German Modal Verbs: Können, Müssen, Wollen, Sollen, Dürfen, and Mögen

Modal verbs are helper verbs that help other verbs interact with concepts of possibility, probability, and necessity, or feelings of obligation and desire. 



  1. The ability to do something
  2. The permission to do something
  3. The legal right to do something


(1). John Lennon kann Gitarre spielen. (John Lennon can play guitar.

  • This is an ability expressed through the auxiliary verb können and the verb spielen (to play)

(2). Kann ich mit euch zum Konzert gehen? (Can I go with you guys to the concert?)

  • This is asking for permission

(3). Kann ich in Deutschland in einem Stadtpark Bier trinken? (Can I drink beer in a city park in Germany?)

  • Here there is a question of legality 



  1. To express a necessity 
  2. To express an obligation
  3. To express a need


(1). Ich muss meinem Großvater die Treppe hinaufhelfen. (I have to help my grandfather up the staircase.

  • Because the grandfather cannot do it on his own, this help is a necessity

(2). Du musst einen Monat lang versuchen, morgens zu trainieren, bevor du dich entscheidest, dass du das nicht schaffst. (You should try working out in the morning for a month before deciding you can’t do it.)

  • This is an obligation, but not a necessity. It is strongly suggested to give something a try for a longer period, but it is not an absolute must

(3). Wir müssen die Ergebnisse des Fußballspiels kennen, bevor wir die Namen auf der Trophäe eingravieren. (We need to know the results of the football match before we engrave the names on the trophy.)

  • Here, a need is being expressed



  1. To express desire
  2. To express intent


(1). Dudley will seinen Cousin Harry tyrannisieren. (Dudley wants to bully his cousin Harry.)

  • Here, Dudley is fulfilling his desire to bully with the use of “wollen”

(2). Dobby wollte Harry nur schützen. (Dobby only wanted to help Harry.)

  • Dobby intends to help; whether the help is seen as helpful or not is not important, as with this usage of “wollen”, only the intent is important



  1. To express obligation
  2. To recommend
  3. To express intent
  4. To express rumor or supposition
  5. To express an occurrence taking place after the main time-frame
  6. To express a hypothetical


(1). Wir sollten das Haus aufräumen, bevor Mama und Papa zurückkommen. (We should clean up the house before mom and dad get back.)

  • This can be seen as an obligation or a self-recommendation. The kids know that it would only be right to clean before the parents get home to avoid trouble

(2). Du solltest den neuesten Mission Impossible Film sehen. Ich glaube, er würde dir gefallen. (You should watch the newest Mission Impossible movie. I think you’d like it.)

  • This is a clear recommendation

(3). Das sollte ein Kompliment sein. (That was supposed to be a compliment.)

  • Here, there is an expression of intent, as the words were intended to be a compliment, whether or not they were actually received as such

(4). Er soll ein sehr entgegenkommender und sympathischer Mensch sein. (He is supposedly a very approachable and kind person.)

  • Here is a supposition that may or not be true

(5). Als Kind dachte er, seine Streiche seien lustig, aber später sollte er die Konsequenzen seiner Taten spüren. (When he was a kid, he thought his pranks were funny, but he would later feel the consequences of his actions.)

  • This “feeling of the consequences” happens after the main timeline or “being a kid”

(6). Sollten vor der Veröffentlichung des Artikels Neuigkeiten bekannt werden, werden wir den Artikel entsprechend ändern. (Should any news come out before we publish the article, we will modify the article accordingly.)

  • News being released before publishing is in this scenario a hypothetical



  1. To express permission: Both for inquiring about and granting
  2. To express high probability (but not certainty)


(1). Darf ich bitte auf die Toilette gehen? Ja, du darfst. (May I please go to the toilet? Yes, you may.)

  • In this example, permission is both inquired about (in the first sentence) and granted (in the second sentence)

(2). Der Bus dürfte in ein paar Minuten ankommen. (The bus should arrive in a few minutes.)

  • Here, there is a high probability that the bus will arrive within a matter of minutes, but it is not certain



  1. To express a desire in a less direct manner: This can be in combination with a noun or an adjective
  2. To send a wish
  3. To express hesitation
  4. To show possibility or uncertainty


(1). Ich möchte ihr einen Antrag machen. (I would like to propose to her.)

  • Although the desire is clear, this conjugated form of the modal verb mögen is less direct than saying “Ich will ihr einen Antrag machen” with the verb “wollen” (to like)

(2). Ich möchte die Schinken-Käse-Semmel, bitte. (I would like a ham and cheese semmel, please.)

  • This is an example of a polite request, showing the desire for a semmel but more indirectly

(3). Möge die Macht mit dir sein! (May the force be with you!)

  • This famous movie quote is in fact a good example for this modal verb’s ability to send a wish

(4). Ich mag den Kuchen nicht essen, weil ich versuche, abzuspecken. (I might not eat the cake because I’m trying to slim down.)

  • There is hesitation in the voice of the narrator, debating internally whether or not to eat the cake

(5). Ich mag meine Liebe nicht immer so ausdrücken, wie ich es möchte, aber ich liebe dich so sehr. (I might not always express my love the way I’d like to, but I love you so much.)

  • There is a level of uncertainty in the voice of the narrator here with regards to the way his or her expressions of love are received

(6). Dein Bruder mag dich verraten haben! (Your brother may have betrayed you!)

  • This is an example of a possibility

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