictates we use the proper may I response, but informally we use can quite often. Modals assist us in being polite and expressing our requests, including our calls of nature, with respect.
How Do You Use a Modal Verb in German?
Modal verbs have different conjugations to other verbs. They’re often also—but not always—attached to another verb.
The same as any other verbs, modal verbs always go in the second position of the sentence and conjugate according to the subject.
Then, if there’s a second verb, we put it in the infinitive at the very end of the clause.
For example, if we were to say, “I have to go home,” we take the German verb for “must”/ “to have to”, which is müssen, conjugate it to “I,” and then put the verb “go,” which is gehen, at the end of the sentence:
Ich muss nach Hause gehen. — I have to go home. (Literally: I must to home go.)
Remember: The modal verb is conjugated and the infinitive of the secondary verb goes to the end of the clause.
Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the modals, so you can easily recognize them—and how they are formed and used—when you hear them in the wild.
A Note About Zu
If you’ve progressed far enough in your German speaking skills, you know that the word zu is like the English preposition “to.” We sometimes need to use this with certain modals in English like “I want to…”, “to be able to” or “to be allowed to“.
But modals in German do not require zu. This is an important fact to remember when conjugating modal verbs in other tenses.
If you find yourself inserting zu because the English equivalent translates with a “to,” double-check that the “to” is not attached to an infinitive. If it’s part of an infinitive, chances are the “to” is encompassed in that infinitive form.
The 6 German Modal Verbs You Need to Know Now
Let’s look at each verb separately to really understand what each one means—and how to properly use it. After that, we’ll take a closer look at how to conjugate each modal in the present, simple past, conversational past and future tenses.
Dürfen — May / to be allowed to
Dürfen is the modal verb we use to say “may” or “to be allowed to”. It basically describes having permission or the right to do something. So, just as in English, it can be used as a politer way of requesting permission: “May I sit here”?
Here are a few examples of the verb dürfen, with and without a secondary infinitive verb. (When relevant, I’ll also include a literal translation with the word-by-word sentence order, to better illustrate the differences between English and German word order.)
Die Kinder dürfen bis 21 Uhr aufbleiben. — The children are allowed to stay up till 9 o’clock. (Literally: The children are allowed to till 21 o’clock stay up.)
Darf man hier zelten? — Are you allowed to camp here? (Literally: Is one allowed to here camp?)
Ich darf nichts sagen. — I’m not allowed to say anything. (Literally: I am allowed nothing to say.)
When used in the negative, it can change to mean “must not”, in the sense of having a moral, social or other sort of expectation or obligation not to do something:
Wir dürfen das nicht zulassen. — We must not allow this. (Literally: We are allowed to this not allow.)
German learners tend try and use müssen nicht (must/to have to) here, but as we’ll explain below, this instead has the meaning of “not having to do something”, as in there is no obligation, but rather an option: “You don’t have to come, if you don’t want to.”
So make sure to use dürfen when there is a sense of duty or necessity not to do something.
Können — Can
Used as the more colloquial term for an ability, können means “to be able to” or “can.” Here are a few examples:
Sie kann mich nicht hören. — She can’t hear me. (Literally: She can me not hear.)
Sie können ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen. — They can speak a little bit of German. (Literally: They can a little bit German speak.)
It can also be used as a less formal way of asking for permission, just as in English:
Kann ich die Fotos sehen? — Can I see the photos? (Literally: Can I the photos see?)
Wollen — Want
Wollen is one of many words/ways in German to express a desire. If you “want” something, whether it’s a thing or to do an action, you can simply use wollen!
Ich will ein neues Auto. — I want a new car.
Wollt ihr nach Hause gehen? — Do you guys want to go home? (Literally: Want you guys to home go?)
Er will mir einen Kuss geben. — He wants to give me a kiss. (Literally: He wants to me a kiss to give.)
Müssen — To have to
If there’s one thing you learn as you grow up, it’s that there are things you are “permitted to do,” things you “should do,” things you “want to do” and, of course, things you “must do.” For all those “musts,” use müssen:
Ich muss jetzt gehen. — I have to go now. (Literally: I must now go.)
Er muss ein Geldstrafe zahlen. — He has to pay a fine. (Literally: He must a fine pay.)
Sie müssen einen neuen Job finden. — They have to find a new job. (Literally: They must a new job find.)
It’s best to think of müssen as meaning “to have to”, and not “must”. This stops you falling into a common trap for German learners, namely trying to use müssen to say someone must not do something. Using nicht with müssen in fact ends up meaning something quite different—you don’t have to, if you don’t want to!
Du musst nicht spielen, wenn du keine Lust hast. — You don’t have to play, if you don’t want to. (Literally: You have to not play, if you no desire have.)
If you want to tell someone they explicitly must not do something, you always need to use dürfen!
It’s also worth mentioning that German speakers tend to use müssen more often than English speakers say “must.” In many cases, it may sound more natural to say “should” in English:
Ich muss lernen, weil ich Freitag eine Prüfung habe. — I should study, because I have a test on Friday. (Literally: I must study, because I Friday a test have.)
Sollen — To be supposed to / to be expected to
Sollen can be a bit of a tricky one, as it can have a variety of different shades of meaning. Many often simply translate it as “should”, but in it’s regular present tense form, it is better to think of the meaning as “to be supposed to do something”.
So, similar to müssen, it’s an obligation, but this time it’s an expectation or request that comes by someone else:
Mama hat gesagt, ich soll dir helfen. — Mom said I am supposed to/have to help you.
But if you instead want to give some advice, rather than an order, you often instead use the past tense form sollten:
Er sollte zum Arzt gehen! — He should go to the doctor’s! (Literally: He should to the doctor go!)
In Zukunft solltest du vorsichtiger sein. — In future, you should be more careful. (Literally: In future should you more careful be.)
There are a lot of exceptions to the above rules, but just try and remember sollen is more for obligations coming from someone else, and sollten is more for recommendations.
Mögen — Like
Mögen is arguably one of the easiest modal verbs to remember, especially since we probably use it pretty often. It means to “like” something.
Er mag angeln. — He likes to go fishing.
Du magst den grünen Apfel, aber ich mag den roten Apfel. — You like the green apple, but I like the red apple.
Ich mag nicht mehr weiterspielen. — I don’t want to play anymore. (I want to not more keep playing.)
Conjugations of German Modal Verbs
Present Tense Modal Verb Forms
Now that you’ve learned what each modal verb means and seen examples of how to use it, here are the present tense conjugations for each. Each of the examples above is also in the present tense, for your reference.
You’ll notice that the ich and er/sie/es forms are exactly the same! This holds true for every modal verb. Wir and Sie/sie are also the same. Keep that in mind as you memorize these conjugations!
Dürfen Present Können Present Wollen Present
Sollen Present Müssen Present Mögen Present
The Difference Between Mögen and Möchten
In the course of your German learning journey, you’ll come across the verb möchten. It’s used very much like a modal verb because it is, in fact, a modal verb—möchten is also technically the subjunctive form of mögen.
Wait, what? How can a verb be two different things at once?
Möchten is a very special case, and in some ways it’s idiomatic in that it’s used like mögen to express a desire. As we discussed, mögen means “to like.” Möchten is the polite and subjunctive way of saying “would like.” Let’s take a look at concrete examples to help distinguish this difference:
Ich mag Schokoladenmilch. — I like chocolate milk.
Ich möchte eine Cola, bitte. — I would like a soda, please.
As you can see, the second sentence is a bit more polite. You might say this when ordering food at a restaurant, or in any situation where formality is appreciated. Here are the following conjugations of möchten in the present tense:
In the sections below, we’ll talk about how to use all the modal verbs in the past and future tenses, but we won’t specifically mention möchten anymore. Because mögen and möchten are technically forms of the same verb, their simple past forms are the same.
Past Tense Modal Verb Forms
The Präteritum, also known as the simple past, and the conversational past tense both accomplish the same task of saying what has already happened.
More often than not, the conversational past tense is used for speaking, which we will get into later on. Nevertheless, here are the simple past conjugations for each modal verb and some example sentences below.
Du durftest Schokolade essen. — You were allowed to eat chocolate. (Literally: You were allowed chocolate to eat.)
Ich konnte Schokolade essen. — I could eat chocolate. (Literally: I could chocolate to eat.)
Sie wollten Schokolade essen. — They wanted to eat chocolate. (Literally: They wanted chocolate to eat.)
Er sollte Schokolade essen. — He should eat chocolate. / or / He was supposed to eat chocolate. (Literally: He should chocolate to eat.)
Wir mussten Schokolade essen. — We had to eat chocolate. (Literally: We must/had to chocolate to eat.)
Ihr mochtet Schokolade essen. — You all liked to eat chocolate. (Literally: You all liked chocolate to eat.)
Conversational Past Tense Modal Verb Forms
The conversational past tense—also known as Perfekt—is formed using haben or sein as a helping verb, and then including the past participle of the modal at the end of the sentence. All modal verbs use haben as their helping verb.
So first what you need to do is conjugate haben accordingly:
And then add on the corresponding past participle:
But wait! We already have two verbs—the modal and the infinitive of the verb it describes—so what happens now that we’ve got the helping verb, too? Three verbs now?!
Germans call this instance the double infinitive. You want to be able to say you like or want to do something, even in the past tense. Now, if you don’t have an infinitive in the present tense, then the helping verb stays the same and the past participle of the modal comes last.
Ich habe Schokolade gewollt. — I wanted chocolate. (Literally: I have chocolate wanted.)
However, if you do have an infinitive in the present tense, you’re going to follow these next steps:
- Conjugate your helping verb (haben) according to your subject.
- Place the infinitive of the verb described by the modal at the end.
- Place the infinitive of the modal at the very end of the sentence.
Ich habe nichts sagen dürfen. — I wasn’t allowed to say anything. (Literally: I have chocolate to eat wanted.)
As you can see, you do end up with a double infinitive at the end of the sentence. This can end up being a bit confusing, so you’ll often hear speakers instead using the simple past form that we described above. (eg; wollte / durfte / konnte etc.)
Future Tense Modal Verb Forms
To construct the future tense, first conjugate werden , and then include the infinitive of the modal at the end of the sentence. This word literally means “become,” but when used in the context of the future tense it can be translated as “will.”
Here are the conjugations of werden:
Let’s look at a few examples:
Nächstes Jahr werde ich dich besuchen können. — Next year, I will be able to visit you.
Das wird man nicht vollständig verhindern können. — One will not be able to totally prevent that.
Sie werden heute Nacht ausruhen wollen. — You (formal) will want to rest tonight.
Again, you do have a double infinitive structure in the future tense. The modal verb will always go last.
Further Study with German Modals
Now that you’ve learned the basics of modal verbs, let’s look at a few interesting cases of German idioms and special uses of modals.
Idioms are those quirky expressions in every language that don’t always translate well, and sometimes can’t even be explained in their native tongue!
Obviously, when we say “It’s raining cats and dogs,” there aren’t really balls of feline and canine fur falling from the sky. In truth, you might think of idioms as very colorful metaphors.
Here are a few German idioms that use modals. Memorize these phrases to sound more like a native German!
Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben. — Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. (Literally: One should not praise the day before it’s night.)
Da kannst du Gift drauf nehmen. — You can bet your life on that. (Literally: You can take poison on that.)
Ich muss immer Lehrgeld dafür zahlen. — I always have to learn something the hard way. (Literally: I must always pay learning money for that.)
Another great trick to learn is using können to express knowledge of something. For example, if you say Ich kann Deutsch , you’re saying “I can (speak) German.” Though you don’t say “speak,” the meaning is implied.
This concept can be applied to nearly everything. You can say Ich kann Mathematik , and people will know you’re a math whiz. Ich kann tanzen tells everyone to watch out! Here comes the dance master.
To get a better idea of how modal verbs are used in everyday German by native speakers, you’ll want to get exposure to plenty of real-life German media—media that’s been optimized for learning.
The FluentU program teaches German through videos made for native speakers with interactive subtitles. And while there are six modal verbs mentioned here, you’re bound to come across more words that you want to study. When that happens, you can save these new words to your personalized flashcards for further learning.
Another way to listen to these modal verbs used in real life is through radio channels. While this is an option for learners of a higher level, even clips and excerpts from German radio shows are beneficial to learning how natives use these verbs. And since they’re audio-based, you’ll have to listen actively to get what the speakers are saying.
You can also head to Youtube, where channels like Easy German are available for learners to use. This channel, in particular, interviews people on the streets of German cities about specific topics. There are some videos related to different grammar topics, but there’s no better way to learn than by listening to German in use!
There you have it!
Practice your modal verbs and keep building up your vocabulary.
One day, you’ll speak, read and write like a native German!
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