Past Tense of German Modal Verbs

If you want to learn how to use German modal verbs in the past tense, this is the post for you. I will teach you how to use them in both the Präteritum and Perfekt tenses.

As a brief introduction to the use of German modal verbs in the past tense, these videos will explain the basics. The first one is in English and the second one is in German with German or English subtitles. Both explain the same parts of the lesson, but with a slightly different perspective.

Perfekt Tense Overview

First let’s review what the Perfekt tense even is. This is the tense that is mostly spoken in German to express something about an event that was completed in the past. In order to form it you need a form of “haben” (used with transitive verbs) or “sein” (used with intransitive verbs) and a past participle.

The regular past participles are formed by removing the “-en” or “-n” at the end of the verb and adding “ge-” to the front and “-t” to the end of the verb. The irregular ones are a bit trickier, because they can sometimes have a stem change and they usually keep the “-en” or “-n” at the end of the verb instead of taking the “-t” ending.

The form of “haben” or “sein” goes where the conjugated verb normally goes in the sentence and the past participle goes at the end of the sentence. That’s the general run-down of the tense. For more about the basics of this tense, you can check out my full explanation of the Perfekt tense.

Find Native German Teachers on italki

How to Use German Modal Verbs in the Perfekt Tense

When you use a modal auxiliary in the present perfect tense, it generally works like it would any other time. You use a form of “haben”, because none of the modal auxiliaries are intransitive verbs and the past participles are all regular except “mögen”, which becomes “gemocht”. Any modal verb with an umlaut loses the umlaut when it becomes a past participle.

Example Sentences with Modal Verbs in the Perfekt Tense without Additional Verbs

When using a modal verb in the Perfekt tense without an extra verb in the sentence, you simply conjugate “haben” like you would for any other sentence in the Perfekt tense. Then you put the past participle of the modal verb at the end of the sentence. The past participles of modal verbs are as follows:

German Modal VerbPerfekt Past Participle English Translation
mögengemochtto like -> liked
müssengemusstmust, to have to -> had to
dürfengedurftto be allowed to -> was allowed to
könnengekonntcan, to be able to -> could, was able to
sollengesolltto be supposed to -> was supposed to
wollengewolltto want -> wanted
Perfekt Forms of German Modal Verbs

Here are a few simple examples using modal verbs in the Perfekt tense without an additional verb.

Ich habe gewollt.
I wanted.

Hast du gemusst?
Did you have to?

Er hat gekonnt.
He could.

Sie hat gemocht.
She liked.

Wir haben gedurft.
We were allowed.

Habt ihr gesollt?
Should you have?

Perfekt without Modal Verb

Normally, the present perfect tense sentences would look something like this:

Ich habe den Kuchen gegessen.
I ate the cake.

Bist du mit dem Fahrrad gefahren?
Did you ride your bike?

Er hat den Ball geschlagen.
He hit the ball.

Sie hat den Hut gern gehabt.
She liked the hat.

Wir sind im See geschwommen.
We swam in the lake.

Habt ihr eure Mutter gefragt?
Did you ask your mother?

Präsens with Modal Verb

In the present tense adding modal verbs to those sentences would look like this:

Ich will den Kuchen essen.
I want to eat the cake.

Musst du mit dem Fahrrad fahren?
Do you have to ride your bike?

Er kann den Ball schlagen.
He can hit the ball.

Sie mag den Hut.
She likes the hat.

Wir dürfen im See schwimmen.
We are allowed to swim in the lake.

Sollt ihr eure Mutter fragen.
Should you ask your mother?

For a complete lesson about the present tense of modal verbs in German, click here.

Perfekt with Modal Verb & Additional Verb

If you change these sentences to the present perfect tense with those modals, you need to move the modal to the end of the sentence and change it to the infinitive form. The conjugate “haben” and put it where the conjugated verb belongs.

Ich habe den Kuchen essen wollen.
I wanted to eat the cake.

Hast du mit dem Fahrrad fahren müssen?
Did you have to ride your bike?

Er hat den Ball schlagen können.
He could hit the ball.

Sie hat den Hut gemocht.
She liked the hat.

Wir haben im See schwimmen dürfen.
We were allowed to swim in the lake.

Habt ihr eure Mutter fragen sollen?
Were you supposed to ask your mother?

Präteritum of German Modal Verbs

As you can see, it is a bit complicated to use German modal verbs in the Perfekt tense, so most Germans will use the Präteritum forms of the modal verbs instead. The simple past tense is usually used in written German to talk about actions that have ended in the past, but occasionally, when it is convenient, the Germans will use it when speaking. This is especially true for the modal verbs.

In order to be able to use the modal verbs in the Präteritum tense, you need to be able to conjugate them in this tense. The chart below shows how to conjugate modal verbs in the Präteritum tense.

German Modal Verbs in Präteritum
German Modal Verbs in Präteritum

If you are looking for a catchy way to remember the conjugation of German modal verbs in both the Präteritum tense and the Präsens tense, watch the video below. In it you will learn a song that can help you memorize these forms.

Example Sentences with Modal Verbs in Präteritum

Once you know how to conjugate the modal verbs in the Präteritum tense, you simply put the correct conjugated form where the conjugated verb belongs and put the other verb at the end of the sentence as an infinitive. Below you will find examples of each of the modal verbs in the Präteritum tense.

mögen – to like

Als Kind mochte ich keinen Kohl.
As a child I didn’t like cabbage. 

Als Kind mochte ich keinen Rotkohl essen.
As a child I didn’t like eating red cabbage. 

Sie mochte den Hut.
She liked the hat.

müssen – must, to have to

Ich musste mein Auto waschen.
I had to wash my car. 

Ich musste mein Auto heute morgen waschen.
I had to wash my car this morning.  

Musstest du mit dem Fahrrad fahren?
Did you have to ride your bike?

dürfen – may, to be allowed to

Ich durfte gestern ins Kino.
I was allowed to go to the movies yesterday. 

Ich durfte gestern ins Kino gehen.
I was allowed to go to the movies yesterday. 

Wir durften im See schwimmen.
We were allowed to swim in the lake.

können – can, to be able to

Warum konntest du das nicht tun?
Why couldn’t you do that? 

Warum konntest du das nicht schon gestern tun?
Why couldn’t you have done that yesterday? 

Er konnte den Ball schlagen.
He could hit the ball.

sollen – should, shall, to be supposed to

This one deserves a bit of a side note. Normally the Konjunktiv 2 sets itself apart in the conjugation of verbs, in that there is an umlaut in the Konjunktiv 2 forms, but the simple past tense of the same verb does not. This is not true, however, for “sollen”, which is why the meaning is occasionally ambiguous. Usually in English if we mean to say “should”, we mean the Konjunktiv 2 version of “sollen” in German. If we say “should have” in English, we mean the simple past version of “sollen” in German. I have included both translations for the examples below.

Sollten wir nach Hause fahren?
Should we have driven home?
Should we drive home? *Konjunktiv 2*


Sollten wir mit dem Auto nach Haus’ fahren?
Should we have driven home with the car?
Should we drive home with the car? *Konjunktiv 2*


Solltet ihr eure Mutter fragen?
Were you supposed to ask your mother?
Should you ask your mother?

wollen – to want

Als Kind wollte ich Arzt werden.
As a child I wanted to become a doctor. 

Als Kind wollte ich Arzt werden, jetzt nicht mehr.
As a child I wanted to become a doctor, but no longer. 

Ich wollte den Kuchen essen.
I wanted to eat the cake.

Recap

To sum up what you have learned here, take a look at the following examples. I’ll start with the Präteritum and Perfekt forms of “wollen” without an additional verb. This isn’t really complicated. Both versions are equal in my eyes. It really comes down to a personal preference.

Ich wollte einen Hund.
I wanted a dog.

Ich habe einen Hund gewollt.
I wanted a dog.

In the next examples I added an extra verb, “streicheln”. This complicates things for the Perfekt tense example, but in the Präteritum example I simply added the infinitive of the additional verb to the end of the sentence. The Perfekt form, by contrast, requires two infinitives at the end of the sentence and a form of “haben” in the conjugated verb spot.

Ich wollte den Hund streicheln.
I wanted to pet the dog.

Ich habe den Hund streicheln wollen.
I wanted to pet the dog.

Herr Antrim
Herr Antrim is a German teacher with over 10 years of teaching experience. In 2011 he started his successful YouTube Channel "Learn German with Herr Antrim". In 2015 he created this website to enhance the German language lessons he was providing on YouTube. He is now the author of his own e-book, "Beginner German with Herr Antrim". He has also been featured on numerous blogs and other sites. *This site uses a variety of affiliate links. If there is a link that leads to an outside site from which you could potentially make a purchase, it is very likely an affiliate link for which Herr Antrim will receive a small portion of your purchase. This does not cost you any extra, but it does help keep this website going. If you would like more information about the affiliate programs this site uses, click here.
German Learning Materials

Ads

buche jetzt Einzelststunden mit online Sprachlehrern! - besuche italki.com