German Modal Verbs [6 Verbs You Need To Know!]

german modal verbs
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In this post we will take a look at the German modal verbs. These important and common verbs are essential to learn, since they will allow you to modify the meanings of other verbs, plus talk about the past tense with ease.

The best thing is, there are only 6 modal verbs in German to learn: dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen and wollen.

What is a Modal Verb?

Modal verbs are a special group of verbs which are used to modify or change the meaning of another verb. They can be used to express different things:

  • Desire (want you want to do / what you like to do)
  • Obligation / necessity (what you must do / what you should do)
  • Permission (what you may do)
  • Possibility / ability (what you can do)

Because they modify another verb, they always demand a second verb in the sentence, you won’t find them alone.

What Are the 6 German Modal Verbs?

The 6 German modal verbs in their infinitive form are:

  • dürfen = may / be allowed
  • können = can / be able
  • mögen = like
  • müssen = must / have to
  • sollen = should (order / requirement)
  • wollen = want / wish

As you now know, each of these modal verbs can change the meaning or intention of another verb. To show you what I mean, let’s take a straightforward verb, schwimmen (to swim) and see how it can be modified by the 6 German modal verbs:

  • Ich schwimme = I am swimming / I swim

Dürfen

  • Darf ich schwimmen? = May I swim?

Think of this as asking for permission, or if you’re allowed to do something.

Können

  • Ich kann schwimmen = I can swim

Used to describe ability to do something. ‘I can swim’ shows that you are able to do it.

Mögen

  • Ich mag schwimmen = I like swimming

Used in most situations when you want to describe something you like or don’t like. You can read more about how to use mögen here.

Müssen

  • Ich muss schwimmen = I must swim

Think of this as ‘must’ or ‘have to’. Used to describe obligation. In German it also used in place of the English phrase ‘need to’. The above example can be translated as ‘I must swim’, ‘I have to swim’ or ‘I need to swim’.

Sollen

  • Ich soll schwimmen = I should swim

Another way to express obligation. In this case you can express that you ought to do something, but perhaps you’re not too keen on the idea.

Wollen

  • Ich will schwimmen = I want to swim

Used to express desire to do something. It’s worth bearing in mind that wollen (to want) is quite harsh sounding, just like it can be in English. It’s generally better to opt for mögen in Konjunktiv II which is ich möchte (I would like).

The conjugation of modal verbs is irregular, therefore the verb stem (everything before the -en) may change depending on the subject. Despite this there is pattern to follow if you look for it.

Ich and er / sie / es are always the same. Wie / sie / Sie are always the same and use the infinitive form (-en at the end). Du has -st at the end and ihr has -t at the end.

Infinitive
(Meaning)
dürfen
(may / be allowed)
können
(can / be able to)
mögen
(like)
müssen
(must / have to)
sollen
(should)
wollen
(want)
ichdarfkannmagmusssollwill
dudarfstkannstmagstmusstsollstwillst
er / sie / esdarfkannmagmusssollwill
ihrdürftkönntmögtmüsstsolltwollt
wie / sie / Siedürfenkönnenmögenmüssensollenwollen

How To Use Modal Verbs in Present Tense Sentences

Using German modal verbs in the present tense is quite straightforward. The modal verb is conjugated as shown in the previous table and goes in position 2. The main verb is stays in it’s infinitive form (unconjugated) and goes to the end of the sentence. Let’s take a look at some examples:

Subject
(Position 1)
Modal Verb
(Position 2)
Other InfoMain Verb
(The End)
Ichmusseine Freundinabholen.
DudarfstSchokoladeessen.
Die Fraukannsehr gutsingen.
Wirwollenzusammen in den Urlaubfahren.

In order to ask a yes / no question, the subject and modal verb swap places:

Modal Verb
(Position 1)
Subject
(Position 2)
Other InfoMain Verb
(The End)
Darfichzu Martingehen?
Wollenwirheute Abendausgehen?

As we have learned, German modal verbs modify the meaning of another ‘main’ verb. Therefore there should always be 2 verbs in a sentence, right? Well yes, and no. With German being super efficient, the main verb can be left out, if the meaning of the sentence is still obvious without it. Let me show you:

  • Können Sie Deutsch sprechen? (Can you speak German?)
  • Können Sie Deutsch? (Can you speak German?)

In the first example we have the main verb at the end of the sentence. But if we remove it, the meaning of the sentence is still obvious. This isn’t something we can do in English, but it’s very common in German. Here’s another scenario:

  • Morgen muss ich nach Hause fahren (Tomorrow I have to go home)
  • Morgen muss ich nach Hause (Tomorrow I have to go home)

A Note About Using ‘zu’

Sometimes in German we’ll use the preposition zu to say we are going ‘to somewhere’. For example:

  • Ich habe Lust, ins Kino zu gehen = I feel like going to the cinema

However whenever we use a modal verb, we don’t use zu. The above example leaves out zu as soon as we introduce one of the modal verbs:

  • Ich möchte ins Kino gehen = I would like to go to cinema
  • Er will ins Kino gehen = He wants to go to the cinema
  • Wir dürfen ins Kino gehen = We are allowed to go to the cinema

To use the German modal verbs in the past tense (known as the imperfect tense), it is most common to use the simple past, known as the ‘imperfect’ tense. To use the imperfect tense, we need to conjugate the verbs differently. Think of it as changing ‘I have to’ = ‘I had to’ and ‘I want‘ = ‘I wanted‘ etc.

The clear pattern here is the removal of the umlauts and addition of a ‘t’ at the end of the verb stem. For example müssen (müss- is the verb stem) changes to mussten.

Infinitive
(Meaning)
dürfen
(may / be allowed)
können
(can / be able to)
mögen
(like)
müssen
(must / have to)
sollen
(should)
wollen
(want)
ichdurftekonntemochtemusstesolltewollte
dudurftestkonntestmochtestmusstestsolltestwolltest
er / sie / esdurftekonntemochtemusstesolltewollte
ihrdurftetkonntetmochtetmusstetsolltetwolltet
wie / sie / Siedurftenkonntenmochtenmusstensolltenwollten

How to Use Modal Verbs in Simple Past Sentences

Using modal verbs in the simple past to create past tense sentences is easy! You just follow the same rules as you would to create present tense sentences. The only change here is that the modal verb in position 2 is now in the simple past. The main verb goes to the end in the infinitive form as usual.

Subject
(Position 1)
Modal Verb
(Position 2)
Other InfoMain Verb
(The End)
Ichmusstegesternarbeiten.
Das Kindmochtekein Gemüse.
Meine Freundewolltenden Film nichtsehen.

So now you know all about the German modal verbs and how to use them in the most common ways, namely in the present tense and the simple past.

More Useful Resources For German Grammar Lovers

  • German Possessive Pronouns – Get to grips with showing possession by using mein, dein, sein, unser etc. Plus learn how the German cases require them to take different endings.

  • German Prepositions Made Easy – The ultimate guide to all those prepositions: nach, bis, entlang, an, in etc. including how they are affected by the German cases.

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