How And When To Use German Modal Verbs

Können, müssen, wollen … if you’ve studied any German, you’ve almost definitely encountered these verbs already. They belong to the so-called modal verbs, also called  modal auxiliary verbs. German modal verbs are very practical, because you use them to modify the main verb in a sentence — that is, alter the content. What’s so great […]

Können, müssen, wollen … if you’ve studied any German, you’ve almost definitely encountered these verbs already. They belong to the so-called modal verbs, also called  modal auxiliary verbs. German modal verbs are very practical, because you use them to modify the main verb in a sentence — that is, alter the content.

What’s so great about German modal verbs? They’re super versatile. You can use them to express commands, politeness, even probability! In German, there are six modal verbs: können, müssen, sollen, dürfen, möchten and wollen. Let’s take a look at their conjugation and a few sample sentences.

The Six German Modal Verbs You Should Know

1. Wollen (“to want”)

ich will wir wollen
du willst ihr wollt
er/sie/es will sie/Sie wollen

Meaning: expresses purpose or desire

Example: Ich will dieses Jahr unbedingt nach Spanien reisen! (“I definitely want to travel to Spain this year!”)

Have you noticed? The modal verb goes in second position in the sentence. The main verb goes at the end.

Sometimes, you’ll also find sentences that only use the modal verb. When it’s obvious what the action in the sentence is, for example, the main verb is left off.

Example: Ich will ein Eis [essen]! (“I want [to eat] ice cream!”)

2. Möchten (“to wish”)

ich möchte wir möchten
du möchtest ihr möchtet
er/sie/es möchte sie/Sie möchten

Meaning: a form of mögen, or “to like.” With this verb, you express a wish. As such, it’s the polite variation of wollen

Example: Möchtest du ein Stück von dem Kuchen probieren? (“Would you like to try a piece of cake?”)

3. Müssen (“must”)

ich muss wir müssen
du musst ihr müsst
er/sie/es muss sie/Sie müssen

Meaning: the modal verb müssen expresses a need or a duty.

Example: Gleich kommen meine Eltern zu Besuch. Ich muss schnell die Wohnung aufräumen! (“My parents are coming to visit soon. I have to tidy up my flat!”)

Watch out! In some languages, including English, müssen is sometimes a false friend. For example, Du musst deine Wohnung nicht aufräumen. Du machst es nur, damit deine Eltern stolz auf dich sind, means, “You don’t need to tidy up your flat. You just do it to make your parents proud,” and not “You must not tidy up your flat.”

Sometimes we leave out the second part of the sentence so as not to be too direct, such as, for example, the expression Ich mus mal… do you know what’s missing here? Exactly! The right answer is Ich mus mal … (auf Toilette gehen), or “I have to go to the toilet.”

4. Dürfen (“may”)

ich darf wir dürfen
du darfst ihr dürft
er/sie/es darf sie/Sie dürfen

Meaning: dürfen expresses permission.

Example: Wow, ihr dürft auf der Autobahn ohne Tempolimit fahren? (Wow, you’re allowed to drive on the Autobahn without a speed limit?)

Have you asked yourself how you say “must not” in German? With nicht dürfen!

Example: Beeil dich! Hurry up! Wir dürfen den Bus nicht verpassen! We must not miss  the bus!

5. Können (“can”)

ich kann wir können
du kannst ihr könnt
er/sie/es kann sie/Sie können

Meaning: the modal verb können expresses possibility or ability.

Example: Ich kann alles schaffen, was ich mir vornehme. (“I can do anything I take on.”)

Können is the perfect verb for a positive mindset. You’ll also sound especially polite if you use können in the subjunctive:  Könntest du mir bitte helfen? (“Could you please help me?”)

Did you know? Most Romance languages have two words to distinguish between ability and politeness: savoir and pouvoir; saber and poder, etc. In German, there’s just the one. Practical, isn’t it?

6. Sollen (“should”)

ich soll wir sollen
du sollst ihr sollt
er/sie/es soll sie/Sie sollen

Meaning: sollen often expresses a goal. In the subjunctive, you use it to describe a request or recommendation.

Examples: Ich soll morgen das neue Konzept präsentieren, aber es gibt noch viel zu tun. (“I should present the new concept tomorrow, but there’s still a lot to do.”) Du solltest mir helfen, damit ich schneller fertig werde. (“You might want to help me, so that I can prepare faster.”)

…but there’s exceptions to every rule!

Now you know what the modal verbs mean. Simple, right? Maybe too simple… As always, there’s a catch. Modal verbs have another function, too. You can also use them to guess how something probably is — that is, express modality.

Let’s look at an example: You baked brownies yesterday, but this morning the baking sheet is empty! What happened?

When you’re almost certain (90% or higher): Dein Mitbewohner muss sie gegessen haben! (“Your flatmate must have eaten them!”) Aber das muss ein Versehen gewesen sein! (“But that must have been an oversight!”)

When you’re mostly sure (75%): Heute soll es sehr heiß werden. (“Today should be very hot.”) Vielleicht hat dein Mitbewohner sie in den Kühlschrank gestellt, damit sie nicht schlecht werden. (“Maybe your flatmate put them in the refrigerator, so that they wouldn’t go bad.”)

When it’s a coin flip (50%): Könnte es sein, dass die Katze die Brownies gegessen hat? (“Could it be, that the cat ate the brownies?”)

When it’s impossible (0%): Die Brownies können nicht einfach so verschwunden sein! (“The brownies couldn’t have just disappeared!”)

Now you can be sure: Ich kann die deutschen Modalverben! (“I can do German modal verbs!”)

This article was originally published on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.

The post How And When To Use German Modal Verbs appeared first on Babbel.

Source: Babbel