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How To Use German Modal Verbs and Give Your Spoken German A Boost

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

The category of modal verbs occupies a peculiar place among German verbs. For one thing, their conjugation deviates from other verbs in the language. For another, they normally require the existence of a main verb in infinitive form at the end of a sentence. However, they can be of great help when you want to get your spoken German off the ground. I’ll explain why below.



As I mentioned above, the first thing we need to clarify is the conjugation of the modal verbs and of course their exact translation. What all modal verbs have in common is that the first and third person singular share the same ending. This makes them unique among German verbs. There is only one tense where all verbs share this conjugation and that is the Präteritum or imperfect tense in German.




können

müssen

sollen

dürfen

wollen

möchten

mögen

ich

kann

muss

soll

darf

will

möchte

mag

du

kannst

musst

sollst

darfst

willst

möchtest

magst

er, sie, es, man

kann

muss

soll

darf

will

möchte

mag

wir

können

müssen

sollen

dürfen

wollen

möchten

mögen

ihr

könnt

müsst

sollt

dürft

wollt

möchtet

mögt

sie/Sie

können

müssen

sollen

dürfen

wollen

möchten

mögen

translation

can, to be able to

need to, have to

should, to be supposed to

may, be allowed to

to want to

would like to

to like

use

ability, opportunity

necessity

task, suggestion

polite request, permission

intention

wish

preference


Even though the table above shows seven verbs, strictly speaking the German language only knows six modal verbs because möchten is the subjunctive form (the conditional tense in German) of mögen.


With regard to their use, bear in mind that the German “müssen” should not be confused with the English “must”. Other common causes of confusion are between möchten and mögen, mögen and gern in German and on how to use dürfen in German, which I discuss at length in separate blog posts.


Let’s consider some examples for each of the modal verbs.


Ich kann sehr gut Englisch (sprechen).

(I can speak English very well)


Sie muss ihre Hausaufgaben machen, um ihr Deutsch zu verbessern.

(She needs to do her homework, in order to improve her German)


Soll ich Kaffee kochen?

(Should I make some coffee)


Was darf ich für Sie tun?

(How may I help you, literally: what may I do for you? NB. This is the common customer service phrase in German.)


Er will nächstes Jahr nach Brasilien reisen.

(He wants to travel to Brazil next year)


Ich möchte bitte noch ein Bier.

(I’d like to have another beer)


Wir mögen Bier und Wein.

(We like beer and wine)


What the previous examples show is that modal verbs are easy to use since the main verb is in infinitive form at the end of the sentence. The trick to use when speaking is that you need to send your idea of what you would like to say through a grammar filter that is made up of your modal verb and your main verb. Then consider the subject of your sentence and conjugate your modal verb accordingly, bearing in mind that it need to go second in terms of German word order, unless it's a yes or no question. The final step is to work your way through your sentence with the infinitive form of the main verb as your end point in view. Give it a try- you'll see that you'll find it a lot easier to speak in German.



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