Modal Verbs in German (die Modalverben)

This article is about modal verbs in German and will provide you with an overview of them and their usage as well as an example sentence for each modal verb.

Modal Verbs in German

Modal verbs in German are used to modify or change other verbs to show such things as ability, permission or necessity. Modal verbs are often called “auxiliary” verbs because they are mainly used with other verbs.

The following table shows the most common modal verbs in German:

ModalverbenModal Verbs
dürfenbe allowed to, may, must not
könnento be able to, can, could
mögento like, would like
müssenhave to, must, need to
sollenshould, ought to
wollento want
Modal Verbs in German

The modal auxiliary verbs are all irregular and their conjugation in the present tense are given in the table below:

German Modal Verbs Conjugation

Dürfen in German

In a positive sense dürfen corresponds to English “be allowed to” or “may” while in the negative sense, dürfen means “must not” in English.

Darf ich hier rauchen?
May I smoke here?
Wir dürfen es uns nicht zu leicht machen.
We mustn’t make it too easy for ourselves
Darf ich Sie etwas fragen?
May I ask you something?

Können in German

It is most often used to express ability and its usual English equivalents are “can” or “be able to”. Können can have a sense of possibility. In this sense it usually corresponds to English “may”:

Was kann ich für Dich tun?
What can I do for you?
Anna kann gut Deutsch sprechen.
Anna can speak German well.
Thomas kann krank sein.
He may be ill.

Mögen in German

Mögen most commonly occurs in the Konjunktiv II form möchte and expresses a polite request and usually corresponds to English “would like” or “want”. It is also often linked with the adverb gern:

Emily möchte (gern) nach Köln fahren.
Emily would like to go to Köln.
Ich möchte ihr Gesicht gesehen haben.
I would have liked to see her face
Ich möchte nicht, dass er heute kommt.
I don’t want him to come today.

Müssen in German

Müssen most often expresses necessity or compulsion. That’s why the most frequent English equivalent is “must”, “have (got) to”.

Wir werden bald abfahren müssen.
We’ll have to leave soon.
Du musst unbedingt dieses Museum besichtigen.
You have to visit this museum.
Sandra muss sich beeilen, wenn sie den Zug erreichen will.
Sandra have to hurry if she wants to catch the train

Sollen in German

Müssen most commonly expresses an obligation and corresponds to “be to”, “be supposed to”.

Was soll Bernard in Greifswald tun?
What is Bernard (supposed) to do in Greifswald?
Wir sollten uns gestern treffen
You have to visit this museum.
Meine Mutter wusste nicht, was sie tun sollte.
My mother didn’t know what to do.

Wollen in German

Müssen most commonly expresses desire or intention and in many contexts, it expresses a wish.

Was wollen Sie von mir?
What do you want from me?
Ich wollte, ich hätte sie nicht so beleidigt.
I wish I hadn’t offended her so much.
Arnold will es nicht zugeben.
Arnold won’t admit it.
Modal Verbs in German

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