1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Identify and translate modal verbs, in any tense, and in a variety of their usages.
  • Identify and translate sentences in which a subordinate clause is acting as the subject.
Last revised on September 26, 2014.

2. Modal Verbs

The modal verbs are those verbs which express a mood, such as “like to” or “want to.” The German modal verbs and their basic meanings are:

dürfen to be allowed to (in the sense of permission)
können to be able to (in the sense of ability)
müssen to have to
mögen to like to
sollen to be supposed to
wollen to want to

Present Tense

The modal verbs are irregular in the present tense singular but act like any other verb in the plural. Thus, for example, dürfen conjugates as:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich darf wir dürfen
2nd du darfst ihr dürft
3rd er/sie/es darf sie/Sie dürfen

Similarly, the other modal verbs also change their stem in the singular conjugations (except for sollen). In the list below, you will also note that all modal verbs also have no verb ending in the first and third person singular present-tense forms (ich / er / sie / es). As you may recall from Unit 2, wissen is the only non-modal verb that shares this pattern.

 The following list demonstrates the irregular singular root of each modal verb and also provides typical translations of each verb:

Infinitive Example Typical Translations
dürfen er darf he is allowed to / he may / he can
können er kann he is able to / he can
müssen er muß he has to / he must / he is required to
mögen er mag he likes to / he enjoys
sollen er soll he is supposed to / he should
wollen er will he wants to

Example sentences:

Amerikaner unter 21 Jahren dürfen keine alkoholischen Getränke kaufen.
Americans unter 21 years may not buy alcoholic drinks.

Wer kann mir helfen?
Who can help me?

Der Student muß fleißig lernen.
The student has to study hard.

Meine Töchter mögen nicht laute Musik hören.
My daughters don’t like to listen to loud music.

Was soll man mit diesem Gerät tun können?
What is one supposed to be able to do with this device?

Mein Sohn will ins Kino gehen.
My son wants to go to the cinema.

In the example above for “sollen,” you can see three verbs. Sollen is conjugated, but tun können are two infinitives. This construction is often called a “double-infinitive.” Translating this into English is simple enough, since the infinitives remain infinitives in English, too.

In general, the dependent infinitive, such as aufräumen or gehen in the examples above, appears in final position in the clause. Note the position of the infinitives in the following example:

Er will nicht sagen, ob er morgen zur Schule gehen muß.
He doesn’t want to say whether he has to go to school tomorrow.

Simple Past Tense

The simple past forms of the modals are formed like regular verbs except that they drop their umlaut. Using the third person singular and plural as our examples:

Infinitive 3rd-person
Singular, Plural
General Translations
dürfen durfte, durften (was / were) allowed to
können konnte, konnten (was / were) able to
müssen mußte, mußten had to
mögen mochte, mochten liked to (Note the change from g to ch.)
sollen sollte, sollten (was / were) supposed to
wollen wollte, wollten wanted to

Sample sentences:

Wir wollten nach Hause gehen.
We wanted to go home.

Der Ingenieur mußte die Maschine reparieren.
The engineer had to repair the machine.

Perfect Tenses

The auxiliary verb of the modals is haben. In the formation of both the present and past perfect tenses of the modal verbs we are introduced to a variation on the “double infinitive” phenomenon. Rather than a past participle, you will see the infinitive form of the modal next to the dependent infinitive.

Present perfect:

Die Studentin hat diese ganze Woche fleißig lernen müssen.
The (woman) student has had to study hard this entire week.

Past perfect:

Der Ingenieur hatte die Maschine am Sonntag reparieren können.
The engineer had been able to repair the machine on Sunday.

Note that the modal perfect tenses affect the position of the auxiliary verb when it is in a subordinate clause. Instead of appearing at the very end of the clause as usual, it will appear before the double infinitive, and even before an adverb, if there is one. The auxiliary verb is bolded in these examples:

Present perfect:

Die Studentin beklagte, daß sie diese ganze Woche hat fleißig lernen müssen.
The (woman) student complained that she has had to study hard this entire week.

Past perfect:

Die Fabrik funktionierte weiter, da der Ingenieur die Maschine am Sonntag hatte reparieren können.
The factory continued to function because the engineer had been able to repair the machine on Sunday.

Future Tense

To form the future tense of the modal we use werden and its forms as we do for all future tenses. Thus, using our sentences from the present tense, we have in the future tense:

Der Student wird fleißig lernen müssen.
The student will have to study hard.

Mein Sohn wird ins Kino gehen wollen.
My son will want to go to the cinema.

Again the dependent infinitives go into final position. The difference between the structure of the future and perfect tenses is that the future uses werden and its forms, the perfect tenses haben and its forms.

Last revised on December 7, 2017.

3. Modal Verb Usages

  1. mögen can also be translated as “to like” instead of “to like to”: Das Kind mag Eis (The child likes ice cream).

    In addition mag can mean “may” suggesting possibility: Das mag wahr sein. (That may be true.)

  2. können can also be translated as “to know” in the sense of skills, e.g. Sie kann Deutsch. (She knows German). See also note f) below, which explains how this works.

  3. sollen is often used to distance the speaker from someone else’s claim, like English "is said to," "is supposedly," or "allegedly":

    Dieses Buch soll interessant sein.
    This book is said to be interesting. [or:] This book is supposedly interesting.

    And as demonstrated further in section g) below, you will often encounter present-tense usages of sollen with this special meaning which refer to a past event:

    Sie soll auch einen dritten Brief geschrieben haben.
    She allegedly wrote a third letter, too.

  4. wollen has two other common usages. As you will be able to tell from context, it can mean "to claim to" rather than "to want to":

    Der Professor will diese Tatsache entdeckt haben.
    The professor claims to have discovered this fact.

    wollen can also be used like a regular, non-modal verb (even taking a direct object), like English "to want a thing":

    Er will das Buch.
    He wants the book.

  5. dürfen and müssen

    Because müssen and its forms so closely resemble English “must,” it is easy to mistranslate it, above all in the negative sense. For example:

    Wir müssen nicht nach Hause gehen.
    We do not have to go home.

    müssen means “have to” and the nicht negates it. Thus müssen plus a negative means “to not have to,” NOT “must not.” Thus it would be a common mistake by English speakers to misunderstand this example as “We must not go home.”

    The same danger applies when translating dürfen:

    Wir dürfen nicht nach Hause gehen.
    We are not allowed to go home. [or:] We must not go home.

    An English speaker might misunderstand this sentence as: “We are allowed to not go home.”

  6. Implied infinitives: More often than in English, in German you may see modal verbs used in a sentence without any corresponding infinitive verb. In these cases, the context provides enough information to make the sentence comprehensible. Note b) above mentioned one common example (in which the implied infinitive was sprechen) and here are three more:

    Willst du jetzt nach Hause?
    Do you want to go home now?

    Es ist kalt hier auf dem Balkon. Wir müssen bald ins Zimmer.
    It’s cold here on the balcony. We’ll have to move inside soon.

    Kommst du mit ins Kino? Nein, ich mag nicht.
    Are you coming with (us/me) to the movies? No, I don’t want to.

  7. With perfect and passive infinitives:

    Modal verbs can also be used with dependent verbs that are not in infinitive form, such as to refer to a past event or with a passive-voice dependent verb. Note in these examples the difference in tense between the modal verb and its dependent verb. In the following four examples, the modal verbs are all in present tense, but modal verbs can potentially be used in any tense, independent of the tense of the dependent verb. Watch for those tense differences and adapt your understanding of the meaning accordingly. In all cases, you can count on the dependent verb appearing at the end of the clause and in infinitive form, i.e., not conjugated to match a particular subject.

    With perfect infinitives:

    Mein Sohn soll das Buch gelesen haben.
    My son is supposed to have read the book.

    Der Zug muß neulich abgefahren sein.
    The train must have departed recently.

    With passive infinitives:

    Diese Aufgabe muß getan werden.
    This exercise must be done.

    Der neue Prozeß kann schnell entwickelt werden.
    The new process can be developed quickly.

    Note: The dependent verbs stand in final position.

  8. Past participle with ge-:

    It is possible to form a past participle of the modals beginning with ge– and ending in –t, i.e., gedurft, gekonnt, gemußt, gemocht, gesollt and gewollt. However, these are only used when:

    1. The modal’s special meaning is used as in:

      Er hat den Film gemocht.
      He liked the film.

    2. The infinitive verb is not present in the sentence, only implied:

      Hat er das tun können? Ja, das hat er gekonnt.
      Was he able to do that? Yes, he was able to.

Last revised on March 13, 2017.

4. Subordinate Clause as Sentence Subject

More often than in English, in German you will encounter subordinate clauses that in fact function as the sentence subject. Identify the subject, verb, and predicate in each of these examples:

Ob sie mit uns ins Kino gehen darf, bleibt unklar.
It’s still not clear whether she (will be/is) allowed to go to the movies with us.
[or:] Whether she (will be/is) allowed to go to the movies with us is not clear.

Daß sie jetzt mit uns ins Kino geht, ist schön!
The fact that she is now going with us to the movies is great!
[or:] It’s great that she is now going with us to the movies!

Note that there are variations on this structure which you should be equally able to recognize:

Unklar bleibt, wie wir dahin kommen.
It’s still unclear how we’re going to get there.

Es war doch das Beste, daß wir gestern nicht ausgegangen sind.
It worked out for the best that we didn’t go out yesterday.

Last revised on June 12, 2018.