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German modal verbs

What are the modal verbs in German? Why are they used?
Modal verbs are used to express the ‘modality’ of an action: a permission, a desire, a possibility, a claim, etc…

There are 6 German modal verbs:

  • können – ability to do something
  • dürfen – have permission to do something
  • müssen – duty understood as an obligation to do something
  • sollen – duty but a little softer than müssen
  • wollen – want
  • mögen – wish

In German, the modal verb requires another verb that must be placed at infinity and at the end of the sentence.
In the case where the modal is followed by the infinity of a motion verb, this can be implied:


  • Ich muss jetzt nach Hause [gehen]. I have to go home now.
  • Laura will unbedingt nach Berlin [fahren]. Laura absolutely wants to go to Berlin.

Können and dürfen
The two verbs are translated with “can” but:

können is used when an opportunity, capacity, hypothesis or eventuality is to be expressed.


  • Hier kann man gut skifahren. Here one can ski well.
  • Ich kann skifahren. I can ski.
  • Es kann auch sein, dass er nicht zuhause war. It can also be that he wasn’t at home.

dürfen is used when a permit, prohibition (with negation) or negative order is to be expressed.


  • Hier dürfen Kinder spielen. Children can play here.
  • Hier darf man nicht rauchen. Here one may not smoke.
  • Du darfst nicht auf die Party gehen. You are not allowed to go to the party

Müssen e sollen
These two modal verbs are translated with “duty” but:

müssen is used to express an explicit duty or necessity.


  • Ich muss dringend nach Hause fahren. I must go home urgently.
  • Ich muss im Lexikon nachschauen. I must check the encyclopedia.

sollen is used to express a duty, follow a law, an assignment from someone else or a moral request.


  • Du sollst nicht stehlen. You’re not supposed to steal.
  • Du solltest mehr lernen. You should learn more.
  • Sie sollten weniger rauchen! You should smoke less!

Wollen e mögen
These two modal verbs are translated with “want” but the verb mögen is used as a modal verb in its forms of Konjunktiv II (möcht-).

wollen is used to express a will, a desire, a purpose or an intention.


  • Ich will dich heiraten. I want to marry you.
  • Ich will mich verbessern. I want myself to improve.

mögen is used to express a wish or a polite request.


  • Ich möchte gerne ins Kino gehen. I’d like to go to the cinema.
  • Was möchten Sie (gerne)? Ich möchte (gern) 200 gr Schinken. What would you like? I would like (gladly) 200 gr ham.

In this next video AnjaLearn German with Anja, explains what modal verbs are and how to use them, she also provides some very useful grammar notes:

Conjugate modal verbs with können, dürfen, müssen, sollen, wollen, mögen

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