How to Use German Modal Verbs

In this lesson you will learn how to conjugate and properly use German modal verbs in sentences. I’ll explain what modal verbs are, why they are important and what you need to know about them in order to use them properly.

Also included in this lesson is a brief overview of the verb “werden” and how it is used to form the future tense in German. This verb functions similarly to the modal verbs, so I have included it in this post. For a deep dive into the use of the verb “werden”, click here. For a full explanation of the future tense, click here.

To get a copy of all of my materials on the modal verbs in the present tense, click here.

For all of the materials Herr Antrim has ever created about the present tense in German including this lesson, worksheets, answer keys, mp3 versions of lessons and more, click here.

What are modal verbs?

Modal verbs are action words that are used to change the mood of a sentence. This doesn’t mean they make the sentence happy or sad. It means that it changes how the sentence feels. Is this something you like? Do you want it? Do you have to do it? These are all expressions using modal verbs in English. The same expressions in German require the use of modal verbs.

What is an auxiliary verb?

Often people refer to these verbs as “auxiliary verbs”. These are more commonly called “helping verbs”. They are used in conjunction with another verb. They help the other verb be more expressive and versatile. Think of it like an auxiliary port on your car stereo. Your car stereo plays music just fine, but if you plug in something to the auxiliary port, you can play music from your phone or take calls. It enhances the way the radio functions. This is exactly what auxiliary verbs do to the main verb.

How many modal verbs are there in German?

There are technically 6 modal verbs in German, but you will often see another one added to the list, möchten, which I explain in more detail later in this post. Strictly speaking, the modal verbs in German are: mögen (to like), müssen (must, to have to), dürfen (may, to be allowed to), können (can, to be supposed to), sollen (should, shall, to be supposed to) and wollen (to want).

What is “möchten”? Is “möchten” a modal verb?

Yes. “Möchten” is a modal verb in German, but not in the way you probably think. “Möchten” is not an infinitive. It is actually a form of the German modal verb “mögen”. To be precise “möchten” is the Konjuktiv 2 version of “mögen”. It changes the translation from “to like” into “would like”. Just as “would like” is used for polite requests in English, “möchten” is used to ask for things, too. “Möchten” is so commonly used as if it were its own modal verb that many textbooks simply teach it as a separate verb and never mention the origin of the word.

Why should you care that “möchten” is a form of “mögen”? Well, the main reasons are that you don’t want to get confused when you learn “möchten” is conjugated a bit differently from the rest of the modal verbs. It also explains why there is no past tense of “möchten”.

Speaking of the past tense of modal verbs in German, if you click here, you can learn how to use these verbs in the past tense.

How to User German Modal Verbs with Other Verbs

When you use a modal verb together with another verb, you need to figure out what to do with both verbs within the sentence. The answer is simple. Conjugate the modal verb into whatever form you need. Then push the other verb to the end of the sentence in its infinitive form. The infinitive form of a verb is the version that you see in the dictionary. It is kind of the base form of the verb before any changes are made to it so it fits with the subject and tense.

In the following examples, I start with what the sentence would look like without the modal verb and then rewrite to show it with the modal verb.

Was bestellen Sie? –
What are you ordering?

Was möchten Sie bestellen? –
What would you like to order?

Ich räume mein Zimmer auf. –
I am cleaning my room.

Ich muss mein Zimmer aufräumen. –
I have to clean my room.

Conjugation of German Modal Verbs

The conjugation of modal verbs in German can sometimes be confusing. The singular forms (ich, du, er, sie, es) mostly require a stem change. The ich and er, sie, es forms of the modal verbs do not require an ending. The plural forms of the modal verbs (wir, ihr, sie, Sie) are conjugated normally. In the image below you will see how to conjugate all of the modal verbs in German along with “werden”, which is not a modal verb, but is included within this lesson.

Conjugation of German Modal Verbs + Werden
Conjugation of German Modal Verbs + Werden

German Modal Verbs Conjugation Song

If you are looking for a fun way to remember how to conjugate the modal verbs, check out my song for the Präsens and Präteritum tenses of modal verb conjugation below.

mögen – to like

You almost never use “mögen” with another verb. This is why I am more comfortable calling this one a verb instead of an auxiliary, which is how you will see me refer to them in other posts about this topic. An auxiliary is a verb that is used together with another verb.

When you use “mögen” with another verb it usually changes the meaning to “may”, as in “might”. It can be difficult to discern what is meant when “mögen” is used with another verb. I would recommend avoiding this for beginners.

When you use “mögen” on its own, it means “to like” and is completely* interchangeable with “gern + haben”. The conjugation of this verb can be seen below.

mögento like
ich magI like
du magstyou like
er, sie, es maghe, she, it likes
wir mögenwe like
ihr mögtyou (all) like
sie, Sie mögenthey, you like
Conjugation of “mögen” in the Present Tense

*For the subtle differences between “gern haben”, “mögen”, “möchten” and “wollen”, click here.

Examples Sentences with “mögen”

Er mag Pizza. –
He likes pizza.

Wir mögen Baseball. –
We like baseball.

Ich mag Züge und Autos. –
I like trains and cars. 

Ich mag Züge, Autos und auch Flugzeuge. –
I like trains, cars and airplanes. 

For more information about the differences between “mögen”, “möchten” and “wollen”, click here.

möchten – would like

While this one isn’t actually its own modal verb, I like to include it, as it is often listed in German textbooks as a modal verb. It is also incredibly commonly used and simple to do so. You can use this verb in polite requests, which makes it very handy if you are traveling in Germany. The conjugation is listed below.

möchtenwould like
ich möchteI would like
du möchtestyou would like
er, sie, es möchtehe, she, it would like
wir möchtenwe would like
ihr möchtetyou (all) would like
sie, Sie möchtenthey, you would like
Conjugation of “möchten” in the Present Tense

Example Sentences with “möchten”

Was möchten Sie bestellen? –
What would you like to order?

Ich möchte den Rinderbraten (bestellen). –
I would like (to order) the roast beef.

Wir möchten nach Hause (gehen). –
We would like to go home.

For more information about the differences between mögen, möchten, and wollen, click here.

müssen – must, to have to

The modal verb “müssen” translates to “must” or “to have to”. It is used to express obligations. Be careful, however, as the English expression “you mustn’t…” is most often translated using “dürfen”, as it usually isn’t an obligation, but rather a lack of permission that drives those sentences. The conjugation of “müssen” is listed in the chart below.

müssenmust, to have to
ich mussI must, have to
du musstyou must, have to
er, sie, es musshe, she, it must, has to
wir müssenwe must, have to
ihr müsstyou (all) must, have to
sie, Sie müssenthey, you must, have to
Conjugation of “müssen” in the Present Tense

Example Sentences with “müssen”

Ich muss mein Zimmer aufräumen. –
I have to clean my room.

Sie muss den Müll rausnehmen. –
She has to take out the trash.

Wir müssen bald gehen. –
We have to go soon.

Ich muss jetzt nach Hause gehen. –
I have to go home now.

Ich muss jetzt nach Hause gehen und schlafen. –
I have to go home now and sleep. 

dürfen – may, to be allowed to

People often mixed this one up with “können” (can) in the same way as they do in English. People say they can’t do something when they mean they don’t have permission. You can drive 100 mph on the interstate. You just aren’t allowed to. The lines between these two verbs in German have started to become more blurred, but there still remains a stronger line between the two than in English.

For a closer look at the subtle difference between dürfen and können, click here.

dürfenmay, to be allowed to
ich darfI may, am allowed to
du darfstyou may, are allowed to
er, sie, es darfhe, she, it may, is allowed to
wir dürfenwe may, are allowed to
ihr dürftyou (all) may, are allowed to
sie, Sie dürfenthey, you may, are allowed to
Conjugation of “dürfen” in the Present Tense

Example Sentences with “dürfen”

I mentioned earlier that the verb “dürfen” is also used to translate “you mustn’t…”. Simply use the verb as usual and add in “nicht” to create a negative version. There is an example of this in the sentences below.

Du darfst deiner Freundin nichts davon sagen. –
You mustn’t tell your girlfriend anything about that.

Darf ich auf die Toilette? –
May I go to the restroom?

Ihr dürft nicht in der Klasse schlafen. –
You are not allowed to sleep in the class.

Die Kinder dürfen nicht die ganze Nacht aufbleiben. –
The children are not allowed to stay up the entire night.

Ich darf jetzt Kuchen essen. –
I am allowed to eat cake now. 

Ich darf Kuchen zum Abendessen haben. –
I am allowed to eat cake for dinner. 

können – can, to be able to

This is very easy to remember in English, as the English word originated from the German. That’s the reason that the singular forms of this verb include “kann” and the English translation is “can”. The conjugation of “können” is listed below.

könnencan, to be able to
ich kannI can, am able to
du kannstyou can, are able to
er, sie, es kannhe, she, it can, is able to
wir könnenwe can, are able to
ihr könntyou (all) can, are able to
sie, Sie könnenthey, you can, are able to
Conjugation of “können” in the Present Tense

Example Sentences with “können”

Ich kann Deutsch sprechen. –
I can speak German.

Er kann sehr schnell laufen. –
He can run really fast.

Meine Eltern können immer Probleme finden. –
My parents can always find problems.

Ich kann ohne ein Flugzeug fliegen. –
I can fly without a plane. 

Ich kann so wie Superman fliegen. –
I can fly like superman. 

sollen – should, shall, to be supposed to

The translation of this verb is often a point of contention for German teachers. Many believe that the translation with the word “should” is incorrect, as it is less of a recommendation so much as a soft command in the present tense indicative (the version I am using here).

For information on the real command form (imperative), click here.

I see it as the word “should” in English as used by a mother to her children. “You should wash the dishes.” is not so much a polite recommendation so much as a passive aggressive command. This is the same usage of “sollen”, but it isn’t always a parent/child relationship.

sollenshould, shall, to be supposed to
ich sollI should, shall, am supposed to
du sollstyou should, shall, are supposed to
er, sie, es sollhe, she, it should, shall, is supposed to
wir sollenwe should, shall, are supposed to
ihr solltyou (all) should, shall, are supposed to
sie, Sie sollenthey, you should, shall, are supposed to
Conjugation of “sollen” in the Present Tense

Example Sentences with “sollen”

Du sollst deine Hausaufgaben machen. –
You should/shall do your homework.

Er soll einen Kuchen backen. –
He should (is supposed to) bake a cake.

Sollen wir gehen? –
Should/Shall we go?

Ich soll brav sein. Ich soll nett sein. –
I should be well-behaved. I should be nice. 

Ich soll sehr brav, nett und sittsam heute sein. –
I should be well-behaved, nice and proper. 

wollen – to want

If you use “möchten” for polite requests, what do you use “wollen” for? Answer: Slightly less polite requests. You can use “wollen” in every instance where you can use “möchten”. The question is whether or not you want to sound that forceful or not? “Wollen” carries with it the sternness that is seen in English with the difference between “would like” and “want”.

wollento want
ich willI want
du willstyou want
er, sie, es willhe, she, it wants
wir wollenwe want
ihr wolltyou (all) want
sie, Sie wollenthey, you want
Conjugation of “wollen” in the Present Tense

Example Sentences with “wollen”

Ich will in Beifall untergehen. –
I want to go down in applause.

Er will den ganzen Kuchen essen. –
He wants to eat the entire cake.

Wir wollen unser Auto nicht mehr. –
We no longer want our car.

Ich will dieses Jahr gesund sein. –
I want to be healthy this year. 

Ich will dieses Jahr gesund und glücklich sein. –
I want to be healthy and happy this year. 

For more information about the differences between “mögen”, “möchten” and “wollen”, click here.