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”

ich darf

du darfst

er/sie/es darf

wir dürfen

ihr dürft

Sie/sie dürfen

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”

ich kann

du kannst

er/sie/es kann

wir können

ihr könnt

Sie/sie können

Wollen — “want”

ich will

du willst

er/sie/es will

wir wollen

ihr wollt

Sie/sie wollen 

Sollen — “should”

ich soll

du sollst

er/sie/es soll

wir sollen

ihr sollt

Sie/sie sollen

Müssen — “must”

ich muss

du musst

er/sie/es muss

wir müssen

ihr müsst

Sie/sie müssen

Mögen — “like”

ich mag

du magst

er/sie/es mag

wir mögen

ihr mögt

Sie/sie mögen

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 möchtenin the present tense:

ich möchte

du möchtest

er/sie/es möchte

wir möchten

ihr möchtet

Sie/sie möchten

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”

ich durfte

du durftest

er/sie/es durfte

wir durften

ihr durftet

Sie/sie durften

Example: Du durftest Schokolade essen.

You were allowed to eat chocolate. (Literally: “You were allowed chocolate to eat.”)

Können — “can”

ich konnte

du konntest

er/sie/es konnte

wir konnten

ihr konntet

Sie/sie konnten

Example: Ich konnte Schokolade essen.

I could eat chocolate. (Literally: “I could chocolate to eat.”)

Wollen — “want”

ich wollte

du wolltest

er/sie/es wollte

wir wollten

ihr wolltet

Sie/sie wollten

Example: Sie wollten Schokolade essen.

They wanted to eat chocolate. (Literally: “They wanted chocolate to eat.”)

Sollen — “should”

ich sollte

du solltest

er/sie/es sollte

wir sollten

ihr solltet

Sie/sie sollten

Example: Er sollte Schokolade essen.

He should eat chocolate. (Literally: “He should chocolate to eat.”)

Müssen — “must”

ich musste

du musstest

er/sie/es musste

wir mussten

ihr musstet

Sie/sie mussten

Example: Wir mussten Schokolade essen.

We had to eat chocolate. (Literally: “We must/had to chocolate to eat.”)

Mögen — “like”

ich mochte

du mochtest

er/sie/es mochte

wir mochten

ihr mochtet

Sie/sie mochten

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:

ich habe

du hast

er/sie/es hat

wir haben

ihr habt

Sie/sie haben

And then add on the corresponding past participle:

rfen gedurft

können gekonnt

wollen gewollt

sollen gesollt

müssen gemusst

mögen gemocht

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

To construct the future tense, first conjugate werden, and then include the infinitive of the modal at the end of the sentence.

Here are the conjugations of werden:

ich werde

du wirst

er/sie/es wird

wir werden

ihr werdet

Sie/sie 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.

Source: FluentU

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