German Verb Review 2: Modal Verbs

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In this second part of our three-part "Verb Review" we examine 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 (aka "modal auxiliary"). The other modal verbs are just as impossible to avoid. You have to (müssen) use them all the time. You shouldn't (sollen) even consider trying not to. But why would you want to (wollen)?

Here are the six modals:

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, and 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 (except in subordinate clauses: "Er sagt, dass er nicht kommen kann.").

Modals in the Present Tense

The MOST IMPORTANT RULE to remember about modals in the present tense: Each modal only has TWO (2) basic forms: singular and plural. Take the verb "können." It has the basic forms "können" (plural) and "kann" (singular).

For the singular pronouns ichduer/sie/es, you usekann (du adds its usual -st ending: du kannst). For the plural pronouns wirihrsie/Sie, you 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/use than other German verbs.

If you remember they only have two basic present tense forms, your life will be much easier! All of the modals work the same way: dürfen/darfkönnen/kannmögen/magmüssen/muss,sollen/sollwollen/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." (Short for: "Sie kann Deutsch... sprechen/schreiben/verstehen/lesen." = "She can speak/write/understand/read German.") The modal verb mögen is most often used in its subjunctive form (probability, wishful thinking, politeness): möchte ("would like").

Both sollen and wollen can take on the special idiomatic meaning of "it is said," "it's claimed," or "they say." Er will reich sein. = "He claims to be wealthy." Sie soll Französin sein. = "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." But just as most English speakers in the real world use "He can't go," for "He may not go," (doesn't have permission), German speakers also usually ignore this distinction, and use Er kann nicht gehen instead of the "correct" Er darf nicht gehen.

Modals in the Past Tense

In the simple past tense (Imperfekt), the modals are actually even 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/konntemögen/mochtemüssen/mussteSollen becomes sollte and wollenchanges to wollte in the past.

Since 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 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." = "He was able to do that."), usually taking on a double infinitive construction ("Er hat das nicht sagen wollen." = "He didn't want to say that.").