Learning German requires a lot of grammar, right? But some grammar concepts will help you speak better. Hence, I’m going over German modal verbs in this post, which will make a huge difference in your ability to chat with Germans.
You can express an obligation or possibility with German modal verbs like want, may, like, must, can, and should. Whenever you order food, talk about preferences, or ask for permission, you need a modal verb. That covers a lot of everyday situations.
Learning these irregular verbs will instantly improve your conversational skills when speaking German. I’ll show you how to use each modal verb in the present, past, and future tenses. To help you use these verbs like a native, I’ve included plenty of examples.
German Modal Verbs: What Are They?
In German, modal verbs are:
- Können (can)
- Dürfen (may)
- Mögen (like)
- Müssen (must)
- Sollen (should)
- Wollen (want)
By using these words, you are able to express what you are supposed to do, what you are capable of doing, and other similar moods. It is important to note that each modal verb has its own meaning in addition to certain idiomatic expressions.
The majority of the time, modal verbs are combined with other verbs in a sentence.
German Modal Verbs: Why You Should Learn Them
In a sentence, modal verbs provide additional information regarding the main verb. It is a part of your daily routine to use them to ask for permission and to express your ability or willingness to do something.
Consider asking the following questions without a modal verb.
- Would you like to go to the movies with me?
- Would my friends like to have a drink with me?
- When should I expect the bus to arrive?
The ability to recognize and use modal verbs is essential. If not, you will not be able to determine whether someone is asking or demanding something from you. By becoming familiar with these verbs, you will be able to understand and be understood more accurately in German.
German Modal Verb- Können – Can
Let us examine one of the most commonly used modal verbs, Können. It is possible to describe your abilities or capabilities by using this verb.
Please note how the modal verbs in the examples below are conjugated, but the main verbs remain in their original form or infinitive.
Example: Ich \(kann\) Deutsch sprechen. (I can speak German.)
Example: Du \(kannst\) gut kochen. (You can cook well.)
Example: Wir \(können\) morgen ins Kino gehen. (We can go to the movies tomorrow.)
In the following sections, you will find examples of how to conjugate the verb können for each of the personal pronouns in the present and past tense.
In the present tense, the first vowel changes from “ö” to “a”.
- The pronouns I, you, he, she, and it changes their first vowel for every modal verb, except soll. Using the simple past tense, you can observe that Können loses its umlaut.
- In the past tense, all modal verbs drop their umlauts.
Example: Ich \(konnte\) Deutsch sprechen. (I was able to speak German.)
Example: Du \(konntest\) gut kochen. (You were able to cook well.)
Example: Wir \(konnten\) ins Kino gehen. (We were able to go to the movies.)
During this construction, the modal verb is placed second and the main verb is placed last.
Create the past participle with a form of haben and the infinitive form of können. The main verb will also be in the infinitive form in order to construct what we call the double infinitive. The two verbs should be placed together at the end of the sentence. Last but not least is the modal verb.
Example: Ich habe Deutsch sprechen \(können\). (I was able to speak German.)
Example: Du hast gut kochen \(können\). (You were able to cook well.)
Example: Wir haben gestern ins Kino gehen \(können\). (We were able to go to the movies.)
You can create the past participle of a sentence without the main verb by using haben with gekonnt.
Example: Ich habe Deutsch gekonnt. (I was able to “speak” German.)
Example: Das hast du gut gekonnt. (You were able to do that well.)
Example: Wir haben gestern ins Kino gekonnt. (We could have “gone” to the movies.)
In spoken German, it is common to omit the main verb and to infer its meaning.
German Modal Verb- Müssen – Must
When you want to talk about things you have to do, or must do, use müssen in German.
This time, notice how the first vowel changes from an “ü” to an “u.” This change only affects the pronouns I, you, he, she, and it.
Example: Ich \(muss\) arbeiten. (I have to work.)
Example: Du \(musst\) warten. (You must wait.)
Example: Wir \(müssen\) morgen früh aufstehen. (We must get up early tomorrow.)
Here is how the verb muss is conjugated.
Notice how the endings in the simple past form are the same for müssen as they were for können. It is easier to learn how modal verbs behave when you recognize these patterns.
As a next step, let’s examine some examples in the simple past tense.
Example: Ich \(musste\) arbeiten. (I had to work.)
Example: Du \(musstest\) warten. (You had to wait.)
Example: Wir \(mussten\) früh aufstehen. (We had to get up early.)
In written German, the simple past is most commonly used. In spoken German, the past participle is more common. In this case, the same rule applies as in the case of Können. A conjugated form of haben should be followed by the main verb, and finally, the infinitive should be used.
Example: Ich habe arbeiten \(müssen\). (I had to work.)
Example: Du hast warten \(müssen\). (You had to wait.)
Example: Wir haben früh aufstehen \(müssen). (We had to get up early.)
There may be instances in which you will use the past participle form, which includes haben and gemusst.
Example: Ich habe \(gemusst\). (I had to.)
Example: Er hat \(gemusst\). (He had to.)
Example: Ihr habt \(gemusst\). (You, plural, had to.)
This form should only be used when there is no main verb.
German Modal Verb- Mögen – Like
Mögen is a modal verb that refers to who or what you like. Often, this modal verb is used alone or in combination with other verbs.
In the present tense, the “ö” in mögen changes to an “a”.
Example: Ich \(mag\) dich. (I like you.)
Example: Ihr \(mögt\) Pizza. (You, plural, like pizza.)
Example: Wir \(mögen\) Schwimmen. (We like swimming.)
The following is a table of conjugations. You may have noticed that modal verbs follow certain patterns in the present tense. The only thing you need to remember is how the second vowel changes.
I, he, she, and it will always have the same root form. A -st ending is added to you form. The plural form of you is the original root with an -t suffix. The infinitive form of a modal verb is used by us, them, and you.
Mögen loses its umlaut in the past tense, and the “g” becomes a “ch.” Pronoun endings remain the same. In the following examples, the past tense is used.
Example: Ich \(mochte\) dich. (I liked you.)
Example: Ihr \(mochtet\) Pizza. (You, plural, liked pizza.)
Example: Wir \(mochten\) Schwimmen. (We liked swimming.)
The past participle is formed by combining haben with gemocht.
Example: Ich habe dich \(gemocht\). (I liked you.)
Example: Ihr habt Pizza \(gemocht\). (You, plural, liked pizza.)
Example: Wir haben Schwimmen \(gemocht\). (We liked swimming.)
As opposed to the previous participle forms you have learned, mögen does not use the double infinitive form. The construction shown above should always be used in this situation.
German Modal Verb- Sollen – Should
Use sollen to express what someone should do in German.
As a modal verb, sollen is the most regular. There is no vowel change in any of the conjugated forms.
Example: Ich \(soll\) schlafen. (I should sleep.)
Example: Du \(sollst\) gehen. (You should go.)
Example: Wir \(sollen\) uns treffen. (We should meet.)
The conjugation table can be found below.
So far, sollen has the same simple past endings as the other modal verbs.
Example: Ich \(sollte\) schlafen. (I should sleep.)
Example: Du \(solltest\) gehen. (You should go.)
Example: Wir \(sollten\) uns treffen. (We should meet.)
The meaning of sollen does not change in the past form, in contrast to the simple past tenses up until now. In the present tense, sollen implies how something should definitively occur. It is implied by the simple past form that something should have happened, but might not have.
If you wish to discuss what should have been, use the past participle. Typically, you will use a double infinitive and the appropriate form of having.
Example: Ich habe schlafen \(sollen\). (I should have slept.)
Example: Du hast gehen \(sollen\). (You should have gone.)
Example: Wir haben uns treffen \(sollen\). (We should have met.)
It is rare to use the forms haben and gesollt.
German Modal Verb- Wollen – Want
Use wollen to describe what you want.
The “o” in wollen changes to an “i” for the I, you, he, she, and it forms in the present tense.
Example: Ich \(will\) Schokolade essen. (I want to eat chocolate.)
Example: Du \(willst\) einen Salat. (You want a salad.)
Example: Wir \(wollen\) nach Hause gehen. (We want to go home.)
The simple past is always formed by removing the umlaut from the root of the modal verb and adding the appropriate ending.
This is a continuation of the simple past pattern.
Example: Ich \(wollte\) Schokolade essen. (I wanted to eat chocolate.)
Example: Du \(wolltest\) Salat. (You wanted salad.)
Example: Wir \(wollten\) nach Hause gehen. (We wanted to go home.)
Use haben and a double infinitive to form the past participle. In the absence of the main verb, only use the combination haben and gewollt.
Example: Ich habe Schokolade essen \(wollen\). (I wanted to eat chocolate.)
Example: Du hast einen Salat \(gewollt\). (You wanted a salad.) No main verb is present.
Example: Wir haben nach Hause gehen \(wollen\). (We wanted to go home.)
German Modal Verb- Dürfen – May
The final modal verb we will discuss is durfen, which is translated as may in English. This verb is used to ask what is permitted or not permitted.
The “ü” changes to an “a” for I, you, he, she, and it in the present tense.
Example: Ich \(darf\) Fernseh schauen. (I’m allowed to watch TV.)
Example: Du \(darfst\) anfangen. (You may begin.)
Example: Wir \(dürfen\) Pause machen. (We may take a break.)
You’ll recognize the modal verb patterns in the table below.
You’ll find examples of dürfen in the simple past below.
Example: Ich \(durfte\) Fernseh schauen. (I was allowed to watch TV.)
Example: Du \(durftest\) anfangen. (You were allowed to begin.)
Example: Wir \(durften\) Pause machen. (We were allowed to take a break.)
By choosing the correct form of haben and a double infinitive, you can form the past participle. It is rare to use the forms haben and gedurft. You should now place your modal verb at the end of your sentence.
Example: Ich habe Fernseh schauen \(dürfen\). (I was allowed to watch TV.)
Example: Du hast anfangen \(dürfen\). (You were allowed to begin.)
Example: Wir haben Pause machen \(dürfen\). (We were allowed to take a break.)
German Modal Verbs: Time To Go Out There & Use Them!
This post has covered a lot of ground. Here is a summary of all the main points you learned about German modal verbs so that you will be able to begin using them in your German conversations:
- In the present tense, all of the modal verbs, with the exception of sollen, change their stem vowels to accommodate the pronouns I, you, he, she, and it.
- The conjugation patterns of all modal verbs are nearly identical in the present and past tenses. There is only a change in the stem vowel.
- Past participles of modal verbs can be formed using the helping verb haben. The helping verb appears first, followed by the main verb, and then the infinitive modal verb.
- In the past tense, modal verbs drop their umlauts.
- The language of Mögen does not use double infinitives. Use a form of haben that includes gemocht instead.
- In both the present tense and the simple past tense, the word sollen has the same meaning. To indicate that something has occurred in the past, use the past participle.
Is Wissen a modal verb?
Although it is not a modal verb, the conjugation of Wissen follows the same pattern as the modal verbs. Like the modals, and unlike normal German verbs, Wissen has the same form for ich (1st person sing.) and er, sie, es (3rd person sing.).
Is Werden a modal verb in German?
The auxiliary verb werden works just like other auxiliary verbs such as “haben” (to have) and “sein” (to be). It is combined with a full verb and is used to express things that will happen in the future.
What’s the difference between Kennen and Wissen?
“Wissen“ is used for knowing something for a fact, while “Kennen” denotes knowledge that is based on experience and familiarity.
What is Wissen in German?
Wissen is an irregular German verb that means to know a fact.