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Modal Verbs (1)

To recall what a modal verb is, see the following English examples:

  • I must study
  • She can speak Japanese

Must and can are two examples of modal verbs. German modal verbs are similar to English counterparts. They behave as auxiliary verbs. On the other hand, as usual there are some peculiarities of German language that you should take notice of. In this lesson, we’ll introduce the modal verbs, their main meanings and uses. In the next lesson, we will look at their uses in more detail and also see the conjugations in different tenses.

First of all, there are six modal verbs in German: dürfen, können, müssen, mögen, sollen, wollen.

Meanings of modal verbs

Dürfen: to be allowed to

Dürfen is used to express

  • An allowance, or a right

Darf man hier rauchen? (Is it allowed to smoke here?)

  • An order, a request, a recommendantion

Du darfst nicht aufgeben (You can’t give up)

  • When offering something, in order to be polite

Darf Ich Ihnen einen Kaffe anbieten? (May I offer you a coffee?)

Können: can, could

Können is used to express

  • To be able to do something

Ich kann gut Tennis spielen (I can play Tennis well)

Sie kann Französisch sprechen (She can speak French)

  • Possibility

In diesem Jahr können wir mehr verdienen (This year we can earn more)

Note also that “könnten” is used to express politeness

  • Ich könnte das machen (I could do this)

Müssen: have to

Müssen is used to express

  • necessity and obligation

I muss arbeiten (I have to work)

  • For negation, use nicht brauchen and zu infinitive

Du brauchst heute nicht mehr arbeiten (You don’t have to work anymore today)

Mögen: like

Mögen is used to express

  • Usually used in the subjunctive form (möchte(n)) to express wishes & possibilities

Ich möchte Artz warden (I want to be a doctor)

  • Expresses a possibility: Something can be true or not but it does not matter for the speaker if it is or not.

Es mag wohl sein, dass du Recht hast, aber Ich gehe trotzdem (You could well have right, but I’ll anyway)

Sollen: should

Sollen is used to express

  • As English “should”

Ihr sollt euch beeilen (You should hurry)

  • To express a law, rule of holy books

Du sollst nicht töten (You should not kill)

  • To express moral values

Man soll nicht stehlen (One should not steal)

Wollen: want to

Wollen is used to express

  • A plan, an intention

I will nich mehr rauchen (I’m planning not to smoke anymore)

Im September wollen wir nach Spanien fliegen (We want to fly to Spain in September)

  • To express an offer

Wollen wir gehen (Shall we go?)

Modal verbs can be used to explain subjective opinions. However, this use is covered in the upcoming lesson, not here.

Use of modal verbs

As you might have noticed from the sentences above, modal verbs are always used with the infinitive of another form. “Zu” (to) is never added between the infinitive and the modal verb.

For example:

Ich muss lernen (I must study)

Another peculiarity of Geman language in this context is the following. If the context is clear, the second verb can be dropped. For example, “Sie kann Englisch” instead of “Sie kann English sprechen”. This kind of use is very common in German.  

Word order

Infinitive comes always as the last word in a sentence.


Verbs that can be used as modal verbs

Some other German verbs can be used as modal verbs. They are used with a second verb without “zu”. These verbs are

Hören: to hear

Lassen: to let

Sehen: to see

Helfen: to help

Bleiben: to stay

Gehen: to go

Lernen: to study

Lehren: to teach

Hören, lassen, sehen, helfen

Man hört sie singen (it’s possible to hear her singing)

Sie ließ ihren Freund warten (she let her boyfriend wait)

I habe sie kommen sehen (I saw her coming)

Bleiben, gehen, lehren, lernen

Das Schwimmbad bleibt geschlossen (The swimming pool remains to be closed)

Ich gehe jeden Donnerstag schwimmen (I go to swimming every Thursday)

Ich lernte schwimmen mit 85 (I learned to swim at the age of 85