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Modal Verbs in German Grammar

How to learn German modal verbs


Modal verbs in German, including können, müssen, möchten, sollen, dürfen, and wollen, play a crucial role in expressing a range of nuances and intentions. Each of these verbs carries a distinct meaning:

  1. "Können" signifies capability or possibility, indicating someone's ability to perform an action. For instance, "Ich kann schwimmen" translates to "I can swim."

  2. "Müssen" represents necessity or obligation, conveying that someone must or should perform an action. For example, "Du musst deine Hausaufgaben machen" means "You must do your homework."

  3. "Möchten," derived from "mögen," expresses desires or wishes. It is used to communicate what someone would like to do. "Ich möchte ein Eis essen" translates to "I would like to eat an ice cream."

  4. "Sollen" indicates recommendation, duty, or an external expectation. It conveys what someone is supposed to do. "Du sollst früh aufstehen" means "You should wake up early."

  5. "Dürfen" signifies permission or prohibition. It conveys whether someone is allowed to do something. "Er darf fernsehen" translates to "He is allowed to watch TV."

  6. "Wollen" represents intention or willingness. It expresses what someone wants to do. "Sie wollen ins Kino gehen" means "They want to go to the cinema."

Mastering these modal verbs is essential for effective communication in German, as they add depth and precision to expressing abilities, obligations, desires, permissions, and intentions.


Quick tip: If the full verb is obvious from the context, it is often left out in conversations.

Modal verbs are generally used with the infinitive of the full verb. The modal verb changes the meaning of the sentence.
Max will/darf/soll Bäcker werden. Max wants to/may/should become a baker.

Kannst du Englisch (sprechen)? Can you (speak) English?
Willst du eine Cola (trinken)? Do you want to (drink) a Coke?
Ich kann das (machen). I can (do) that.

Present Tense Conjugation: In the present tense, modal verbs are conjugated after the subject of the sentence, and the infinitive form of the main verb is placed at the end. 

Modal verb "können" (can):

  • Ich kann singen. (I can sing.)

  • Du kannst schwimmen. (You can swim.)

  • Er/Sie/Es kann tanzen. (He/She/It can dance.)

  • Wir können kochen. (We can cook.)

  • Ihr könnt malen. (You all can paint.)

  • Sie können lesen. (They can read.)

Simple Past (Imperfect) Tense Conjugation: In the simple past tense, modal verbs are conjugated slightly differently. The conjugated forms of modal verbs for the simple past are:

  • Ich konnte (I could)

  • Du konntest (You could)

  • Er/Sie/Es konnte (He/She/It could)

  • Wir konnten (We could)

  • Ihr konntet (You all could)

  • Sie konnten (They could)

Perfect Tense Conjugation: In the perfect tense, modal verbs are combined with an auxiliary verb (usually "haben" or "sein") to form the past participle. The structure is as follows:

  • Ich habe gekonnt (I could)

  • Du hast gekonnt (You could)

  • Er/Sie/Es hat gekonnt (He/She/It could)

  • Wir haben gekonnt (We could)

  • Ihr habt gekonnt (You all could)

  • Sie haben gekonnt (They could)

In the perfect tense, the auxiliary verb "haben" (to have) or "sein" (to be) is conjugated according to the subject, and the past participle of the modal verb is added at the end. This structure is used to talk about completed actions in the past.

Remember that modal verbs, when used in the simple past, are often paired with another verb in its infinitive form to indicate the action or situation.

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Example sentences for each modal verb:

  1. können (can):

    • Present: Ich kann singen. (I can sing.)

    • Simple Past: Gestern konnte ich singen. (Yesterday I could sing.)

  2. müssen (must):

    • Present: Du musst lernen. (You must study.)

    • Simple Past: Letzte Woche musstest du lernen. (Last week you had to study.)

  3. wollen (want):

    • Present: Er will ins Kino gehen. (He wants to go to the cinema.)

    • Simple Past: Sie wollte gestern ins Kino gehen. (She wanted to go to the cinema yesterday.)

  4. sollen (should):

    • Present: Wir sollen früh aufstehen. (We should wake up early.)

    • Simple Past: Sie sollten gestern früh aufstehen. (They should have woken up early yesterday.)

  5. dürfen (may):

    • Present: Darf ich das Spiel spielen? (May I play the game?)

    • Simple Past: Letzte Woche durfte ich das Spiel spielen. (Last week I was allowed to play the game.)

  6. mögen (like):

    • Present: Sie mag Schokolade. (She likes chocolate.)

    • Simple Past: Als Kind mochte er Schokolade. (He liked chocolate as a child.)

Understanding how modal verbs work in these different situations helps you express various ideas and situations more accurately in German.

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"Möchten" is a verb derived from the modal verb "mögen," specifically the Konjunktiv II form, but employed with a present meaning.

Differences in meaning between "mögen" and "möchten": The modal verb in its infinitive form "mögen" generally signifies "to like," and this meaning is conveyed when you conjugate it with a -g- in its root (mag).

However, conjugating it with -chte (möchte) signifies "to want/would like."

The modal verbs mögen, möchten and wollen

  • Mögen (to like) is used for something we think is good.
    Moni mag Tiere. Sie hat vier Katzen. Moni likes animals. She’s got four cats.
    Wir mögen Spanien sehr. We like Spain very much.

  • Wollen (want) and möchten (would like) are used to express a desire or intention. Möchten is more polite than wollen. Mögen is nowadays mostly used without a full verb - I like you. Möchten is actually the subjunctive form of mögen, but is nowadays used in the present tense as an independent modal verb (for the past tense forms we use wollen).
    Lisa will in den Urlaub fahren. Lisa wants to go on vacation.
    Wir möchten zwei Tickets nach Berlin kaufen. We would like to buy two tickets to Berlin.

Table of Conjugation

This table shows the conjugation of the modal verbs in the present and in the simple past, as well as the conjugation of the participle and the subjunctive II.

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Mixed exercises with modal verbs. Fill in the gaps with the correct modal verbs in the present tense and simple past. These exercises apply what has been learned. 

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