A Modal Verb

Dürfen is one of the six modal verbs, so essential in both English and German. As with other modal verbs it is almost always used with another verb in a sentence. (See more on modal verbs.) As opposed to können, the spelling of dürfen is far different from its English equivalent 'may, allowed/permitted to.' (See the full conjugation of dürfen .)

See more about other modal verbs: müssen, mögen, können

The modal verb dürfen can take on a few different meanings, depending on its context:

  • To be allowed to

    This is the main definition of dürfen and the most widely used.

    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 / may, it seems that both English and German speakers make the same mistake. Did your English teacher ever reply 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. Compare:
    Kann ich bitte zur Toilette hingehen?
    (Can I go to the washroom?)

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

  • As a form of politeness wenn 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?)

  • A strong possibility that something will happen

    To indicate this meaning of dürfen, 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.)