Können (= to be able to, can) is an extremely common German verb that comes up during most conversations. Whether you’re talking about your abilities or future possibilities, you need to know your können conjugation to be able to express yourself correctly.
In this post, we’ll go over all the different forms of können and learn how to conjugate the verb.
What does Können mean?
Können is most often used to express ability (= to be able to). For example:
- Ich kann gut singen. (I can sing well.)
However, you can also use können to talk about possibilities (= may, might). For example:
- Sie kann es getan haben. (She may have done it.)
How to Use Können
One thing that you should know about können is that it primarily functions as a modal verb. This means that it’s often used together with another verb, and it changes and affects said verb.
For example, let’s look at the verb schreiben (= to write). On its own, in the present tense, you can get a sentence like this:
- Ich schreibe. (I write.)
But what if you use a modal verb to shift the meaning? You might get something like this:
- Ich kann schreiben. (I can write.)
Können is most often used as a modal verb, i.e., to indicate the ability or possibility of certain actions.
However, this isn’t the only way you can use können. It can sometimes be used as a lexical verb (Vollverb), too. For example:
- Du kannst gut Deutsch. (You can [speak] German well.)
In this case, German speakers omit the verb sprechen (= to speak) and instead use können to carry the meaning on its own.
To put it simply, a modal verb is a verb that doesn’t carry explicit meaning on its own – it is always accompanied by another verb, which the modal verb is affecting.
A lexical verb has its own meaning and can be used on its own.
This distinction will become important as you learn more about the können conjugation, as it can sometimes affect which form the verb might take.
Können Conjugation in Present tense (Präsens)
Können is an irregular verb, which means it doesn’t follow the usual German conjugation patterns. There are some vowel changes that you need to look out for, which is why many learners may find the können conjugation slightly tricky.
But don’t worry! We’ll go over everything in enough detail that you should be able to master it in no time.
Let’s start with the present tense.
|ich kann||I can / am able to|
|du kannst||you (informal) can / are able to|
|er/sie/es kann||he/she/it can / is able to|
Notice how the vowel “ö” changes to “a” in all singular present tense forms of können and how the first and third person lack their usual endings (it’s not “ich kanne,” but “ich kann”).
|wir können||we can / are able to|
|ihr könnt||you (plural) can / are able to|
|sie/Sie können||they/you (formal) can / are able to|
The plural present tense forms of können all look like a regular verb – nothing out of the ordinary to note here!
- Ich kann nicht tanzen. (I can’t dance.)
- Ich kann gut Englisch. (I can [speak] English well.)
- Wir können uns treffen. (We can meet up.)
Können Conjugation in Simple Past Tense (Präteritum)
As a general rule, the simple past tense form (or Präteritum) is predominantly used in written, rather than spoken, form in German. When speaking, Germans usually prefer to use the present perfect (or Perfekt). This is true for most verbs, although there are some exceptions – including können.
When it comes to verbs like können or sein (= to be), the simple past tense form is much more common than the present perfect tense form (which we will cover next). When speaking or writing about the past, you will usually use Präteritum over Perfekt.
Here is the können conjugation in Präteritum:
|ich konnte||I could / was able to|
|du konntest||you (informal) could / were able to|
|er/sie/es konnte||he/she/it could / was able to|
|wir konnten||we could / were able to|
|ihr konntet||you (plural) could / were able to|
|sie/Sie konnten||they/you (formal) could / were able to|
Notice how the verb uses the umlaut (“ö” → “o”).
- Sie konnten mich anrufen. (They were able to call me.)
- Er konnte es fühlen. (He could feel it.)
- Ihr konntet das Wochenende genießen. (You were able to enjoy the weekend.)
Können Conjugation in Present Perfect Tense (Perfekt)
Here is how to conjugate können in the present perfect:
|ich habe gekonnt/können||I could/have been able to|
|du hast gekonnt/können||you (informal) could/have been able to|
|er/sie/es hat gekonnt/können||he/she/it could/has been able to|
|wir haben gekonnt/können||we could/have been able to|
|ihr habt gekonnt/können||you (plural) could/have been able to|
|sie/Sie haben gekonnt/können||they/you (formal) could/have been able to|
Usually, the present perfect consists of two parts – an auxiliary (helping) verb and the past participle of the actual verb in question.
However, when it comes to the können conjugation, there is one thing you need to remember:
- When you’re using können as a lexical verb, use the more regular version of the present perfect – i.e., “ich habe gekonnt,” “du hast gekonnt,” etc.
- When you’re using können as a modal verb, however, instead of using the past participle of the verb (“gekonnt”), use the infinitive (“können”) – e.g., “ich habe schreiben können.”
Using the so-called Ersatzinfinitiv (substitute infinitive) with modal verbs sounds much more natural to a German ear. The same rule also applies to other perfect forms of können, such as the past perfect and the future perfect.
- Er hat nicht schwimmen können. (He couldn’t swim.)
- Sie hat das Buch nicht lesen können. (She has not been able to read the book.)
- Wir haben es uns nicht leisten können. (We have not been able to afford it.)
Können Conjugation in Past Perfect Tense (Plusquamperfekt)
Much like in English, the German past perfect tense is used when talking about something that happened before something else in the past tense. For example: I had been able to call him before I left the house.
The German past perfect tense form consists of an auxiliary (helping) verb in the past tense and the past participle of the actual verb.
Remember, though: this rule doesn’t apply to modal verbs (use the Ersatzinfinitiv instead of the past participle in those cases).
Here is the können conjugation in the past perfect:
|ich hatte gekonnt/können||I had been able to|
|du hattest gekonnt/können||you (informal) had been able to|
|er/sie/es hatte gekonnt/können||he/she/it had been able to|
|wir hatten gekonnt/können||we had been able to|
|ihr hattet gekonnt/können||you (plural) had been able to|
|sie/Sie hatten gekonnt/können||they/you (formal) had been able to|
- Er hatte Gedanken lesen können. (He had been able to read thoughts.)
- Du hattest Farsi gekonnt. (You had been able [to speak] Farsi.)
- Hier hatte man rauchen können. (You had been able to smoke here.)
Können Conjugation in Future Tense (Futur I)
When talking about something in the future, Germans use the auxiliary verb werden in the same way that English speakers use the word will. For example: Ich werde tanzen. (I will dance.)
The können conjugation in future tense is not complicated at all. All you need to know is how to correctly conjugate werden.
Here is how to conjugate können in the future tense:
|ich werde können||I will be able to|
|du wirst können||you (informal) will be able to|
|er/sie/es wird können||he/she/it will be able to|
|wir werden können||we will be able to|
|ihr werdet können||you (plural) will be able to|
|sie/Sie werden können||they/you (formal) will be able to|
- Sie werden einziehen können. (They will be able to move in.)
- Du wirst dich entspannen können. (You will be able to relax.)
- Ihr werdet im Meer schwimmen können. (You all will be able to swim in the sea.)
Note how when using können as a modal verb, it goes right to the end. This is an important word order rule that you need to remember: the modal verb always goes to the end very end of the verb structure – after the lexical verb, not before.
Können Conjugation in Future Perfect Tense (Futur II)
The future perfect describes an event that will have happened by a specific point in the future. For example: Bis dahin werde ich das Buch gelesen haben. (I will have read the book by then.)
Chances are you won’t come across können in the future perfect too often, so if this seems complicated, don’t worry. Even native Germans speakers often find all these different verb forms confusing!
|ich werde gekonnt haben/haben können||I will have been able to|
|du wirst gekonnt haben/haben können||you (informal) will have been able to|
|er/sie/es wird gekonnt haben/haben können||he/she/it will have been able to|
|wir werden gekonnt haben/haben können||we will have been able to|
|ihr werdet gekonnt haben/haben können||you (plural) will have been able to|
|sie/Sie werden gekonnt haben/haben können||they/you (formal) will have been able to|
- Ich werde schlafen haben können. (I will have been able to sleep.)
As I said, you won’t come across this form of the verb too often. If you do, however, keep the following rules in mind:
- When using können as a modal verb, use the infinitive (“können”) rather than the past participle (“gekonnt”).
- Modal verbs always go right to the end of the verb structure.
Other Forms of Können
There are a couple of other forms of können that you should know about. These are:
Present Participle (Partizip I)
To create a present participle in English, you simply add “-ing” to the end of the verb (e.g., to read → reading). In German, the process is just as straightforward – instead of “-ing,” you add “-d” (e.g., lesen → lesend).
The present participle form of können is könnend.
Important: The German present participle is not used in the same way as the English one. Germans mainly use it as an adjective, not as a verb. “I am writing” in German is “Ich schreibe,” never “Ich bin schreibend.”
Past Participle (Partizip II)
As we’ve already covered, the past participle of können is gekonnt.
Remember, when using können as a modal verb, you’d use the infinitive form (“können”) and not the past participle.
Subjunctive (Konjunktiv II)
You might have come across a certain form of können that we haven’t covered in this guide – for example, in the sentence: Könnten Sie mir bitten helfen? (Could you please help me?)
This is the so-called subjunctive form, which is a grammatical construction that is often used when talking about things that aren’t necessarily real or when trying to be more polite.
If you’d like to learn more about the subjunctive version of können, check out this amazing guide from lingoni GERMAN:
Want to learn more about German verbs? Check out some of our other grammar and conjugation guides. Here’s where you can start:
- “Lesen” Conjugation: The Ultimate Guide to the German Verb “Lesen”
- Conjugation of the German Verb “Sein”: A Crash Course
- Top Tips for German Conjugation Practice: How to Master German Verbs
Practice Können Conjugation
Now it’s time to put your skills to the test! Play this selection of sentences with conjugated forms of the German verb können and see how much you’ve learned.