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Modal Verbs in German (die Modalverben)

In this lesson, you will learn modal auxiliary verbs (die Modalverben) in German.

Modal Verbs in German

A modal verb is an auxiliary verb used to modify or change other verbs, such as necessity, possibility, ability, permission, request, capacity, suggestions, volition, order, or obligation.

Modal verbs are often called “auxiliary” verbs because they are mainly used with other verbs. Six verbs are usually referred to as modal auxiliary verbs in German and are all strong irregular verbs.

These six verbs are shown in Table 1.1:

ModalverbenModal Verbs
dürfenbe allowed to, may
könnenbe able to, can
mögenlike, would like
müssenhave to, must, need to
sollenshould, ought to
wollento want, to want to
Table 1.1 – Modal Verbs in German

German modal verbs are different from other verbs in their conjugation. Their conjugation in the present tense are given in Table 1.2:

Pronounsdürfenkönnenmögenmüssensollenwollen
ichdarfkannmagmusssollwill
dudarfstkannstmagstmusstsollstwillst
er/sie/esdarfkannmagmusssollwill
wirdürfenkönnenmögenmüssensollenwollen
ihrdürftkönntmögtmüsstsolltwill
sie/Siedürfenkönnenmögenmüssensollenwollen
Table 1.2 – German Modal Verbs Conjugation

Dürfen

Pronounsdürfen
ichdarf
dudarfst
er/sie/esdarf
wirdürfen
ihrdürft
sie/Siedürfen
Table 1.3

⭐ Meaning to be allowed to or may:

-Darf ich hier rauchen?
May I smoke here?
-Darfst du mit ins Kino kommen?
Are you allowed to come to the cinema with us?

⭐ Negative dürfen has the meaning must not:

-lch darf kein Kaffee trinken.
I mustn’t drink any coffee.
-Wir dürfen es uns nicht zu leicht machen.
We mustn’t make it too easy for ourselves.

⭐ Dürfen expressing politeness:

-Darf ich mein Beileid aussprechen?
May I offer my condolences?
-Was darf es sein?
How may I help you?

Können

Pronounskönnen
ichkann
dukannst
er/sie/eskann
wirkönnen
ihrkönnt
sie/Siekönnen
Table 1.4

⭐ Können is most often used to express the ability in German, and its usual English equivalents are can or be able to:

-Brad kann gut Deutsch sprechen.
Brad can speak German well.
-Sie kann nicht singen.
She cannot sing.

⭐ Können is used in the meaning “know” of things learned.

-Julia kann Spanisch.
Julia can speak Spanish.
-Mein Vater kann den Trick.
My father knows that trick.

⭐ Können can express a sense of possibility:

-Ich kann mich irren.
I may be wrong.
-Thomas kann krank sein
Thomas may be ill.

⭐ Express permission:

-Kann ich herein?
Can I come in?
-Du kannst das Buch behalten.
You can keep the book.

Mögen

Mögen is commonly used in the Konjunktiv II form “möchte”, which is why some people mistakenly believe that möchten is the infinitive of another verb. Its verb conjugations are shown in Table 1.5:

Pronounsmögen
(LIKE)
möchten
(WOULD LIKE)
ichmagmöchte
dumagstmöchtest
er/sie/esmagmöchte
wirmögenmöchten
ihrmögtmöchtet
sie/Siemögenmöchten
Table 1.5

⭐ The Präsens form “mögen” means “like” when expressing likes and dislikes.

-Magst du Schokolade?
Do you like chocolate?
-Anna mag es nicht.
Anna doesn’t like it.
-Tom mag keinen Tee.
Tom doesn’t like tea.

⭐ The Konjunktiv II form “möchte” means “would like” when expressing wishes and polite requests.

-Möchten Sie etwas trinken?
Would you like something to drink?
-Ich möchte zwei Tickets nach Köln kaufen.
I would like to buy two tickets to Köln.

Müssen

Pronounsmüssen
ichmuss
dumusst
er/sie/esmuss
wirmüssen
ihrmüsst
sie/Siemüssen
Table 1.6

⭐ Müssen is most often used to express necessity or compulsion, and its English equivalent is “must or “have (got) to”.

-Thomas musste jeden Tag um sieben aufstehen.
Thomas had to get up at seven o’clock every day.
-Thomas und Anna müssen jetzt abfahren.
Thomas and Anna must leave now.

❗ Negative müssen keeps the sense of necessity. However, in practice, you can use a negative form of “brauchen (to need)” instead of müssen for “don’t have to” or “need not”.

-Du musst nicht hier bleiben. 👍🏻
-Du brauchst nicht hier zu bleiben. 👌🏻
You needn’t stay here.

⭐ Müssen can be used for a logical deduction. However, negative logical deduction is expressed by nicht können.

-Anna muss den Unfall gesehen haben.
Anna must have seen the accident.
-Thomas muss heute in Frankfurt sein.
Thomas must be in Frankfurt today.
-Julia spielt heute Volleyball, also kann sie nicht krank sein.
Julia is playing tennis today, so she can’t be ill.

Sollen

Pronounssollen
ichsoll
dusollst
er/sie/essoll
wirsollen
ihrsollt
sie/Siesollen
Table 1.7

⭐ Sollen is used to most commonly expresses an obligation in German. This corresponds to “be to” and “be supposed to”.

-Deine Vater soll nicht so viel rauchen.
Your father is not supposed to smoke so much.
-Um wie viel Uhr soll ich kommen?
What time am I to come?

⭐ Meaning ought to or should:

-Das sollten Sie sofort machen.
You ought to do that straight away
-Er soll gesund essen.
He should eat healthily.

⭐ Sollen often has the force of a command:

-Man soll sofort den Saal verlassen.
Everyone has to leave the room immediately.
-Er soll sofort kommen.
He is to come at once.

Wollen

Pronounswollen
ichwill
duwillst
er/sie/eswill
wirwollen
ihrwolt
sie/Siewollen
Table 1.8

⭐ Wollen is most often used to express desire or intention. It usually corresponds to English “to want” or “to want to”.

-Was wollen Sie von mir?
What do you want from me?
-Anna will nächstes Jahr in Frankreich Urlaub machen.
Anna wants to go on holiday to France next year.

⭐ Wollen can correspond to English “will”, and “would”.

-Willst du mir helfen?
Will you help me?
-Wollen Sie bitte die Frage wiederholen?
Will you repeat the question, please?

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