Lesson 8 - Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are verbs used to modify or change other verbs to show such things as ability, permission, or necessity.
For example: You can eat, I must stay.

Use of Modal Verbs with Another Verb

In German, modal verbs are very similar to those in English; as they are generally used together with a main verb in its infinitive form. However, there is one main difference between both languages. In English, the modal verb and the main verb stay together; whereas in German, the modal verb and the main verb are separated; as the main verb goes to the end of the sentence.

  • Wir müssen heute entscheiden - We must decide today

German Modal Verbs

There are six modal verbs in German, all having conjugation that is different than regular German verbs (discussed in an earlier lesson).
The six German modal verbs are: dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen, and wollen.

Modal Verbs in Detail

Dürfen - may/to be allowed to

Pronoun Conjugation Pronoun Conjugation
ich darf wir dürfen
du darfst ihr dürft
er/sie/es darf sie dürfen
Sie dürfen    

Dürfen is used to express permission:

  • Ihr dürft hier rauchen - You are allowed to smoke here

When used with 'nicht', dürfen conveys the meaning of something one must not do.

  • Ihr dürft hier nicht rauchen - You must not smoke here

Können - can/to be able to

Pronoun Conjugation Pronoun Conjugation
ich kann wir können
du kannst ihr könnt
er/sie/es kann sie können
Sie können    

Können means 'can' or 'to be able to':

  • Ich kann den Wecker nicht ausschalten - I can't turn off the alarm clock

It can also be used to express possibility:

  • Das kann nicht sein - That can't be true

Müssen - must/to have to/need to

Pronoun Conjugation Pronoun Conjugation
ich muss wir müssen
du musst ihr müsst
er/sie/es muss sie müssen
Sie müssen    

Müssen means 'to have to' or 'must' or 'need to':

  • Du musst um sieben aufstehen - You must/have to wake up at seven.

When used with 'nicht', it doesn't convey the meaning of prohibition as in English, but means 'do not have to' (remember that dürfen + nicht is used to say 'must not').

  • Du musst nicht kommen - You don't have to come.

Sollen - to be supposed to/should/ought to

Pronoun Conjugation Pronoun Conjugation
ich soll wir sollen
du sollst ihr sollt
er/sie/es soll sie sollen
Sie sollen    

Sollen means 'to be supposed to' or 'should' or 'ought to':

  • Wir sollen mehr arbeiten - We ought to work more
  • Du sollst deine Freunde einladen - You should invite your friends

Wollen - to want

Pronoun Conjugation Pronoun Conjugation
ich will wir wollen
du willst ihr wollt
er/sie/es will sie wollen
Sie wollen    

Wollen usually expresses an intention or desire, equivilant to the English 'to want to':

  • Ich will etwas trinken - I want to drink something

Take note not to use the verb in the sense of the English verb 'will' to form the future tense. This requires another verb in German ('werden').

Mögen/möchten - to like/would like

Pronoun Conjugation Pronoun Conjugation
ich mag/möchte wir mögen/möchten
du magst/möchtest ihr mögt/möchtet
er/sie/es mag/möchte sie mögen/möchten
Sie mögen/möchten    

The modal verb mögen means 'to like' and is often used with reference to people, food, or places.

  • Ich mag Tennis - I like Tennis

However, the verb is most oftenly used in its subjunctive form, möchten, which means 'would like to'.

  • Er möchte das Auto fahren - He would like to drive the car

As with 'mögen', 'möchten' could also be used on its own, without a second verb.

  • Ich möchte ein Glas Wasser, bitte - I would like a glass of water, please

Modal and Separable Verbs

When a modal verb is used with a separable one, the separable verb stays together and goes to the end of the sentance.

  • Ich will Morgen ausgehen - I want to go out tomorrow
  • Du sollst deine Mutter anrufen - You should call your mother

Now you nearly know everything about German verbs in the present tense, only reflexive verbs are left for another lesson in a later unit.
Using very little vocabulary, you should be able to form complete German sentances by now.