The German verb dürfen often baffles students. They wonder how to translate it into English and how it is used in German. This blog post aims to answer both questions.
Dürfen is one of six modal verbs in the German language. It is widely translated into English as "may" yet not always used in quite the same way as the English verb, or "to be allowed to". The two most common ways of using the verb are in polite requests and permissions. Let's look at some examples.
Darf ich kurz das Fenster öffnen?
(May I quickly open the window)
Darf ich Ihnen noch ein Glas Wein einschenken?
(May I offer you a top-up for your wine)
Sie dürfen die Braut nun küssen
(You may now kiss the bride)
Hier darf man nicht rauchen
(One is not allowed to smoke here)
Things get a bit more complicated when dürfen is used with a negation. It then takes on a the meaning of moral or social obligation not to do something, like the English "must not".
Wir dürfen es nicht zulassen, dass Juden wieder verfolgt werden.
(We must not allow for jews to be persecuted again)
Oddly, in customer service interactions at, say, a supermarket dürfen is used in differently yet again. When a shopkeeper asks you: "Darf es sonst noch etwas sein?" He or she is asking if there is anything else they can offer you or help you with. So, as the last two examples indicated, the German verb dürfen is not quite the same as the English may, even though the two frequently overlap.
Other modal verbs that are usually confusing for German learners are möchten and mögen in German and the difference between the English must and the German müssen.