What You Need to Know About German Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are essential to good German grammar

View from Fortification of the 12th century Castle Landau in Klingenmuenster, Germany
View from Fortification of the 12th century Castle Landau in Klingenmuenster, Germany. Photo by EyesWideOpen / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Modal verbs are used to indicate a possibility or necessity. English has modal verbs like can, may, must, and will. Similarly, German has a total of six modal (or "modal auxiliary") verbs that you will need to know because they're used all the time.

What Are the German Modal Verbs?

Man kann einfach nicht ohne die Modalverben auskommen! 
(You simply can't get along without the modal verbs!)

"Can" (können) is a modal verb. The other modal verbs are just as impossible to avoid. You "have to" (müssen) use them to complete many sentences. You "shouldn't" (sollen) even consider trying not to. But why would you "want to" (wollen)?

Did you notice how many times we used modal verbs while explaining their importance? Here are the six modal verbs to look out for:

  • dürfen - may, be permitted   
  • können - can, be able
  • mögen - like   
  • müssen - must, have to
  • sollen - should, ought to   
  • wollen - want to

Modals derive their name from the fact that they always modify another verb. Additionally, they are always used in tandem with the infinitive form of another verb, as in, Ich muss morgen nach Frankfurt fahren. (ich muss + fahren)

The infinitive at the end may be left off when its meaning is clear: Ich muss morgen nach Frankfurt. ("I must [go/travel] to Frankfurt tomorrow.").

Whether implied or stated, the infinitive is always placed at the end of the sentence. The exception is when they appear in subordinate clauses: Er sagt, dass er nicht kommen kann. ("He says he cannot come.")

Modals in the Present Tense

Each modal only has two basic forms: singular and plural. This is the most important rule you need to remember about modal verbs in the present tense.

As an example, the verb können has the basic forms kann (singular) and können (plural).

  • For the singular pronouns ich, du, er/sie/es, you will use kann (du adds its usual -st ending: du kannst).
  • For the plural pronouns wir, ihr, sie/Sie, you will use können (ihr takes its usual -t ending: ihr könnt).

Also, note the resemblance to English in the pairs kann / "can" and muss / "must."

This means that the modals are actually simpler to conjugate and use than other German verbs. If you remember that they have only two basic present tense forms, your life will be much easier. All of the modals work the same way: dürfen/darf, können/kann, mögen/mag, müssen/muss, sollen/soll, wollen/will.

Modal Tricks and Peculiarities

Some German modals take on a special meaning in certain contexts. "Sie kann Deutsch," for example, means "She knows German." This is short for "Sie kann Deutsch... sprechen/schreiben/verstehen/lesen." which means "She can speak/write/understand/read German."

The modal verb mögen is most often used in its subjunctive form: möchte ("would like"). This implies the probability, wishful thinking, or politeness common in the subjunctive.

Both sollen and wollen can take on the special idiomatic meaning of "it is said," "it's claimed," or "they say." For example, "Er will reich sein," means "He claims to be wealthy." Similarly, "Sie soll Französin sein," means "They say she's French."

In the negative, müssen is replaced by dürfen when the meaning is the prohibitive "must not." "Er muss das nicht tun," means "He doesn't have to do that." To express, "He must not do that," (not allowed to do that), the German would be, "Er darf das nicht tun."

Technically, German makes the same distinction between dürfen (to be permitted) and können (to be able) that English does for "may" and "can." However, in the same way that most English speakers in the real world use "He can't go," for "He may not go," (doesn't have permission), German speakers also tend to ignore this distinction. You will often find, "Er kann nicht gehen," used instead of the grammatically correct version, "Er darf nicht gehen."

Modals in the Past Tense

In the simple past tense (Imperfekt), the modals are actually easier than in the present. All six modals add the regular past tense marker -te to the stem of the infinitive.

The four modals that have umlauts in their infinitive form, drop the umlaut in the simple past: dürfen/durfte, können/konnte, mögen/mochte, and müssen/musste. Sollen becomes sollte; wollen changes to wollte.

Since the English "could" has two different meanings, it is important to be aware of which one you intend to express in German. If you want to say, "we could do that," in the sense of "we were able to," then you will use  wir konnten (no umlaut). But if you mean it in the sense of "we might be able to" or "it's a possibility," then you must say, wir könnten (the subjunctive form, with an umlaut, based on the past tense form).

The modals are used much less frequently in their present perfect forms ("Er hat das gekonnt," meaning "He was able to do that."). Instead, they typically take on a double infinitive construction ("Er hat das nicht sagen wollen," meaning "He didn't want to say that.").

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Flippo, Hyde. "What You Need to Know About German Modal Verbs." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/german-verb-review-modal-verbs-4069478. Flippo, Hyde. (2023, April 5). What You Need to Know About German Modal Verbs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/german-verb-review-modal-verbs-4069478 Flippo, Hyde. "What You Need to Know About German Modal Verbs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/german-verb-review-modal-verbs-4069478 (accessed June 5, 2023).