Learn How to Use "Dürfen" in German

A Modal Verb Meaning "to be Allowed to"

Dürfen (to be allowed to) is one of the six modal verbs that are so essential in both English and German. As with other modal verbs, it is almost always used with another verb in a sentence. Dürfen can also take on a few different meanings, depending on its context:

As opposed to können (can, to be able to), the spelling of dürfen is far different from its English equivalent "may, allowed/permitted to." This makes it a little more challenging to study, but it's so important that students of the German language should fully understand its various meanings and learn how to conjugate dürfen.

Dürfen: To be Allowed to

The main definition of dürfen is "may" or "to be allowed to." This is the most common use for the verb and you will find yourself using it quite often.

  • Darf ich draußen spielen, Mutti? (May I play outside, Mom?)
  • Der Schüler durfte nur einEN Bleistift und einEN Radiergummi zur Prüfung mitbringen. (The student was only allowed to bring a pencil and an eraser to the exam.)

When it comes to dürfen, it seems that both English and German speakers make the same mistake. Did your English teacher ever reply to you with “I don’t know if you can, but you certainly may” in response to a question you formulated with “Can I…”, instead of “May I…?”

Germans share the same habit as you can compare in these two sentences which have completely different meanings:

  • Kann ich bitte zur Toilette hingehen? (Can I go to the washroom?)
  • Darf ich bitte zur Toilette hingehen? (May I go to the washroom?)

    Dürfen: Polite Requests

    Dürfen can also be used as a form of politeness when asking a question or making a request.

    • Wenn ich bitten darf, mit welcher Fluglinie sind Sie geflogen? (If I may ask, on which airline did you fly?
    • Darf ich rein? (May I come in?)

    Dürfen: A Possibility

    There are also times when you may want to use dürfen to indicate a strong possibility that something will happen.

    To form this meaning of dürfen, the subjunctive II must be used.

    • Sie dürfte um 8 Uhr hier sein. (She will most likely be here at 8 o’clock.)
    • Meine Tante dürfte bald mehr Geld bekommen. (My aunt will most likely receive more money.)

    Nicht Dürfen 

    When you add an infinitive verb to nicht dürfen, you express the prohibition of something.

    • Hier darf man nicht schwimmen. (You are not allowed to swim here.)

    When you add the subjunctive II and an infinitive to nicht dürfen, you express an accusation.

    • Deine Hausaufgaben hättest du nicht vergessen dürfen, jetzt bekommst du keine gute Note (You should not have forgotten your homework, now you won’t receive a good mark.)