How to use and conjugate modal verbs in German

by Jakob Straub
March 23, 2021
How to use and conjugate modal verbs in German

Modal verbs are their own class of verbs based on their grammatical properties: a modal verb indicates modality. We use modal verbs to discuss possible situations and convey how likely, desirable or permissible something is. German and English have a similar number of modal verbs. In the following, we’ll introduce you to the most important modal verbs in German and show you how to conjugate and use them.

Overview of German modal verbs

Before we take a look at the six most important modal verbs in German, let’s define modal verbs and take a look at their function in language.

What are modal verbs?

The term modal goes back to the Latin ‘modus’ for the mode, way or mood. When we express modality, we talk about necessity, possibility, likelihood, capacity and ability. We formulate requests, orders, obligations or advice. Modal verbs are therefore often associated with formal language.

The principal modal verbs in English are: can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, have to and would. Other verbs can serve a modal function, such as ought, had better, dare and need.

Modal verbs serve an auxiliary function to give information about a main verb which they govern and which are used in the infinitive. Modals convey modality ranging from possibility to necessity. They can propose that something is true or not, express permission and duty of doing something and talk about the willingness or likelihood of the subject doing something.

Explained: modals of obligation and probability 

The six modal verbs in German

There are six principal modal verbs in German: dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen and wollen. The first three express possibility, while the latter express necessity.

 GERMANENGLISH
POSSIBILITYdürfenmay
POSSIBILITYkönnencan
POSSIBILITYmögenlike
NECESSITYmüssenmust
NECESSITYsollenshould
NECESSITYwollenwant

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Conjugation of modal verbs in German

The following table shows you how to conjugate the six most important modal verbs in German in the present tense:

PERSONDÜRFENKÖNNENMÖGENMÜSSENSOLLENWOLLEN
ichdarfkannmagmusssollwill
dudarfstkannstmagstmusstsollstwillst
er / sie / esdarfkannmagmusssollwill
wirdürfenkönnenmögenmüssensollenwollen
ihrdürftkönntmögtmüsstsolltwollt
Sie / siedürfenkönnenmögenmüssensollenwollen

Note that the German modal verb “mögen” is often used in its subjunctive mode to express formality:

  • Ich möchte
  • Du möchtest
  • Er / sie /es möchte
  • Wir möchten
  • Ihr möchtet
  • Sie möchten

How to conjugate verbs in German

Use of modal verbs in German

Now that you know the basic conjugation of the modal verbs in German, let’s take a look at their functions and when to use which verb.

The German modal verb ‘dürfen’

A common use of “dürfen” (may) as a modal verb in German is to give or deny permission to do something:

  • “Du darfst mit deinen Freunden ausgehen” = You may go out with your friends.
  • “Im Theater darf man nicht telefonieren.” = You may not use the phone at the theater.

In the subjunctive mood, the modal verb “dürfen” can also express a guess, presumption, conjecture or suspicion:

  • “Das Kind dürfte sechs Jahre alt sein.” = The child is likely to be six years old.
  • “Das dürfte stimmen.” = “It could be true.”
  • “Sie dürften recht haben.” = They may very well be right.

The German modal verb ‘können’

Just like “dürfen”, the modal verb “können” can give or deny permission to do something:

  • “Das kannst du so nicht sagen!” = You can’t say that!
  • “Sie können offen sprechen.” = You may speak openly.

“Können” also expresses capability, ability and possibility in German:

  • “Ich kann Deutsch sprechen.” = I can speak German.
  • “Ronaldo kann Fußball spielen.” = Ronaldo can play soccer.
  • “Ihr könnt hier warten.” = You can wait here.
  • “Wir können uns nicht treffen.” = We cannot meet.

The modal verb can also be used for inference, conclusion and consequence:

  • “Er kann das nicht wissen, da er meine Nachricht nicht bekommen hat.” = He cannot know that, since he didn’t get my message.
  • “Wenn du nicht lernst, kannst du nur scheitern.” = If you don’t study, you can only fail.
  • “Ihr habt gerade gegessen und könnt nicht schon wieder hungrig sein.” = You’ve just eaten and can’t be hungry again.

You can also express a presumption, suspicion, assumption or suggestion with “können”:

  • “Das könnte sein.” = It could be.
  • “Wir könnten ins Kino gehen.” = We could go to the movies.
  • “Es könnte regnen.” = There could be rain / It could rain.

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The German modal verb ‘mögen’

With the modal verb “mögen”, you can formulate a want, wish or desire and express rejection and refusal or dislike through negation:

  • “Sie mögen nicht essen.” = They don’t want to eat.
  • “Ich mag nicht darüber sprechen.” = I don’t want to talk about it.
  • “Möchten Sie Tee oder Kaffee trinken?” = Would you like to drink tea or coffee?

The German modal verb ‘müssen’

You can give orders with “müssen”, express a necessity or negate it and infer something:

  • “Sie müssen hier unterschreiben.” = You have to sign here.
  • “Ich muss jetzt gehen, sonst verpasse ich den Bus.” = I have to go now, otherwise I’ll miss the bus.
  • “Ihr müsst euch um die Kinder kümmern.” = You have to take care of the children.
  • “Du musst nicht anrufen.” = You don’t have to call.
  • “Sie muss regelmäßig lernen, wenn sie die Sprache sprechen will.” = She has to study regularly if she wants to speak the language.
  • “Wir müssen alle schlafen.” = We all have to sleep.

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The German modal verb ‘sollen’

You can use “sollen” to give an order, to make a request, to formulate a commandment and  to express an assumption or a purpose:

  • “Die Kinder sollen jetzt ihre Zähne putzen.” = The children have to brush their teeth now.
  • “Ich soll dir das geben.” = I’m supposed to give you that.
  • “Sie soll noch viele Geschwister haben.” = Supposedly she has many more siblings.
  • “Du sollst nicht stehlen.” = You shall not steal.
  • “Das soll ihnen eine Hilfe sein.” = That should be of help to them.

The German modal verb ‘wollen’

You can specify a wish or desire to do something with “wollen” or neglect to do something:

  • “Sie wollen ein Haus bauen.” = They want to build a house.
  • “Er will nicht in die Schule gehen.” = He doesn’t want to go to class.
  • “Ich will noch mehr essen.” = I want to eat more.
  • “Du willst Deutsch sprechen können.” = You want to be able to speak German.

Do you want more help with German verbs? We’ll teach you common and basic German verbs and conjugation!

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