German Modal Verbs

Beginner German - Level A1

Overview

The modal verbs in German are dürfen (be allowed to/may), können (be able to/can), mögen (to like/may), müssen (to have to/must), sollen (to ought to/should) and wollen (to want to). Modal verbs express ability, necessity, obligation, permission or possibility.

Vocabulary

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German A1

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German Modal Verbs

Modal verbs modify the content of the main verb of the sentence (i.e. the way or how something is done). The conjugated modal verb is in the second position of the sentence, the verb in the infinitive is at the end of the sentence.

In the example below, the modal verb “wollen” (to want) changes the meaning of the sentence and is conjugated and placed in second position. The main verb “spielen” (to play) is moved to the end of the sentence in its infinitive form.

Beispiel:

Der Junge spielt gern Fußball.                    The boy likes to play soccer.

Der Junge will Fußball spielen.                   The boy wants to play soccer.

Note that, in the first sentence, the adverb “gern” is added to indicate a like for an activity (soccer); however, the adverb comes directly after the main verb and does not change the placement of the verb “spielen.” By contrast, the second sentence includes the modal verb “wollen” conjugated (“will”) in the second position, which “kicks” the main verb (“spielen”) to the end of the sentence.

Modal verbs in German are conjugated differently than other verbs in the present tense — most notably in the case of the first- and third-person singular forms. Each of these two forms drops an ending ("e" and "t," respectively) and are identical. Note that, unlike in the present tense of most verbs, the first-person or ‘ich’ form of modal verbs exhibits a stem-vowel change.

The table below provides the present tense conjugations of the modal verbs.

ModalverbsinPresent

The modal verbs have similar meanings to their English counterparts:

wollen – to want to

können – can, to be able to

müssen – must, to have to

sollen – shall, to be supposed to

dürfen – may, to be permitted/allowed to

mögen – may, to like

The modal verb “sollen” is not translated here as “should,” even though in English it is often used interchangeably with indicative and subjunctive (e.g. I am supposed to clean the kitchen (indicative = obligation) VS. I should clean the kitchen before it becomes a total mess (subjunctive = hypothetical)). Native speakers often use “should” in place of “supposed to,” but in German there is a difference between using “sollen” (indicative) and “sollten” (subjunctive).

Another nuanced meaning to be clarified is “mögen.” This modal verb appears to be readily substituted for “dürfen” because of the definition “may”; however, this is not the case. When using the modal verb “mögen” to mean “may,” it is typically part of an idiom (e.g. es mag sein / it may be;  wie immer es sein mag / as the case may be). The English modal “might” is typically constructed in German using a form of “können,” not unlike another English equivalent: “it might be” is essentially the same as “it could be.”

Examples:

Er will in das Restaurant gehen. / He wants to go to the restaurant.

Ich kann (nicht) gut kochen. / I can (not) cook well.

Du kannst (sehr) schlecht hören. / You can (not) hear well.

Sabine muss ein Auto kaufen. / Sabine has to buy a car.

Peter soll das Auto waschen. / Peter should wash the car.

Der Vater soll das Fahrrad reparieren. / The father should repair the bike.

Du darfst den Rasen mähen. / You can/may cut the lawn.

Ich mag das schöne Wetter. / I like good weather.

Wir mögen den neuen Kinofilm. / We like the new movie.

 

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Modal verbs are a special class of verbs. You will most likely always use and find them in company with another verb. The six modal verbs in German are: dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen, wollen.

 

Deutsch-Stunde: Modal verbs in German

Freizeit und Hobbys

Hallo. Mein Name ist Karl, und ich habe viele Hobbys. Am Wochenende gehe ich gern im Tegelersee schwimmen. Ich fahre jeden Wochentag mit dem Rad zur Uni. Ich liebe mein Fahrrad, denn ich kann überall damit hinfahren. Manchmal fahre ich nach Potsdam oder weiter ausserhalb von Berlin. 

Ich lese auch sehr gern, besonders über Philosophie und deutsche Literatur. Mein Lieblingsphilosoph ist Hans-Georg Gadamer. Sein Traktat, Wahrheit und Methode, ist ziemlich kompliziert aber interessant. Allerdings lese ich am liebsten die Romane von Robert Menasse. Seine Trilogie der Entgeisterung spielt mit philosophischen Ideen und ist absolut fantastisch!

Ich mag Musik hören. Ich kann gut Gitarre spielen, und ich will eines Tages eine Band gründen. Ich habe früher Klavier gelernt, aber ich habe viel schon vergessen. Ich muss ein bisschen mehr üben.

Ausserdem wandere ich gern in Wäldern und den Bergen. Ich möchte im Sommer den Kungsleden (Königspfad) in Schweden wandern. Ich liebe es, in der Natur zu sein.

Vocabulary
das Hobby, -s          hobby
der Wochentag, -e   weekday
der Philosoph, -e      philosopher
der Traktat, -e           treatise
die Wahrheit, -en      truth
der Roman, -e          novel
die Band, -s              band (of musicians)
das Klavier, -e           piano
der Wald, -̈er             forest / wood(s)
der Berg, -e               mountain
der Königspfad          the King's Trail

überall                        everywhere
ausserhalb                 outside of
besonders                   especially
allerdings                    however / indeed
eines Tages                someday / one day

gründen                      to found/establish/start up
vergessen                   to forget
üben                            to practice
verweilen                     to linger/stay/tarry

Questions
A. Answer the following questions about the content of the above text.
1. What does Karl like to do on the weekends?
2. What does he especially like about his bike?
3. What topic(s) does Karl like to read about?
4. What are Karl's goals or plans related to music?
5. What else does he like to do in his free time?

B. Answer the questions about grammar below.
1. Which modal verbs are found in this text? List them in their infinitive forms.
2. Some adverbs of time are found in the text. What happens when to sentence order when they occur at the beginning of a sentence?
3. Where do the infinitives of the main verbs go in sentences containing modal verbs?
4. Does Karl plan to hike the King's Trail in the summer or did he previously hike it? What grammatical evidence supports your answer?
5. In the above text, what does "gern" mean?

Answers:
A.
1. He likes to go swimming in Lake Tegel (Tegelersee).
2. He can ride all over the Berlin area and beyond.
3. Karl likes reading about philosophy.
4. He would like to start up a band and improve his piano playing.
5. Karl also likes to hike and spend time in nature.

B.
1. können, mögen, müssen, wollen
2. The subject is moved from the first to third position (i.e. after the verb).
3. The infinitives go at the end of sentences containing modal verbs.
4. Karl is planning to hike the King's Trail in the coming summer, as indicated by the verb "would like" (möchte).
5. "gern" is paired with verbs to mean "to like to [verb]" (e.g. gern lesen = "like to read").

 

A. Conjugate the modal verbs for each sentence below.


1. Wir _____ (müssen) für unsere Reise planen.

2. _____ (können) du Deutsch?

3. Ihr _____ (sollen) euren Eltern für die Geschenke danken.

4. Er _____ (wollen) heute nicht arbeiten.

5. _____ (dürfen) ich eine Frage stellen?

6. Diana _____ (mögen) Schwarzbrot.

7. Ich _____ (müssen) bald gehen.

8. _____ (wollen) Sie mitkommen?

9. Jan _____ (können) Klavier spielen.

10. Konrad _____ (sollen) gesünder essen.


B. Which modal verb fits best?


1. Ich muss / darf  hier nicht parken.

2. Herr Meier, Sie sollen / können sich öfter entspannen. Sie haben zu viel Stress!

3. Warum kannst / magst du Pizza?

4. Kinder, ihr müsst / wollt ruhiger sein!

5. Peter muss / kann nicht schwimmen.

6. Willst / Sollst du ins Kino gehen?
 
Answers:
A. 1. müssen  2. Kannst  3. sollt  4. will  5. Darf  6. mag  7. muss  8. Wollen  9. kann  10. soll
B. 1. darf  2. sollen  3. magst  4. müsst  5. kann  6. Willst
 
 

Listen to the audio and try to answer the following questions.

 

Questions

  1. Which modal verbs were used?
  2. Who speaks Spanish well?
  3. Why does he need to learn Spanish?
  4. Why does he like conferences?
  5. Where and when is the conference?

 Answers

  1. können (ich kann), wollen (ich will), können (ich kann), können (ich kann), wollen (ich will), müssen (ich muss), sollen (Ich soll), wollen (Meine Arbeit will), mögen (Ich mag)
  2. His girlfriend speaks Spanish well.
  3. His work wants him to attend a conference.
  4. He likes conferences because one gets to meet new people.
  5. The conference is in Mexico in December.
 

Transcript

Ich kann nicht sehr gut Spanisch. Ich will es aber lernen. Ich habe zwei mal die Woche Spanischunterricht. Ich kann vieles verstehen, aber ich kann noch nicht gut sprechen. Meine Freundin spricht sehr gut Spanisch, und sie hilft mir beim Lernen. Ich will besser werden, aber ich muss mehr üben. Ich soll im Dezember nach Mexico fliegen. Es findet dort eine Konferenz statt. Meine Arbeit will mich dort hin schicken. Ich mag Konferenzen. Man lernt immer so viele neue Menschen kennen. Also, üben ist angesagt! Man sagt ja: „Übung macht den Meister!“

Vocabulary

üben – to practice
die Übung(en) – practice, the exercise

fliegen – to fly
stattfinden – to take place
dort – there
hinschicken – to send there
die Konferenz(en) – the conference
kennenlernen – to meet, to get to know
ansagen – to announce, declare
angesagt – announced (Es ist angesagt – It's on the agenda)
der Meister(-) – the master/pro
Übung macht den Meister – lit: Practice makes the master, practice makes perfect

 

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