Modal verbs in German are essential to daily conversations. They are used for ordering in a restaurant, meeting up with a friend, talking about your strengths, and describing what you have to, want to or are allowed to do.
Usually, a verb is a word that expresses physical or mental actions (e.g., to work, to think), or states of being (e.g., to exist). Modal verbs modify (hence their name), relativise and/or concretise these actions or states. They add lots of different meanings, typically to the main verb of a sentence. They are used for expressing what you want or like to do, what needs to be done, and what one is or isn't allowed to do. So, it is a no-brainer that they are essential to daily conversations.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the German modal verbs and learn what each of them means, how they are used and how to change (conjugate) them correctly to make them fit in a sentence. We will also tell you how to structure sentences, form questions and practise using German modal verbs efficiently.
German modal verbs and their meanings
German modal verbs are typically used to add meaning to or modify the main verb of a sentence, and there are several common modal verbs that are important to know.
1. Können (to be able to, can)
Similar to the English modal verb “can”, with können, you express what you’re capable of doing and if it is possible for you to do something:
- Ich kann Tennis spielen. (I can play tennis).
- Ich kann nicht kommen. (I can’t come.)
You can also ask for permission with können:
- Kann ich hier rauchen? (May I smoke in here?)
- Kann ich mal Ihren Stift haben? (May I have your pen?)
And you can express doubt, as you may do in English:
- Das kannst du nicht ernst meinen! (You cannot be serious!)
2. Müssen (to have to, must)
When you have to do something, you will normally use the modal verb müssen. Together with the negation nicht, it means that something is not necessary.
- Ich muss das Auto putzen. (I have to clean the car.)
- Du musst nicht aufräumen. (You don’t have to clean up.)
Good to know: The English form “musn't” that expresses that something is forbidden (“You mustn't smoke in here!”) does NOT apply to German!
Müssen can also be used to express a firm assumption:
- Wer ist das denn? – Das muss unser neuer Chef sein. (Who is this? – That must be our new boss.)
3. Dürfen (to be allowed to)
When talking about rules, you will need the verb dürfen. You can use it to express what you’re allowed and what you’re not allowed to do:
- Ich darf mit seinem Auto fahren. (I am allowed to drive his car).
- Du darfst hier nicht rauchen. (You must not smoke here.)
4. Sollen (to be supposed to, should)
If you are supposed to or should do something, you will use sollen:
- Ich soll mehr Gemüse essen. (I should eat more vegetables).
- Ich soll Milch kaufen. (I’m supposed to buy milk).
It can also be used to express doubt or a rumour or for asking for advice:
- Das soll eine frische Tomate sein? (Is this supposed to be fresh tomato? No way!)
- Peter soll eine neue Freundin haben. (Peter is said to have a new girlfriend.)
- Soll ich diese Jeans kaufen? (Shall I/Should I buy these jeans?)
It can also be used to pass on the wish(es) of a third person:
- Ilona, du sollst zum Chef kommen. (Ilona, you are to see the boss.)
5. Wollen (to want to, to wish)
To refer to something you really strongly and firmly want to do or wish, you use wollen:
- Ich will ins Kino gehen. (I want to go to the movies).
- Ich will Deutschlehrer werden. (I want to become a German teacher).
It can also be used to label a statement as doubtful:
- Er will ein guter Fahrer sein? (Does he really claim to be a good driver?)
6. Möchten (to want to, would like to)
The polite way of asking for something is to use möchten instead of wollen. Germans usually add the word bitte (please) after möchten to kick things up a notch on the politeness scale.
- Ich möchte Eis essen. (I would like to eat ice cream.)
- Wir möchten bitte bestellen. (We would like to order, please.)
It can also be used to pass on a request:
- Sag Laura, sie möchte bitte das Buch zurückgeben. (Please tell Laura to return the book.)
Note: Möchten is a special case of the verb mögen which means to like. Since mögen is hardly ever used in combinations with a second verb anymore, we will not go into it.
7. Nicht brauchen zu (not need to)
The “normal” verb brauchen (to need) can be combined with nouns Ich brauche einen Stift(I need a pen.) It is therefore not a real modal verb, but in combination with a second verb and “nicht”, it can be used like a modal verb to say what isn't necessary. In that sense it is a synonym of the combination müssen + nicht. German native speakers use both forms, but often prefer the combination with brauchen.
- Du brauchst nicht zu kommen. = Du musst nicht kommen. (You don`t need to come.)
In spoken German some even leave the "zu" out and say: “Du brauchst nicht kommen.” This might be acceptable in spoken language but not in writing.
Remember that this works in negative sentences ONLY.
Tip: Many useful German phrases for dining out also include modal verbs. You'll find them in our article on 29 common German phrases!
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With our free online German language course, you can start mastering more than just modal verbs. Why not keep learning today?
How to conjugate the modal verbs in German
To conjugate means to change a verb so it works in your sentence. As modal verbs are pretty ancient (from a linguistic point of view) they only follow the modern grammar pattern to a limited extent and are usually quite irregular. But no worries! German natives never make any mistakes in using these verbs, so you will always hear the correct forms when listening to natives.
Since modal verbs have some irregularities, you will have to study how to change them. The good news is: Most of their forms are easier because the ones for ich and er/sie/es are identical and do not need any ending.
Look at the following comparison of the conjugations of the verb lernen (to learn/to study) and the modal verb sollen (should, supposed to).
Regular vs. German modal verb conjugations
|Personal pronoun||lernen (regular verb)||sollen (modal verb)|
Let’s have a look at the modal verb wollen (to wish, to want to). The endings are the same as the endings of sollen, but the vowel “o” changes to “i” in the singular forms.
Keep in mind that the will-form can be confusing for English speakers because of the obvious similarity to the English word “will”.
Tip: Want to learn more about German letters, their use and pronunciation? You'll find all this in our article on the German alphabet.
Conjugation for wollen (to wish, to want to)
Similarly, the other modal verbs have some specifics in their changed forms. You already know their endings; however, in the singular forms (ich, du, er/sie/es), the vowel changes and the _Umlaut (ä, ö, ü)_ disappears.
Other German modal verb conjugations
Only möchten and (nicht) brauchen have a slightly different conjugation. The modal verb möchten gets to keep the Umlaut, the typical ending for ich and an -e ending added to er/sie/es. (This is because it descends from mögen originally.) The verb brauchen is conjugated as any other “normal” or regular verb.
Conjugation of möchten (must, have to) and (nicht) brauchen (not need to)
|Personal pronoun||möchten||(nicht) brauchen|
|ich||möchte||brauche nicht zu|
|du||möchtest||brauchst nicht zu|
|er/sie/es||möchte||braucht nicht zu|
|wir||möchten||brauchen nicht zu|
|ihr||möchtet||braucht nicht zu|
|sie/Sie||möchten||brauchen nicht zu|
German modal verbs and word order
To use German modal verbs correctly in a sentence, we always place the infinitive form (the one you would find in a dictionary list) of the main verb at the end of the sentence. This means that between the two verbs (the modal verb and the main verb) additional information will be “sandwiched“.
This “frame” of verbs is absolutely typical for German, and as you can imagine it makes interpreting really hard as the interpreter usually has to wait till the very end of a long, long sentence to fully understand what it is about.
- Ich will verreisen. (I want to travel).
- Ich will nächstes Jahr verreisen. (I want to travel next year.)
- Ich will nächstes Jahr mit dem Auto verreisen. (I want to travel by car next year.)
- Ich will nächstes Jahr endlich einmal länger als nur zwei Wochen verreisen. (Next year, I finally want to go away for longer than just two weeks.)
Shortened sentences with German modal verbs
Although German modal verbs are mostly used together with the main verb in the infinitive form, there are some situations where the main verb can be omitted.
- Ich will Pommes (haben). (I want (to have) French fries.)
- Ich kann Deutsch (sprechen). (I can (speak) German.)
- Ich möchte ein Glas Wasser (trinken). (I would like (to drink) a glass of water.)
Forming questions using German modal verbs
To create a question using a modal verb, the modal verb goes at the beginning of the sentence (or comes right after the interrogative pronoun like Was? Wer? etc.) and the main verb goes at the end.
- Willst du mit mir ins Kino gehen? (Do you want to go to the movies with me?)
- Kannst du mir bitte helfen? (Can you please help me?)
- Wohin musst du heute fahren? (Where do you have to go today?)
Negative sentences with German modal verbs
To negate modal verbs, we simply add the word nicht (not) mostly after the modal verb.
- Meine Katze möchte nicht auf dem Sofa schlafen. (My cat does not want to sleep on the couch.)
- Sie will nicht nach Hause gehen. (She does not want to go home.)
Practising German modal verbs
The moment you start working on modal verbs, you probably already have learned some other "normal" verbs. So, there is a great way to practise your modal verbs, simply by combining them with the verbs you know.
Let's see how this looks with fahren (drive, go):
- ich kann fahren
- ich soll fahren
- ich will fahren
- ich muss fahren
- ich möchte fahren
- ich darf fahren
- ich brauche nicht zu fahren
The example list above is your guide for remembering their use and for building longer sentences.
Now you can try to form sentences as presented below:
- Ich kann morgen fahren. (I can drive/go tomorrow.)
- Ich soll morgen nach Hause fahren. (I am supposed to drive home tomorrow.)
- Ich will heute nicht nach Berlin fahren. (I don`t want to drive to Berlin today.)
- Ich muss für ein paar Tage zu meinen Eltern fahren. (I have to go and see my parents for a couple of days.)
- Ich möchte im nächsten Sommer wahnsinnig gern nach Schottland fahren. (I would absolutely love to go to Scotland next summer.)
- Ich darf ab nächste Woche täglich mit dem E-Bike meines Freundes zur Arbeit fahren. (From next week on, I may go to work by my boyfriends e-bike.)
- Ich brauche morgen Abend nicht mit dem neuen LKW zu meinen Freunden in die Tschechische Republik zu fahren. (Tomorrow night, I don`t need to go to the Czech Republic on the new lorry to see my friends.)
Don`t worry, for now you do not need to build such endless sentences by yourself. The examples are only supposed to demonstrate how huge these verb-frames can grow.
You might think that the word order cannot be that important, and putting the second verb earlier cannot do any harm. Be assured: No native speaker will ever mix this up. They obey the forming of this frame like it was a law. Sorry for that – there is no way around it. One consolation: In most cases, you can guess from the context which verb will close the frame, even before the sentence ends.
Because modal verbs are not just helpful in everyday conversation but an absolute necessity, it’s a good idea to practise using them as often as you can. Why not continue practising today?
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