Modal Verbs

What are Modal Verbs?

There are 6 modal verbs in German:können“, „wollen“, „möchten“, „sollen“, „müssen“, „dürfen“.

Modal verbs express whether you can, want to, must, should, or are allowed to do something.

Modal verbs are usually combined with a second verb ("main verb") and must be conjugated.

Examples:

  • „Ich kann kein Englisch sprechen.“
  • „Ich darf keinen Alkohol trinken.“
  • „Ich muss heute nicht lernen.“
  • „Ich will heute lernen.“
  • „Wir sollen in die Schule gehen.“

Word Order

In main clauses, the modal verb goes in position 2 (unless it's a yes/no-question). The main verb goes at the end.

Special Features:

In spoken language, if the main verb is obvious (based on the context), the main verb is often left out.

  • Kannst du Englisch (sprechen)?“
  • „Ich will ein Bier (trinken)!“

In the perfect tense, modal verbs don't take the past participle form. Instead, they remain in the infinitive form.

  • „Er hat Englisch sprechen können.“
  • „Sie haben auf dich warten müssen.“

Exception: When the modal verb is the main verb (this is very rare, since normally the simple past would be used).

  • „Er hat Englisch gekonnt!“

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Conjugation of Modal Verbs

The Modal Verbs always have the same form in the 1st and 3rd person singular. In the singular, they are all irregular. In the plural, however, they are 100% regular.

 

können

müssen

sollen

dürfen

wollen

möchten*

mögen**

ich

kann

muss

soll

darf

will

möchte

mag

du

kannst

musst

sollst

darfst

willst

möchtest

magst

er/sie/es

kann

muss

soll

darf

will

möchte

mag

wir

können

müssen

sollen

dürfen

wollen

möchten

mögen

ihr

könnt

müsst

sollt

dürft

wollt

möchtet

mögt

sie/Sie

können

müssen

sollen

dürfen

wollen

möchten

mögen

 *„möchten“ is actually the Subjunctive 2 of „mögen“, but is now used in the Present Tense as an independent modal verb. For the Past Tense (Perfekt, Präteritum, Plusquamperfekt) we use „wollen“.

** „mögen“ is now very rarely used as a Modal Verb and is only used as a full verb (without a 2nd verb).

  • „Ich mag dich.“

Meaning of Modal Verbs?

„müssen“

  • Necessity
  • Command / Task
  • Assumption with very high probability

„können“

  • Permission or prohibition
  • Possible or Impossible
  • Ability or Inability
  • Suggestion or Polite request
  • Conjecture with Low probability

„wollen / möchten“

  • To wish, intend, or will
  • To refuse (with Negation)
  • „Möchten“ is the polite form of „wollen“

„dürfen“

  • Permission
  • Prohibition (with Negation)
  • Presumption with high probability

„sollen“

  • As an order to the subject
  • As an indirect request
  • As a recommendation or advice
  • Conjecture with relatively high probability

Recommendation: Examples detailed explanations of all Modal Verbs

You can find more detailed information about the usage and meaning of each Modal Verb on the following pages:

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