German modal verbs are one of those welcome areas where German and English feel very close. When “ich kann” means “I can”, “wir müssen” means “we must”, what’s not to like? Yes, here our common linguistic ancestry seems close to the surface, with English still forming questions the and negatives Germanic way. No “Do you can?” but a good, Germanic “Can you?”, “Kannst Du?” No “I don’t must” but “I must not”, “ich muss nicht”.
That’s great news and a huge help as we start out.
BUT….not so fast! For all the welcome parallels, there are differences between German and English modal verbs too.
This mega article is all about explaining the German modal verbs from the inside out, so that you start to “channel” their varied meanings and don’t get caught out trying to translate from the English. If you want a general overview of what’s easy and what’s difficult for the English speaker learning German, first check my post on just that topic.
Before we get started, if you’re an upper beginner German learner itching to become an independent learner who can really use German to get things done in your life, check out Dr P’s Weekly German Workouts: Into Intermediate. It’s my flagship ten-week mentored self-study course…and we cover modal verbs!
Enrolment for “Team September 2020” is open THIS WEEK ONLY, closing midnight at the end of Friday 18 September 2020 (London time). Head over to the enrolment page to find out more.
What are modal verbs?
First, what exactly ARE these modal verbs? They are sometimes formally called “modal auxiliaries”.
That sounds high falutin’ but when you break it down, it’s pretty clear: “modal” is about MOOD.
These verbs don’t express a state or action like “be”, “eat” or “run”. Modals express the ATTITUDE or STANDPOINT of the speaker towards a state or action, often connected to desire,likelihood, ability, permission or obligation.
Here are the are six modal verbs in German and their basic meaning: müssen (to have to), können (to be able to), dürfen (to be allowed to), wollen (to want) and sollen (to be supposed to).
They are “auxiliary” (from Latin auxilium, to aid) because they are used in relation to another verb which expresses the state or action itself. This is sometimes called the “dependent” verb, but it’s maybe simpler to call it the “main verb”
The same….yet different. The perils of translating directly from English modal verbs to German modal verbs
For all the superficial similarities between the English and German modal verb systems, there are important differences to be aware of too.
No! While the meanings in both languages do often overlap just in the way you’d expect, they are not always the same.
And then both within English and German, the range of meanings covered by each modal verb overlaps….and not always in the same way in the two languages.
An example of a potential source of confusion: the verb “may” in English can be translated by three of the German modals, depending on the meaning:
Er kann kommen = he may come (there’s a possibility)
Er mag kommen = he may come (he can come if he wants to, I don’t mind)
Er darf kommen = he may come (he is allowed to come)
And how about this example, where the one German sentence can be translated in two different ways in English (depending on context):
“Der Soldat soll mutig sein” = the soldier should be brave; the soldier is said to be brave.
Plus, there are lots of idiomatic usages of the modal verbs in both languages, which may not even be translated into the other with a modal verb at all.
In the second half of this piece, we’ll look at the overlapping range of meaning and usage of each modal verb in turn. We’ll also included some of those examples of idiomatic usage.
We do, of course, all tend to translate from English, especially at the beginning. So, throughout, we’ll also flag up some direct translation danger points.
As advanced learners we still need to be aware of these because of the subconscious influence English may continue to have on our German (what the specialists call “interlanguage”).
First, though, the overview.
The conjugation of the German modal verbs
Let’s begin with the conjugations, we’ll focus on KÖNNEN:
ich kann – du kannst – er/sie/es kann – wir können – ihr könnt – sie können
ich konnte – du konntest – er/sie/es konnte – wir konnten – ihr konntet – sie konnten
ich könnte – du könntest – er/sie/es könnte – wir könnten – ihr könntet – sie könnten
Past perfect (or “pluperfect”) subjunctive:
ich hätte können – du hättest können – er/sie/es hätte können – wir hätten können – ihr hättet können – sie hätten können
gekonnt or (the infinitive acting as part participle:) können
If you’re already a solid intermediate student, you’ll have noticed that the German modal verbs have a more or less full set of conjugations.
There are forms for all the tenses. There is an “indicative” and a “subjunctive” mood. They each have a pretty regular “past participle”(though also the infinitive as a second “past participle”).
All I’ve left out of the take is the present subjunctive (er könne) also a present participle. These aren’t used very much. All that’s lacking is an imperative form (except for “wollen”).
Should we English speakers be looking jealously at the Germans?
You see, in English we don’t have a full set of modals, ours are “defective”.
We don’t have infinitives: we have to say “to have to”/”to be obliged to”, not X to must X or X to ought X. We don’t have proper past tenses: X last year I must go to London X and have to resort to a roundabout way of expressing this: Last year I had to go to London. or past participles and have to express the idea in a more roundabout way.
We can’t use our modals in the future either: “X I won’t can eat tomorrow X” and have to say “I won’t be able to eat tomorrow.”
Some of the common mistakes that English speakers make using German modal verbs stem from the “incompleteness” of the English system, as we’ll see.
Next, an overview of the different modal verb tenses and moods with lots of examples
German modal verb tenses and moods in detail
Indicative, simple present and past tenses of the German modal verbs
Let’s start with some basic present (Präsens) or imperfect (Präteritum) indicatives, with dependent infinitive verbs (main verbs) in simple sentences:
Ich kann es tun = I can do it
Ich konnte es tun = I was able to/could do it
Er mag Eis essen = He likes to eat/eating icecream
Er mochte Eis essen = He liked to each icecream.
Wir wollen bald gehen = We want to go soon.
Wir wollten bald gehen = We wanted to go soon.
Indicative, compound tenses of the German modal verbs( present prefect, past and future)
Now the indicative compound tenses: present perfect, past perfect (or pluperfect) the usual pattern is auxiliary (haben) in the tense you want to express plus the verb in the past participle or, for the future with “werden” as auxiliary with the infinitive.
Let’s focus first on the present perfect (das Perfect):
Der Man hat kein Wasser trinken wollen = the man did not want to drink any water
(Compare without the modal: Der Man hat kein Wasser getrunken = the man hasn’t drunk and water/didn’t drink any water).
Notice that it’s when the modal is used to modify a verb in a compound tense the modal’s infinitive is used as the “past participle”. (So, not X Der Man hat kein Wasser trinken gewollt X).
Moving to the past perfect modals:
der Mann hatte kein Wasser trinken wollen, aber danach trank er doch ein Glas Wasser = the man had not wanted to drink any water, but then he did drink a glass of water after all.
ich hatte ihn am Freitag besuchen können, deswegen schaute ich am Samstag nicht bei ihm vorbei = I had been able to visit him on Friday, so I didn’t call by his place on Saturday.
In practice, the past perfect is rarely used. You’d be more likely to use imperfect modals with an additional indicator of the earlier time:
der Mann wollte zuerst kein Wasser trinken, aber danach trank er doch ein Glass Wasser.
ich konnte ihn am Freitag schon besuchen, deswegen schaute ich am Samstag bei ihm nicht vorbei.
Don’t forget that, as mentioned, you can also use modals with “werden” in the future where you can’t do this with the “will future” in English:
Ich werde es tun können = I shall be able to do it.
Sie werden dir bald sagen müssen = They will have to tell you soon.
While in spoken German the perfect tense (das Perfekt) is usually preferred over the imperfect (das Präteritum)(ich habe ihn gestern gesehen), when there’s a modal, the preference is flipped.
Usually the imperfect will be used in the spoken language:
“ich konnte ihn gestern sehen” will be preferred to
“ich habe ihn gestern sehen können”,
though both are grammatically correct.
Here’s something interesting:
In German (unlike English) modal verbs can also be used one their own (not to modify another verb).
It’s here that you use the regular past participle (except that the Umlaut disappears): ge-….-t.
Der Mann hat kein Wasser gewollt = The man didn’t want any water (modal verb not possible in English).
Ich habe es nicht gekonnt = I couldn’t do it/was not able to do it (“do” or whatever other dependent verb is needed X I have not can it X).
German modal verbs in the subjunctive (conditional)
Now from the indicative to the subjunctive mood.
The present subjunctive (Konjunktiv I), not included in our conjugation table for “können”, above, is mainly used in formal reported speech and we will leave it to one side for today.
For modal verbs, just as for other verbs, the two past subjunctive forms are used to for the two conditional forms. That’s to say, they express various forms of unreality, rather than purely “indicating” facts like the indicative.
For the modal verbs, the imperfect subjunctive is used to convey a present conditional sense:
ich könnte kommen = I should be able to come
er möchte kommen = he might come (though, depending on context, this would often be understood as “he wants to come”).
In German this is called Konjunktiv II – Präsens because, although the forms are based on the imperfect (but with the Umlaut), the meaning is not past.
Next: the past perfect subjunctive (also called the pluperfect subjunctive). This is used to convey conditionality in the past (hence its German name, Konjunktiv II – Vergangenheit).
This is a compound tense.
So, first remember the pattern for compound tenses that you’d use for verbs or expressing an action or state: haben/sein in their past subjunctive from (hätte, hättest; wäre, wärst etc.) plus the past participle (which is at the end of the sentence).
ich wäre gekommen = I would have come
ich hätte gesagt = I would have said
For our verbs expressing mood – our “modals” – it’s haben as auxiliary in the past subjunctives (Konjunktiv II – Präsens or Konjunktiv II – Vergangenheit). The modal infinitive comes at the very end of the sentence and, right before it, the infinitive of the dependent verb.
ich hätte essen können = I should have been able to eat
Sie hätte den Rock bügeln sollen = she ought to have/should have ironed the skirt (not X….das Ruck bügeln gesollt X).
Word order in German sentences with modal verbs
Modal verbs and word order in principal clauses (Hauptsätze)
You can see the pattern already: in the simple tenses (present, imperfect, imperfect subjunctive) the modal verb occupies the second place in the sentence, just as the main verb of action or state would have if there were no modal. The modal shunts the now “dependent” (main) verb to the end of the sentence:
Er wollte mich dorthin fahren = he wanted to drive me there
Ich muss sofort meinen Mann anrufen = I must ring my husband at once.
Ich möchte heute Abend ins Kino gehen = I want to go to the cinema tonight.
And with a question, the modal moves to the front as normal (and shunts the dependent verb to the end):
Darf ich morgen fragen? = May I ask tomorrow?
In the past “compound” tenses the auxiliary “hat”, “hattest”… or “hätte, hättest etc. is in second place as normal. It’s the same with the modal verbs in the future, but with the usual auxiliary “werden”. The modal is at the end and the dependent verb just in front of it.
Sie hat nach Hause fahren müssen = she had to drive home
Wir werden in zwei Tagen kommen können = we will be able to come in two days.
Modal verbs and word order in subordinate clauses (Nebensätze)
You know that the verb moves to the end of the sentence in the wonderful German “subordinate clauses” (Nebensätze).
Here again the modal behaves like the normal finite verb and hogs the limelight at the end, pushing the now dependent verb back a slot:
Ich weiss, dass er mich dorthin fahren wollte = I know that he wanted to drive me there
Wenn du diese Schuhe nicht tragen willst, ziehe die anderen an = if you don’t want to wear these shoes, put the others on
Obwohl ich hier bleiben darf, komme ich mit = although I am allowed/have permission to stay here, I’m going to come along
When you have a compound tense, the auxiliary or “Hilfsverbe” (haben or sein) moves from the very end to just in front of the infinitive of the dependent verb:
Es ist klar, dass sie nicht teilnehmen werden = it is clear, that they will not take part
Es ist klar, dass sie nicht werden teilnehmen dürfen = it is clear, that they won’t be allowed to take part (in conversational speech, the “werden” would often simply be dropped and the future implied)
Wenn er mir hätte helfen wollen, hätte er es getan = If he had wanted to help me, he would have done
(Note in the example above that English does not use a conditional in “if” or “when” clauses – it’s a common mistake that Germans make when speaking English: X If he would have wanted to help me X).
Er sagte mir, dass er warten würde = He told me that he would wait
Er sagte mir, dass er würde warten müssen = He told me, that he would have to wait
“Zu infinitives” and modal verbs
Remember that the modal itself is followed by the “bare” infinitive not the “zu” form:
Ich habe ihr geraten, hier zu bleiben = I advised/have advised her to stay here
Ich konnte nicht hier blieben = I could not/was not able to stay here (not X…hier zu bleibenX)
Ich muss Dir gratulieren = I must/ought to/should congratulate you (not ….X dir zu gratulieren)
“zu” pops up before the modal at the end of an “infinitive clause”.
Er scheint die Stadt verlassen zu wollen = it seems as if he wants to leave town
Different meanings of the German modal verbs and German modal verb idioms
The basic meaning of “können” is “to be able to”. But let’s dig deeper.
Ability or power to do something:
Du kannst singen = you can sing
Wir konnten gestern im Hotel nicht schlafen = we couldn’t sleep/were not able to sleep in the hotel.
Possibility of something happening (where in English we would use could or may):
Es kann noch regnen = it may still rain/it could still rain
Das kann sein = the could/may be so.
This possibility is weaker than the possibility that can be expressed with können and dürfen (see below).
However, you can strengthen it by adding “doch” or “wohl”, for example:
Das kann wohl sein = that could very well be true
Possibility of doing something:
Du kannst hier bleiben, aber lohnt es sich? = you can stay here but is it worth it?
Können Sie mir bitte sagen…. = Can/are you able to tell me….
Idioms using können
(ability to speak a language – without a dependent verb) ich kann Deutsch =
I can speak German
This reflects the original meaning of können as “to know how to”.
sie kann nichts dafür = she can’t help it
ich konnte nicht umhin zu (z.B.: sagen) = I couldn’t help/stop myself/fail to (saying/say)
Finally, beware the influence of English on your German:
It’s easy to mix up the past indicative (e.g. ich konnte, du konntest etc) with the past subjunctive (e.g. ich könnte, du könntest etc), because in English we often translate them both with “could” (because there isn’t a proper past form of “can”):
Als ich noch jung war, konnte ich schnell laufen = When I was still young I could run fast (I was able to run fast)
Wenn ich noch jung wäre, könnte ich schnell laufen = If I were/was young, I could run fast (I would be able to run fast)
The confusing “defectiveness” of can threatens to confuse us again when we are trying to use the German imperfect conditional (i.e. using the pluperfect subjunctive)
With English sentences like “I ought to have said”, “I could have said it” the temptation is to say: “ich könnte es gesagt haben” but the correct way is “ich hätte es sagen können”.
That’s interference from English, because we don’t have a past form for “can”, we use the present conditional “could” with the past participle (here “said”) to signal the past.
The English pattern we need to keep in mind as a control is what you’d say with “to be able to”, which we can conjugate fully in English.
“I could have said it” = “I should HAVE BEEN able to say it” = ich hätte es sagen können
The basic meaning is “to like” but that’s just a starting point.
Possibility (moving towards probability):
Das mag wohl wahr sein = that could well be true
Es mag zu spät sein, die Welt zu retten = it could quite possibly be too late to save the World
The degree of possibility or probability here is stonger than the use of “können” for possibility (see above), but not as strong as imperfect subjunctive “dürfen” for possibility, see below).
The probability can often also convey a sense of the indifference of the speaker:
Das mag sein = that may be so, that could be the case (for all I care)
Er mag es gesagt haben = he could have said it (I don’t know)
Was auch geschehen mag = whatever happens/may happen
A liking for doing something/fondness (often with “gern”):
Ich mag das Buch nicht = I don’t like the book
Er mag heute nicht spielen = He doesn’t want to play today.
Ich mag gern Pizza = I really like/love pizza
Wir mögen gern reisen = we really like/love travelling
Früher mochte ich gern tanzen gehen = I used to like going dancing
Ich hätte gern mitgehen mögen = I should have like to have gone along
The imperfect subjunctive where we would say “want”, “would” or (with “lieber”) “would rather” in English:
Ich möchte heute Abend ins Kino gehen = I want to go to the cinema tonight.
Möchten Sie mit mir einen Spaziergang machen = Would you like to go for a walk with me?
Möchten Sie bitte einen Moment warten? = Would you wait a minute please?
Ich möchte lieber ins Theater gehen = I’d rather go to the theatre.
The imperfect subjunctive is to report a request or command politely*:
This is quite an idiomatic use.
Frau Schmidt hat angerufen. Du möchtest sie bitte zurück rufen = Frau Schmidt phoned. Could you please call her back/She asked that you call her back
In a similar vein, mögen can, in the imperfect subjunctive, give a sense of a polite assertion:
Sie möchten sich wohl irren = maybe you’re mistaken (I think you probably well might be)
Permitting (or not):
Meinetwegen mag er bleiben = for all I care, he may stay
With “however”, “whatever” (“concessive clauses”):
“Er mag so schnell laufen wie er will, der Hund wird noch schneller sein” = He can run as fast as he likes, the dog will still get there quicker”
Wie schwierig es auch sein mag, ich will Deutsch lernen = However difficult it is/may be, I want/am determined to learn German
Was immer auch geschehen mag, ich gebe nicht auf = Whatever happens, I won’t give up
To express a wish (instead of a subjunctive) in rather archaic language or set phrases:
Möge Gott dich segnen = Gott segne dich = (May) God bless you!
At root, dürfen is “to be allowed to” but let’s enter the “dürfen” spirit!
Darf man in diesem Waggon anrufen? Can (i.e. may) I make calls in this carriage?
Warum bist du nicht mitgekommen? Ich durfte nicht. = Why didn’t you come with us? I wasn’t allowed (e.g. my parents wouldn’t let me, I was at work or whatever).
A polite “may”:
Darf ich Ihnen eine Frage stellen? Can (may) I ask you a question?
Darf ich um eine Flasche Wasser bitten? May I ask for a bottle of water?
Even more politely, you could use the imperfect subjunctive:
Dürfte ich Ihnen eine Frage stellen? Might (could) I ask you a question?
Then, with “nur” you can express “you need only to”:
Sie dürfen nur anrufen und ich schaue sofort vorbei = You need only to ring and I’ll call round.
Possibility, modestly asserted (but stronger than können and mögen)(imperfect subjunctive):
Das dürfte sein = that may/might/could be true (I agree)
Sie dürfen sich irren = you’re making a mistake (I think)
Be careful with “must not” and “cannot” when they mean “not allowed to”.
Here, you need to use “dürfen” and not “können”, although in colloquial English we often use “can” or “could” when, strictly, we mean “may” or “might”:
Nehmen Sie ein Bier mit dem Abendessen? Nein, ich darf nicht = Would you like a beer with dinner? No, I mustn’t (e.g. my doctor has banned it, I’ve given up the booze for January etc.)
If you remember just one thing from this post, I’d say that should be it! Sie möchten sich an dies erinnern! (Polite command from me to you*) :0
To finish, a very useful idiom you’re bound to hear from shop attendents:
Was darf es sein? Literally “what may it be” i.e. “How can I help you?”.
At root, müssen means “to have to”. It’s necessity or compulsion arising from the very nature of things or the situation. This will often be something arising independent of the person’s will but it may be something you feel very strongly that you should do:
Ich muss sofort gehen = I have to go at once
Er hat spät im Büro arbeiten müssen = He had to work late at the office.
However, this can also shade off into a (strong) possibility:
Er muss reich sein, weil er drei Autos hat. = He must be rich, because he’s got three cars.
Ist ist vor drei Stunden mit dem Zug abgefahren. Er muss jetzt angekommen sein. = He left by train three hours ago. He must have arrived by now.
Look at these two (for English speakers) easily confused sentences to illustrate the necessity as against possibility:
Sie hat es bezahlen müssen = She had to pay for it/has paid for it (necessity)
Sie muss es bezahlt haben = She must have paid for it (strong possibility)
Expresses the “will”, what somebody wants to do:
Ich will Deutsch besser sprechen = I want to speak German better.
Er wollte nicht sagen = He didn’t want to say
Ich habe es nicht machen wollen = I didn’t want to do it
It can also express the immediate future:
Ich will es gleich holen = I’ll fetch it now
Es will regnen = it’s about to rain
Ich wollte eben ins Bett gehen, als er angerufen hat = I was about to go to bed, when he phoned.
Making a claim about something:
Er will es gestern gesagt haben = he claims that he said it yesterday (though I don’t know whether or not it’s true, there’s room for doubt).
Don’t confuse this with “er hat es gestern sagen wollen” (he wanted to say it yesterday).
Expressing a wish or desire without a dependent infinitive:
Wollen can also be used in the same way as English “Let’s!”:
“Wir wollen gehen!” = “Gehen wir!” = “Let’s go!”.
Polite questions and requests:
Remember that “will” in English is used as the auxiliary verb for the future = He’ll get up at six tomorrow where in German you’d either use the present or use “werden”.
When “will” in English expresses a wish, use wollen:
“Wollen Sie jetzt oder erst später bezahlen?” = “Would you like to pay now or later?”
“Wollen Sie bitte Platz nehmen?” = “Will you please take a seat?”
In this sense of “wollen”, “mögen” often does the job too.
Sollen is all about “external” moral compulsion: “to be supposed to”.
Er sollte den Flug nehmen = he ought to take the flight
Er hätte den Flug nehmen sollen = he ought to have taken the flight
Er hätte nicht lügen sollen = he shouldn’t have lied.
Kinder, ihr sollt früh ins Bett gehen = Children, you should/must go to bed early.
The examples above use the perfect or imperfect subjunctive. If you use the present indicative, you get a stronger command:
Er soll die Hausaufgaben fertig schreiben! = He should/is to finish the homework (whether he wants to or not)!
Du sollst nicht stehlen! = Thou shallt not steal!/You must not steel.
In the past or imperfect subjunctive sollen can also express moral obligation:
Der König sollte für das Volk sorgen = The king ought to look after the people.
Man hätte uns warnen sollen = they ought to have warned us/we ought to have been/should have been warned.
Expressing a promise:
Sie sollen einen Anruf von meiner Tochter bekommen = you will get a call from my daughter
(The native English speaker might think this means “you ought to get a call from my daughter” but it feels a bit stronger)
To report a rumour:
Das Mädchen soll krank sein = they say the girl’s ill/I’ve heard that the girl is ill.
Wer soll das gesagt haben? = who’s supposed to have said that?
Sollte er vielleicht verreist sein? = Has he perhaps left town/gone away on a journey?
Er soll es gut schaffen = I should manage it.
wenn er kommen sollte, würden wir uns sehr freuen = if he should come/if he comes, we’d be very pleased/we’d be thrilled
Vanishing verbs of motion
We’ve already seen the phrase “Ich kann Deutsch”. “Du kannst gut Deutsch auch!” the dependent verb “sprechen” is often left unsaid.
Verbs of motion are also often omitted with modal verbs:
Ich muss jetzt ins Büro = I have to go to the office now.
Wohin wollen Sie? = Where do you want to go?
Phew! What next?
Congratulations if you’ve read this far. You’ve got what it takes to master the modals! 🙂
As I said at the beginning, a comprehensive overview of conjugations and word order is not as something to try to apply on the fly or as a “monitor” that hampers you as you speak.
It’s all about sharpening up your powers of noticing as you listen and read German.
In the same way, by flagging up some of the confusions that could come from your English-addled brain my aim has to make you better at noticing real live chunks of language.
It’s those you need to learn, so that they are the tip of your tongue in real conversations.
In the end, the key is to learn in context. Pay particular attention to my example sentences and start collecting your own. As you build up layers of experience, you’ll start to develop a feel for the modals from within your our German universe.
Crushing B1 German with “Dr P’s Weekly German Workouts: Into Intermediate”
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