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German Modal Verbs

Instructor: Penelope Heinigk

Penelope holds a doctorate degree in German and a professional teaching license in the state of Colorado. She has taught middle school through university, online and live.

In this lesson we will learn the six modal verbs in German and how to use them. Modals are types of verbs that are used to indicate modality such as likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation.

The Six Modal Verbs

Can I eat this last piece of pizza? What do you want to do? We should really get going now. Must you drive so fast? Modal verbs convey an attitude or explain how you feel about an action in German. They are often used with a second verb, but can also be used alone when appropriate.

German has six modal verbs:

Verb Pronunciation Translation
dürfen DUEHR-fin to be allowed
können KEHR-nin can, to be able
mögen MEHR-gin to like
müssen MUEH-sin must, to have to
sollen ZOL-in should, to be supposed to
wollen VOL-in to want to

For the scope of this lesson, we'll focus on using these verbs in the present tense.

Present Tense Conjugations

Verb ich du er/sie/es wir ihr sie Sie
dürfen darf darfst darf dürfen dürft dürfen dürfen
können kann kannst kann können könnt können können
mögen mag magst mag mögen mögt mögen mögen
müssen muss musst muss müssen müsst müssen müssen
sollen soll sollst soll sollen sollt sollen sollen
wollen will willst will wollen wollt wollen wollen

As you may have noticed, these verbs are irregular. Here are some patterns that will help you memorize the modal verbs for present tense:

  • The singular forms (ich, du, er/sie/es) do not take the umlaut (ä, ö, and ü) and have vowel changes, except for sollen and wollen.
  • The first person (ich) and third person (er/sie/es) share the same form for the modals.
  • Except for ihr, all of the plural pronouns (wir, sie, Sie) keep the original infinitive form.
  • The du forms take the -st ending, and the ihr forms take the -t ending.

Translation: Do you want me?
heart

Usage

The modal verbs are conjugated in regular verb position, and the second verb (if one is used) comes at the end of the sentence in the infinitive form. Unless the sentence consists of a question, regular verb position is second, right after the subject:

Ich will nach Hause gehen. (I want to go home.)

In a yes/no question, the subject and verb switch places:

Willst du nach Hause gehen? (Do you want to go home?)

In the first example, the conjugated verb (will) is in the second position right after the subject (ich). In the second example, which is a question, the verb (willst) comes first and the subject (du) is second. In both examples, the second verb gehen (to go) comes at the end in infinitive form.

Let's look at a few more examples in the first person (ich). Notice how the modal verb comes right after the subject and how the second verb sprechen (to speak) comes in as an infinitive at the end of each of the example sentences:

  • Ich darf Deutsch sprechen. (I am allowed to speak German.)
  • Ich kann Deutsch sprechen. (I can speak German.)
  • Ich mag Deutsch sprechen. (I like to speak German.)
  • Ich muss Deutsch sprechen. (I must speak German.)
  • Ich soll Deutsch sprechen. (I should speak German.)
  • Ich will Deutsch sprechen. (I want to speak German.)

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