Unit 10: Modal Verbs

1. Modal Verbs

The modal verbs are those verbs which express a mood, such as “like to” or “want to.” The German modal verbs and their basic meanings are:

dürfen to be allowed to (in the sense of permission)
können to be able to (in the sense of ability)
müssen to have to
mögen to like to
sollen to be supposed to
wollen to want to

Present Tense

The modal verbs are irregular in the present tense singular but act like any other verb in the plural. Thus, for example, dürfen conjugates as:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich darf wir dürfen
2nd du darfst ihr dürft
3rd er/sie/es darf sie/Sie dürfen

Similarly, the other modal verbs also change their stem in the singular conjugations (except for sollen). In the list below, you will also note that all modal verbs also have no verb ending in the first and third person singular present-tense forms (ich / er / sie / es). As you may recall from Unit 2, wissen is the only non-modal verb that shares this pattern.

 The following list demonstrates the irregular singular root of each modal verb and also provides typical translations of each verb:

Infinitive Example Typical Translations
dürfen er darf he is allowed to / he may / he can
können er kann he is able to / he can
müssen er muss he has to / he must / he is required to
mögen er mag he likes to / he enjoys
sollen er soll he is supposed to / he should
wollen er will he wants to

Example sentences:

Amerikaner unter 21 Jahren dürfen keine alkoholischen Getränke kaufen.
Americans unter 21 years may not buy alcoholic drinks.

Wer kann mir helfen?
Who can help me?

Der Student muß fleißig lernen. [Note: muß is the pre-1996 spelling of muss.]
The student has to study hard.

Meine Töchter mögen nicht laute Musik hören.
My daughters don’t like to listen to loud music.

Was soll man mit diesem Gerät tun können?
What is one supposed to be able to do with this device?

Mein Sohn will ins Kino gehen.
My son wants to go to the cinema.

In the example above for “sollen,” you can see three verbs. Sollen is conjugated, but tun können are two infinitives. This construction is often called a “double-infinitive.” Translating this into English is simple enough, since the infinitives remain infinitives in English, too.

In general, the dependent infinitive, such as aufräumen or gehen in the examples above, appears in final position in the clause. Note the position of the infinitives in the following example:

Er will nicht sagen, ob er morgen zur Schule gehen muß.
He doesn’t want to say whether he has to go to school tomorrow.

Simple Past Tense

The simple past forms of the modals are formed like regular verbs except that they drop their umlaut. Using the third person singular and plural as our examples:

Infinitive 3rd-person
Singular, Plural
General Translations
dürfen durfte, durften (was / were) allowed to
können konnte, konnten (was / were) able to
müssen musste, mussten had to
mögen mochte, mochten liked to (Note the change from g to ch.)
sollen sollte, sollten (was / were) supposed to
wollen wollte, wollten wanted to

Sample sentences:

Wir wollten nach Hause gehen.
We wanted to go home.

Der Ingenieur mußte die Maschine reparieren. [Note: mußte is the pre-1996 spelling of musste.]
The engineer had to repair the machine.

Perfect Tenses

The auxiliary verb of the modals is haben. In the formation of both the present and past perfect tenses of the modal verbs we are introduced to a variation on the “double infinitive” phenomenon. Rather than a past participle, you will see the infinitive form of the modal next to the dependent infinitive.

Present perfect:

Die Studentin hat diese ganze Woche fleißig lernen müssen.
The (woman) student has had to study hard this entire week.

Past perfect:

Der Ingenieur hatte die Maschine am Sonntag reparieren können.
The engineer had been able to repair the machine on Sunday.

Note that the modal perfect tenses affect the position of the auxiliary verb when it is in a subordinate clause. Instead of appearing at the very end of the clause as usual, it will appear before the double infinitive, and even before an adverb, if there is one. The auxiliary verb is bolded in these examples:

Present perfect:

Die Studentin beklagte, daß sie diese ganze Woche hat fleißig lernen müssen.
The (woman) student complained that she has had to study hard this entire week.

Past perfect:

Die Fabrik funktionierte weiter, da der Ingenieur die Maschine am Sonntag hatte reparieren können.
The factory continued to function because the engineer had been able to repair the machine on Sunday.

Future Tense

To form the future tense of the modal we use werden and its forms as we do for all future tenses. Thus, using our sentences from the present tense, we have in the future tense:

Der Student wird fleißig lernen müssen.
The student will have to study hard.

Mein Sohn wird ins Kino gehen wollen.
My son will want to go to the cinema.

Again the dependent infinitives go into final position. The difference between the structure of the future and perfect tenses is that the future uses werden and its forms, the perfect tenses haben and its forms.


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A Foundation Course in Reading German by Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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