Do you know how to ask to go to the bathroom in German?
It’s okay if the answer is no.
Maybe you know how to introduce yourself, and you can tell everyone how old you are and where you come from.
You should feel good about that!
You’ve probably even picked a favorite German word (trust me, it’ll change as you learn more and more German).
But do you know how to say you want or like something?
Let’s learn the proper ways to express desire and ask for permission, with German modal verbs!
What’s a Modal Verb?
German modal verbs give us the ability to speak about another verb, in a way that shows a relationship. For example, think about the question I mentioned previously, about asking to go to the bathroom. I used the word “can,” which implies an ability.
If I say “I can ride a bike,” I’m 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—describe the state of being, using the verb to be. They show various facets 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 an action. You might think of modal verbs as “helping verbs,” but only in the sense that they clarify or provide more information. Haben and sein are types of helping verbs as well, but not necessarily in the way we’re speaking about modals; these two verbs are most helpful when constructing tenses or describing the most basic functions (i.e., to have and to be).
Modals differ in that they bring out an extra feature of the sentence.
Let’s think about a German example now:
Ich fahre mein Rad.
I ride my bike. (Literally: “I drive my wheel.”)
This sentence tells us we’re in the present, and the speaker of the sentence, “ich,” is riding a bike that they own (“mein Rad”).
Now let’s add in a word and change it to “Ich kann mein Rad fahren” (I can ride my bike).
From this sentence, we can conclude that the speaker “ich” has the ability to ride their own bike, but perhaps this means they can’t ride another person’s bike. This also means that they’ve learned how to ride their bike, as the ability to do so is stressed.
You may think these are subtle and unnecessary distinctions, but being such a vast and colorful language, German contains intricate ways to express even the tiniest of details.
In fact, modal verbs can also express an element of politeness. 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 calls of nature with respect.
How Do You Use a Modal Verb in German?
Modal verbs act like any other verb when we conjugate them, except they’re usually—but not always—attached to another verb. We place modal verbs in the second position of the sentence and conjugate according to the subject. Then, if there’s a verb attached to the modal, we place the infinitive at the very end of the sentence.
For example, if we were to say, “I can go to the bathroom,” the German verb for “can,” which is können, is conjugated to “I,” and the verb “go,” which is gehen in German, comes at the end of the sentence:
Ich kann zum Badezimmer gehen.
I can go to the bathroom. (Literally: “I can to the bathroom go.”)
Remember: The modal verb is conjugated and the infinitive of the secondary verb comes at the end of the sentence. Let’s take a closer look at each of the modals to see this in action.
A note about zu
If you’ve progressed far enough in your German speaking skills, you know that the word zu is used in place of the English preposition “to.” Phrases like “to the store,” “to the movies” and “to the mall” are translated to German using zu.
Modals do not require this 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
Introducing the German Modal Verbs
German has six modal verbs: dürfen, können, wollen, sollen, müssen and mögen. 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”
Dürfen is the modal verb we use to say “may.” You might also think of it as translating to “to be permitted to” in English.
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.)
Er darf Fußball nicht spielen.
He may not play soccer. / He is not permitted to play soccer. (Literally: “He may soccer not play.”)
Wir dürfen auf diesem Projekt zusammenarbeiten.
We are allowed to work on this project together. (Literally: “We are allowed on this project to work together.”)
Das darf ich nicht.
I am not permitted (to do) that. (Literally: “That permitted I not.”)
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.”)
Du kannst nicht!
You cannot/can’t! (Literally: “You can not!”)
Wollen — “want”
Wollen is one of many words/ways in German to express a desire. If you “want” something, you simply use wollen!
Ich will einen schönen Tag.
I want a beautiful day.
Ihr alle wollt aufgeben, aber ich sage „Nein!“
You all want to quit, but I say, “No!”
Er will mir einen Kuss geben.
He wants to give me a kiss. (Literally: “He wants to me a kiss to give.”)
Sollen — “should”
Yet another way to express an obligation, sollen is a great way to juxtapose what one should do, and what one really wants to do:
Ich soll meine Hausaufgaben machen, aber ich will schlafen!
I should do my homework, but I want to sleep! (Literally: “I should my homework do, but I want to sleep!”)
Wir sollen einen Film sehen.
We should see a movie. (Literally: “We should a movie see.”)
Er soll mir bedanken, dass ich ein guter Freund bin.
He should thank me for being a good friend. (Literally: “He should me thank, that I a good friend am.”)
Müssen — “must”
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:
Billy muss müde sein, weil er letzte Nacht nicht gut geschlafen hat.
Billy must be tired because he didn’t sleep well last night. (Literally: “Billy must tired be, because he last night not good slept.”)
Ich muss, ich muss!
I must, I must! (Careful: Small children often use ich muss to tell their parents they really need the bathroom!)
Sie müssen einen Job finden.
They must find a job. (Literally: “They must a job find.”)
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.”)
Mögen — “to like”
Mögen is arguably one of the easiest modal verbs to remember, especially since we probably use it pretty often. How many times a day have you said “I like”?
Er mag fischen.
He likes to fish.
Du magst den grünen Apfel, aber ich mag den roten Apfel.
You like the green apple, but I like the red apple.
Obwohl sie die Schokolade mag, mag sie den Kuchen mehr.
Although she likes the chocolate, she likes the cake more.
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.
Dürfen — “may”
Take a closer look at those conjugations one more time. Notice any patterns?
That’s right! The ich and er/sie/es forms are exactly the same! This holds true for every modal verb. Keep that in mind as you memorize these conjugations!
Können — “can”
Wollen — “want”
Sollen — “should”
Müssen — “must”
Mögen — “like”
The Curious Case of 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 holds a bit of politeness. 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.
As such, the past participle is the same for both verbs as well: gemocht. Creating a sentence in the future tense with möchten is a bit tricky, but if you needed to do it, you would use werden and möchten as your verb forms.
Simple 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 simple past is used when speaking, as it’s easier to conjugate one verb than worry about two (or more, as you’ll see in the next section).
Nevertheless, here are the simple past conjugations for each modal verb.
Dürfen — “may”
Example: Du durftest Schokolade essen.
You were allowed to eat chocolate. (Literally: “You were allowed chocolate to eat.”)
Können — “can”
Example: Ich konnte Schokolade essen.
I could eat chocolate. (Literally: “I could chocolate to eat.”)
Wollen — “want”
Example: Sie wollten Schokolade essen.
They wanted to eat chocolate. (Literally: “They wanted chocolate to eat.”)
Sollen — “should”
Example: Er sollte Schokolade essen.
He should eat chocolate. (Literally: “He should chocolate to eat.”)
Müssen — “must”
Example: Wir mussten Schokolade essen.
We had to eat chocolate. (Literally: “We must/had to chocolate to eat.”)
Mögen — “like”
Example: 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.
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 Schokolade essen wollen.
I wanted to eat chocolate. (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. Just remember, when you’re conjugating modal verbs in the conversational past, use the double infinitive structure.
Alternatively, you can also simply use the simple past tense, as it’s easier to remember—and fewer verbs to deal with—than the conversational past tense.
Future Tense Modal Verb Forms
Here are the conjugations of werden:
Let’s look at a few examples:
Er wird nicht den Arzt besuchen dürfen, bis er seine Rechnung bezahlt.
He will not be permitted to visit the doctor, until he pays his bill.
Du wirst das Auto fahren können, wenn du sechszehn Jahre alt bist.
You will be able to drive the car, when you are sixteen years old.
Sie werden heute Nacht ausruhen wollen.
You (formal) will want to rest tonight.
Wann du älter bist, wirst du andere Essen mögen.
When you are older, you will like different foods.
Again, you do have a double infinitive structure in the future tense. The modal verb will always go last.
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 bezahlen.
I always have to learn something the hard way. (Literally: “I must always pay to learn.”)
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.
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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