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Modal Verbs in German: Everything You Need to Know

In German there are 6 modal verbs, some sources may say 7, of them and… they are all irregular! Hooray! But there are also some simple rules for how to use modal verbs in German, and they have a lot of similarities.

Modal verbs or auxiliary verbs are a special class of verbs. As you can guess by their name, they are used in a sentence to “help” another verb. That’s why you will most likely always use and find them in company with another verb. But not always – because you are learning German and there is always at least one exception…

What are modal verbs in German?

The six modal verbs in German are: dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen, wollen. As mentioned, these verbs are “assisting” another verb in a sentence. Modal verbs are verbs which express a mood like “want to” or “like to”.

They all have a general meaning and some have more meanings, based on the context they are used in.

Verb Meaning Example
dürfen to be allowed to (to have the permission to) Wir dürfen heute nicht ins Kino gehen.
We are not allowed to go to the cinema today.
können to be able to (to can) Sie können sehr laut singen.
They can sing very loudly. / They are able to sing very loudly.
mögen to like to Wir mögen im Schatten spielen.
We like to play in the shade.
müssen to have to Ihr müsst früh ins Bett gehen.
You have to go to bed early.
sollen to be supposed to / should Sie sollen das Medikament nehmen.
You are supposed to take the medicine. / You should take the medicine.
wollen to want to Sie wollen am Samstag schwimmen.
They want to swim on Saturday.

As you can see in the examples, in each sentence is a combination of modal verb and main verb. That is the usual case; let’s say in 95% of the sentences, but there are some minor exceptions, where they can be used on their own.

Conjugation of modal verbs

Like all verbs, modal verbs need to be conjugated to build a sentence, and they change with the tense as well. Prepare yourself for a lot of tables!

Conjugation of modal verbs – Present Tense

dürfen können mögen müssen sollen wollen
ich darf kann mag muss soll will
du darfst kannst magst musst sollst willst
er/sie/es darf kann mag muss soll will
wir dürfen können mögen müssen sollen wollen
ihr dürft könnt mögt müsst sollt wollt
sie/Sie dürfen können mögen müssen sollen wollen

Conjugation of modal verbs – Simple Past Tense

dürfen können mögen müssen sollen wollen
ich durfte konnte mochte musste sollte wollte
du durftest konntest mochtest musstest solltest wolltest
er/sie/es durfte konnte mochte musste sollte wollte
wir durften konnten mochten mussten sollten wollten
ihr durftet konntet mochtet musstet solltet wolltet
sie/Sie durften konnten mochten mussten sollten wollten

Hint: Like a lot of German grammar, you will have to learn these tables by heart. The modal verbs are irregular, but there are some patterns they follow:

  1. The form for the first and third person is always the same, no matter which time is used.
  2. In the singular persons (ich, du, er/sie/es) are no umlauts used.
  3. In the Simple Past Tense is no umlaut at all.

There are Perfect Tense forms of the auxiliary verbs as well, but they are very rarely used. It is more common, to use “haben” to build a sentence with a modal verb in Perfect Tense.

Example:

Present Tense: Wir müssen um 8 Uhr nach Hause gehen.
Simple Past Tense: Wir mussten um 8 Uhr nach Hause gehen.
Perfect Tense: Wir haben um 8 Uhr nach Hause gehen müssen.
Past Perfect Tense: Wir hatten um 8 Uhr nach Hause gehen müssen.

Future Tense follows the same pattern, but instead of “haben“, “werden“ is used.

Future Tense: Wir werden um 8 Uhr nach Hause gehen müssen.

How to use modal verbs in a sentence

Like mentioned in the beginning, modal verbs are accompanying a main verb to express a mood. In a sentence, there have to be the conjugated modal verb and the infinitive form of the main verb (except for very rare exception, see below). Therefore, in a main clause, the modal verb is at position 2 of the sentence and the infinitive is at the very end.

Examples – main clauses with modal verbs:

Der Mann darf im Restaurant nicht rauchen.
The man is not allowed to smoke in the restaurant.

Montags müssen alle Kinder um 7 Uhr aufstehen.
On Mondays, all kids have to get up at 7 o’clock.

Wir können dich jederzeit besuchen.
We can visit you anytime.

Der Arzt soll das Bein noch einmal gründlich untersuchen.
The doctor should / is supposed to examine the leg once again in depth.

Zu Weihnachten mag ich ein Pferd haben.
For Christmas, I’d like to have a horse.

Ihr wollt nächstes Jahr in den Urlaub fahren.
You want to go on vacation next year.

Letztes Jahr musste Familie Meier viel sparen.
Last year, the Meier family had to save a lot.

Ich konnte leider nicht kommen.
Unfortunately, I could not come.

Peter sollte seine Hausaufgaben pünktlich machen.
Peter was supposed to do his homework in time.

Lisa mochte als Kind (gern) Zitronen essen.
As a child, Lisa liked to eat lemon.

Vor ein paar Jahren durfte man im Flugzeug rauchen.
A couple of years ago, you were allowed to smoke on a plane.

Gestern wolltest du noch Sängerin werden.
Yesterday you still wanted to become a singer.

In subordinate clauses, there are a conjugated modal verb and an infinitive form of the main verb as well, but in a different structure. In these kinds of sentences, the modal verb is positioned at the very end and the infinitive form comes just before it.

Examples – subordinate clauses with modal verbs:

Ich rufe dich an, weil ich heute nicht kommen kann.
I am calling you, because I cannot come today.

Da er die Adresse wissen möchte, fragt er die Frau.
Because he likes to know the address, he asks the woman.

Maria ist zu Hause, obwohl sie arbeiten muss.
Maria is at home, although she has to work.

Als das Kind noch nicht laufen konnte, war es oft frustriert.
When the child was not able to walk, it was often frustrated.

Stefan gibt Lisa das Geld, wenn sie ein Buch kaufen will.
Stefan gives Lisa the money, when she wants to buy a book.

Der Arzt sagt, dass du die Tabletten jeden Tag nehmen sollst.
The doctor says that you are supposed to / should take the pills every day.

Als ich krank zu Hause bleiben musste, war mir oft langweilig.
When I had to stay at home ill, I was often bored.

Wir arbeiteten viel, weil wir uns ein schönes Haus kaufen wollten.
We worked a lot, because we wanted to buy a nice house.

Vor einigen Jahren war es normal, dass man überall rauchen durfte.
Some years ago it was normal, that you were able to smoke everywhere.

Die Familie fuhr jedes Jahr ans Meer, obwohl keiner von ihnen schwimmen konnte.
The family went to the sea every year, although no one of them was able to swim.

Da Anna keinen Kuchen essen mochte, gab sie ihn ihrem Bruder.
Because Anna didn’t like to eat cake, she gave it to her brother.

Die Lehrerin erklärte, wie die Schüler die Hausaufgaben machen sollten.
The teacher explained, how the students were supposed to do their homework.

Exceptions – single use of modal verbs

Since you came so far learning German, you already know, it wouldn’t be as much fun, if there weren’t any exceptions, so here they come!

“mögen” and “können” can be used on their own, without accompanying main verbs, in some cases.

1) When “mögen” is used as “to like” instead of “to like to”, it is used alone.

Die Frau mag Schokolade.
The woman likes chocolate.

Kinder mögen Eis.
Children like ice cream.

2) “können” is used sometimes with the meaning of “to know”, in these cases, it is used on its own.

Die Schüler können gut Deutsch.
The students know German well.

Kannst du Spanisch?
Do you know (speak) Spanish?

When the meaning of the sentence is clear without the main verb, it is (in spoken language) often omitted. This is done the most with main verbs like “haben”, “machen”, “gehen”, “fahren”, “tun” and “sprechen”.

Examples:

Willst du einen Kaffee (haben)?
Do you want (to have) a coffee?

Ich muss früh ins Bett (gehen).
I have to go to bed early.

Nein, sie können das nicht.
No, they cannot do this.

Er darf nicht ins Kino (gehen).
He isn’t allowed to go to the cinema.

For Simple Past Tense, the same forms are used as if there was another verb. Perfect Tense and Past Perfect Tense are a little bit different, they are built with “haben”.

Simple Past Tense

Wolltest du einen Kaffee?
Did you want a coffee?

Ich musste früh ins Bett gehen.
I had to go to bed early.

Nein, sie konnten das nicht.
No, they could not do this.

Er durfte nicht ins Kino.
He was not allowed to go the cinema.

Perfect Tense

Hast du einen Kaffee gewollt?
Have you wanted a coffee?

Ich habe früh ins Bett gemusst.
I had to go to bed early.

Nein, sie haben das nicht gekonnt.
No, they have not been able to do this.

Er hat nicht ins Kino gedurft.
He has not been allowed to go to the cinema.

Past Perfect Tense

Hattest du einen Kaffee gewollt?
Had you wanted a coffee?

Ich hatte früh ins Bett gemusst.
I have had to go to bed early.

Nein, sie hatten das nicht gekonnt.
No, they had not been able to do this.

Er hatte nicht ins Kino gedurft.
He had not been allowed to go to the cinema.

False Friends

Especially if English is your mother tongue, there are some false friends among the modal verbs to watch out for.

“Müssen” and its forms resemble the English “must” so closely, that it is easy to mistranslate it, especially when it comes to the negative form of “müssen”.

Examples:

Wir müssen nicht nach Hause gehen.
We do not have to go home.

Die Hausaufgaben müssen nicht bis Montag gemacht werden.
The homework doesn’t have to be done until Monday.

“müssen” means “have to” and the “nicht” negates it. Thus “müssen” plus a negative means “to not have to”. It does not mean “must not.” The mix-up is a common mistake made by English speakers. They misunderstand these examples as “We must not go home.” and “The homework must not be done until Monday.”

The same danger applies when translating “dürfen”:

Wir dürfen nicht nach Hause gehen.
We are not allowed to go home. OR: We must not go home.

An English speaker might misunderstand this sentence as: “We are allowed to not go home.”

One last modal verb

Like mentioned in the beginning, in some books they say there are seven modal verbs in German. The seventh one is “möchten”. Some people count it as a modal verb and some don’t. “Möchten” is a special form of “mögen”. It has the meaning of “would like” and is used very frequently in German, e.g. when you want to order something and want to be polite.

Its conjugation pattern is more regular than the other modal verbs, but just like them, it can be used with the infinitive form of a main verb as well as without one, based on the context. Just like the other modal verbs, the forms “möchten” for the first and third person are the same. The good news is, it has no Simple Past, Perfect or Past Perfect Tense! It is only used in Present Tense.

  möchten
ich möchte
du möchtest
er/sie/es möchte
wir möchten
ihr möchtet
sie/Sie möchten

Examples:

Zum Geburtstag möchte ich eine Torte haben.
For my birthday I would like to have a cake.

Peter möchte nächstes Jahr mehr Geld verdienen.
Peter would like to earn more money next year.

Die Kinder möchten im Wald spielen.
The children would like to play in the forest.

Möchtest du einen Kaffee oder einen Tee trinken?
Would you like to drink a coffee or a tea?


Practice conjugating modal verbs in German with thousands of sentences on Clozemaster!

 

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