German Modal Verbs

In German, in addition to strong verbs and auxiliaries, there is another category of verbs that cannot be ignored: modal verbs. They are indispensable for speaking German correctly.

These verbs are not verbs like the others. They accompany another verb and affect its primary meaning. There are 6 modal verbs in German and they express different conditions:

Ability / Permissiondürfen (to be allowed to, may) and können (to be able to, can)
Liking / Desiremögen (to like) and wollen (to want to, to intend to)
Necessity / Obligationmüssen (to have to, must, to need to) and sollen (shall, to be supposed to)

Modal verbs that express capacity/ability/permission: dürfen and können

  • Dürfen is the modal verb that is used to signify authorisation. If it is used with a negative sentence then it indicates prohibition.
  • Können does not serve to express permission and prohibition. This modal verb expresses mainly capacity. In this case it is the physical, technical or mental ability to do something.

Example Dürfen : Du darfst mit mir gehen / You are allowed to come with me

Example Können : Er kann Deutsch sprechen / He can speak German

Modal verbs that express liking/desire : mögen and wollen 

These two modal verbs express desire. Nevertheless, they express desire in a more or less strong way.

  • Wollen makes it possible to express a strong, even irresistible desire to do something.
  • Mögen is a more nuanced verb. This verb expresses the desire or the simple fact of appreciating (doing) something.

Example Wollen : Ihr wollt bei uns bleiben / You want to stay with us

Example Mögen : Er mag Tobias / He likes Tobias

Modal verbs that express necessity/obligation : müssen and sollen 

  • Sollen makes it possible to express the necessity coming from an external (often moral) authority but always having the choice to do or not.
  • Müssen expresses constraint above all. It is used to express obligation, but in this case it is a strong obligation without really having a choice.

Example Sollen : Du sollest Heute gehen / You were supposed to leave today

Example Müssen : Ich muss jetzt gehen / I have to leave now

Some conjugation rules to know with modal verbs

In the present tense modal verbs are irregular in the first three singular persons. They are regular for all persons in the plural.

The preterite of modal verbs is regular (with regard to endings) but umlauts are omitted. In the perfect and plu-perfect modal verbs are formed with the auxiliary haben accompanied by the past participle of the verbs in question.

Be careful, the past participle of modal verbs is formed differently when the verb is accompanied by another verb or principal verb:

Case 1: with a principal verb

When the modal verb is accompanied by a principal verb, the past participle of the modal verb corresponds to its infinitive form.

Case 2: without principal verb

When the modal verb is not accompanied by a principal verb then the past participle is formed as for weak irregular verbs (or mixed verbs).

The future tense and the subjunctive I of modal verbs are regular tenses. In the subjunctive II the endings of modal verbs are those of the simple past.

Conjugate a verb in German

The most frequently used verbs in German: sein haben geben finden gehen wissen kommen können liegen sehen