Past Tense of Modal Auxiliaries
This week’s 3 Minuten Deutsch episode was not only too long to be considered a 3 Minuten Deutsch episode, but it was also too short to properly give examples of everything I wanted to show in the video. For that reason, I will be explaining the use of the modal auxiliaries in the past tense in German in more detail in this blog post. If you want to watch the videos about this topic, you can see them below.
First let’s review what the present perfect 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 non-motion verbs) or “sein” (used with motion 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 blog about regular and irregular verbs.
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 motion verbs and the past participles are all regular except “mögen”, which becomes “gemocht” and anything with an umlaut loses the umlaut when it becomes a past participle.
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?
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?
In the present tense modal auxiliaries with 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?
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.
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?
That is a bit complicated, so most Germans will use the simple past forms of the modal auxiliaries 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 like in these sentences.
Ich wollte den Kuchen essen. – I wanted to eat the cake.
Musstest du mit dem Fahrrad fahren? – Did you have to ride your bike?
Er konnte den Ball schlagen. – He could hit the ball.
Sie mochte den Hut. – She liked the hat.
Wir durften im See schwimmen. – We were allowed to swim in the lake.
Solltet ihr eure Mutter fragen? – Were you supposed to ask your mother?
The conjugation of the simple past tense is a bit complicated to explain here, so instead I will point you to the chart I mentioned in the video, which can be found below. You can also download it here as a PDF.
As I mentioned in the videos, I would only realistically use one or two of the modal auxiliaries in conversational German in the present perfect tense. The rest of the time, I would default to the simple past tense. Both are technically correct.