Dürfen vs Können

In this week’s episode of 3 Minuten Deutsch I explain the difference and lack thereof between the German modal auxiliaries “dürfen” (may, to be allowed to) and “können” (can, to be able to). You can see the video below, but there are more examples and a more in depth look at the two.

First, let’s look at the conjugation of each one.

Usually you can use “dürfen” to ask for permission for an activity. This is great for children or students who ask for permission a lot. Here are a few examples of this in action.

Darf ich bitten?

Darf ich heute Abend mit meinen Freunden ins Kino gehen? – My I go to the movies with my friends this evening?

Du darfst hier nicht rein. – You aren’t allowed in here.

Darf mein Freund mit uns gehen? – May my friend go with us?

Darf deine Schwester wirklich bis Mitternacht aufbleiben? – Is your sister really allowed to stay up until midnight?

Ein Kind darf nicht so spät aufbleiben. – A child isn’t allowed to stay up so late.

Wir dürfen nichts sagen. – We aren’t allowed to say anything.

Ihr dürft hier nicht parken. – You aren’t allowed to park here.

Diese Leute dürfen nicht zurückkommen. – These people aren’t allowed to come back.

The modal auxiliary “können” by contrast is used to express when someone is physically able to do something. For example:

Der Schlagzeuger macht viel Lärm.

Ich kann Fahrrad fahren. – I can ride a bicycle.

Kannst du morgen rüberkommen? – Can you come over tomorrow?

Der Mann kann auf einem Bein stehen. – The man can stand on one leg.

Diese Frau kann unter Wasser atmen. – This woman can breath under water.

Das Kind kann stundenlang schreien. – The child can scream for hours.

Wir können morgen nach Hause fahren. – We can drive home tomorrow.

Könnt ihr Klavier spielen? – Can you play piano?

Die Lehrer können wegen des Lärms nicht unterrichten. – The teachers can’t teach because of the noise.

There are times when these two modals can get confusing. They are often interchangeable due to there actually being little to no difference between the two in a conversational sense, but they are also often improperly used, because of this same reasoning. Here are a few examples in which it really doesn’t matter.

Ich darf nicht so schnell fahren. – I am not allowed to drive that fast.

Ich kann nicht so schnell fahren. – I can’t drive that fast.

Wir dürfen nicht ins Kino. – We aren’t allowed to go to the movie theater.

Wir können nicht ins Kino. – We can’t go to the movie theater.

Darf ich zur Party gehen? – May I go to the party?

Kann ich zur Party gehen? – Can I go to the party?

Darf ich ein neues Handy kaufen? – May I buy a new cell phone?

Kann ich ein neues Handy kaufen? – Can I buy a new cell phone?

Yes, there is a difference in a few of those sentences. In fact, depending upon the situation, you may want to use one over the other, but the difference is the same as it is in English. If you are using “may” and “can” properly in English, you will probably be able to use “dürfen” and “können” in German. If you haven’t had anyone correct your grammar in English on this topic lately, you probably won’t have anyone do it in German either.

What’s next?

Next week’s video of 3 Minuten Deutsch will be the last of the modal auxiliariy videos for a while. I will be talking about the last two on the list, “sollen” and “müssen”. These two aren’t really as connected as the previous pairings, but it didn’t make sense to separate them into their own videos.

Dürfen & Können

Scroll to Top