How to use and conjugate modal verbs in German

How to use and conjugate modal verbs in German

by Jakob Straub

Updated March 15, 2023

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.

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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 the main verb that 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.

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.


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:

er / sie / esdarfkannmagmusssollwill
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

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

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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

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

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!

Boost your proficiency in German with modals

Modal verbs in German and any other language are fundamental to learn if you want to boost your proficiency and fluency. Take the time to understand their use, how to conjugate them and your level will move one step up.

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Jakob Straub

Jakob is a freelance writer in Barcelona, Spain, and his favorite books have pages all empty. As an expert storyteller, he publishes creative fiction in English and German and helps other authors shape their manuscripts into compelling stories. Thanks to an expertise in a wide range of topics, he produces engaging content for his clients. Apart from the escape that books offer, Jakob enjoys traveling digital nomad style and stays active with climbing and hiking. Find out more about him on his website, Twitter or on Goodreads.

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