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German verbs

The modal verbs

Modal verb meanings | Modal verb usage | Modal verb tense formation | Subjunctive of modal verbs
Summary of verb tenses | GRAMMAR INDEX

Modal verbs & their meanings

The German modal verbs are a group of 6 verbs that behave and are formed in much the same way. Modal verbs indicate the attitude of the sentence subject with regard to what is being said in the rest of the sentence.
Modal verb Primary (& secondary)
"modes" it conveys
English meaning
können   ability (possibility) can, to be able to (may, might)
dürfen permission (probability) may, to be allowed to
(
in the negative: ought not)
müssen necessity, compulsion must, to have to, to need to
(should, ought)
mögen liking (probability, possibility) to like (may, can)
wollen desire, intention to want to, to intend to, shall
(to claim to)
sollen obligation (intention, prediction) shall, to be supposed to
(should, is said to be
, ought to)

ENGLISH MODALS vs. GERMAN MODALS

While English modal verbs have only two tenses -- past and present (can, could - like, liked - have to, had to, etc.) -- German modal verbs have a full range of tenses and moods. This can sometime create confusion for English-speakers, because in English the past tense is sometimes used to relate a conditional meaning. For example: Ich konnte gehen. (past indicative) and Ich könnte gehen. (present subjunctive) both translatate into English as I could go but they don't mean the same thing. Ich konnte gehen means I was able to go, whereas Ich könnte gehen means It would be possible for me to go. Though it may seem confusing at first, it is important that English speakers develop a sense of these differences in German.


Modal verb meanings | Modal verb usage | Modal verb tense formation | Subjunctive of modal verbs
Summary of verb tenses | GRAMMAR INDEX

Usage

These verbs behave much like an auxiliary verb in that they are typically used in combination with other verbs. The modal verb is conjugated to agree with the subject of the sentence. The other verb is at the end of the sentence in its infinitive form.


MODAL VERB + INFINITIVE
EXAMPLES of MODAL VERB + PRESENT INFINITIVE
Wir können nicht kommen. We can't come.
Sie kann zu Hause sein. She might be at home.
Er darf heute nach Hause gehen. He's allowed to go home today.
Wollen wir uns treffen? Shall we meet?
Ich soll hier bleiben. I am supposed to stay here.
EXAMPLES of MODAL VERB + PERFECT INFINITIVE  
Das muss ein Mißverständnis gewesen sein. That must have been a misunderstanding.
Er will das Buch schon gelesen haben. He claims to have read the book already.
EXAMPLES of MODAL VERB + PASSIVE INFINITIVE  
Es musste sofort gegessen werden. It had to be eaten immediately.
Dürftet ihr zusammen gesehen werden? Are you allowed to be seen together?
EXAMPLES of MODAL VERB + PASSIVE PERFECT INFINITIVE  
Der Brief mag schon geschrieben worden sein. The letter may already have been written.
Es soll schon verkauft worden sein. It is supposed to have been sold already.


THE SPECIAL STATUS OF MÖGEN

Unlike the other modal verbs, the verb mögen is usually used without an additional verb when it is used to express a liking of someone or something. When used with another verb, it often means may. The most common use of mögen is the subjunctive form möchte, would like.
Ich mag keine Filme. I don't like movies.
Magst du diesen Lehrer? Do you like this teacher?
Das mag wohl sein. That may well be.
Er möchte eine Tasse Kaffee. He would like a cup of coffee.
Möchtest du noch länger schlafen? Would you like to sleep longer?


OMISSION OF THE 2nd VERB

Occasionally, the infinitive of the 2nd verb may be omitted when its meaning is understood from the context of the sentence. This occurs most often with verbs of motion, tun, and haben, or when the verb has been previously mentioned. It also occurs with the verb können when expressing a knowledge of something that has been learned.
Wir müssen bald nach Hause. We have to go home soon.
Er will nach England. He wants to travel to England.
Wollten Sie ein Stück Kuchen? Did you want a piece of cake?
Was soll ich mit dem Auto? What am I supposed to do with the car?
Ich rauche gern, aber ich darf (es) nicht. I like to smoke, but I'm not allowed to.
Ich kann gut Deutsch. I can speak German well.
Kannst du Schach? Can you play chess?

Modal verb meanings | Modal verb usage | Modal verb tense formation | Subjunctive of modal verbs
Summary of verb tenses | GRAMMAR INDEX

Tense Formation (Indicative)

As mixed verbs, the modal verbs have irregularities in their conjugations. As with all verbs, each of the tenses of the modal verbs is formed with one of the verb's principle parts:
Infinitive Present tense stem Simple past stem Past participle    
können kann  konnte gekonnt    
dürfen darf durfte gedurft    
müssen muss musste gemusst    
mögen mag mochte gemocht    
wollen will wollte gewollt    
sollen soll sollte gesollt    


PRESENT TENSE

All of the modal verbs (except for sollen) have characteristic stem changes in their present tense singular forms. Note that the the ich-form and er/sie/es-forms of the modal verbs all lack personal endings and these two forms are also identical for each verb. Present tense plural forms of modal verbs are wholly regular.
können
müssen dürfen mögen wollen sollen
 ich kann  ich muss  ich darf  ich mag  ich will  ich soll
du kannst du musst du darfst du magst du willst du sollst
er kann sie muss es darf es mag er will sie soll
wir können wir müssen wir dürfen wir mögen wir wollen wir sollen
ihr könnt ihr müsst ihr dürft ihr mögt ihr wollt ihr sollt
sie können Sie müssen sie dürfen Sie mögen Sie wollen sie sollen
As noted above, when used in a sentence, the modal verb falls in the 2nd position in a sentence and any accompanying infinitive appears at the end of the sentence:
EXAMPLES:
Wir müssen morgen aufräumen. We have to clean up tomorrow.
Er kann das Buch geschrieben haben. He may have written the book.


SIMPLE PAST TENSE

The simple past tense forms are created using the simple past stem. These forms look much like the forms for weak verbs, with the difference that the 4 verbs that have umlauts in their infinitive forms drop them in the simple past tense.
Simple past forms = Simple past stem (infinitive minus -en & minus umlaut + weak simple past suffix -te) + personal endings: -, -st, -, -en, -t, -en.

Another way to approach the simple past of modals is: Simple past forms = Infinitive minus -en & minus umlaut + simple past personal endings: -te, -test, -te, -ten, -tet, -ten.
können
müssen dürfen mögen wollen sollen
 ich konnte  ich musste  ich durfte  ich mochte  ich wollte  ich sollte
du konntest du musstest du durftest du mochtest du wolltest du solltest
er konnte sie musste es durfte es mochte er wollte sie sollte
wir konnten wir mussten wir durften wir mochten wir wollten wir sollten
ihr konntet ihr musstet ihr durftet ihr mochtet ihr wolltet ihr solltet
sie konnten Sie mussten sie durften Sie mochten Sie wollten sie sollten
Just like in the present tense, modal verbs in the simple past tense occur in the finite form and any accompanying verb is in its infinitive form at the end of the sentence.
EXAMPLES:
Er konnte die Aufgabe nicht machen. It couldn't do the assignment.
Wir mussten früh aufstehen. We had to get up early.
Sie wollten mich schon besucht haben. They claimed to have visited me already.
Durftest du es wissen? Were you allowed to know?


FUTURE, PRESENT PERFECT, PAST PERFECT & FUTURE PERFECT TENSES

All of the other verb tenses are compound tenses, i.e. they employ a helping verb (or two helping verbs) in addition to the modal verb. In these tenses, a helping verb is the finite verb in the 2nd position in the sentence and the modal verb is relegated to a place at or near the end of the sentence. In the perfect tenses, the helping verb for all modal verbs is haben.
Tense Form English equivalent
 FUTURE ich werde ... können
er wird ... wollen
 I will be able to
he will want to
PRES. PERFECT ich habe ... gekonnt
er hat ... gewollt
I could, I have been able to
he wanted to, he has wanted to
PAST PERFECT ich hatte ... gekonnt
er hat ... gewollt
I had been able
he had wanted
FUTURE PERFECT ich werde ... gekonnt haben
er wird ... gewollt haben
I will have been able
he will have wanted
When the modal verb is accompanied by another verb in any of these 4 compound tenses, a double infinitive construction is used. In the perfect tenses this means that the double infinitive takes the place of the past participle:
Tense Form English equivalent
 FUTURE ich werde ... schreiben können
er wird ... arbeiten wollen
 I will be able to write
he will want to work
PRES PERF ich habe ... schreiben können
er hat ... arbeiten wollen


FREQUENTLY USED ALTERNATIVE: (SIMPLE PAST)
ich konnte ... schreiben.
er wollte ... arbeiten.

I have been/I was able to write
he (has) wanted to work



I was able to/could write.
he wanted to work
PAST PERFECT ich hatte ... schreiben können
er hatte ... arbeiten wollen
I had been able to write
he had wanted to work
FUTURE PERFECT ich werde ... haben schreiben können
er wird ... haben arbeiten können

**This future perfect form
with modals is rarely used.
I will have been able to write
he will have wanted to work

Modal verb meanings | Modal verb usage | Modal verb tense formation | Subjunctive of modal verbs
Summary of verb tenses | GRAMMAR INDEX

Modal verbs in the subjunctive mood

The Subjunctive II forms of modal verbs are used very frequently. Almost all usages of the subjunctive with modal verbs happens in the present or past tense.



PRESENT TENSE SUBJUNCTIVE II

The present subjunctive forms are based on the simple past conjugation. If the verb has an umlaut in its infinitive then it is added back in the present tense subjunctive conjugations. What this means is that the present tense subjunctive form of 4 of the modal verbs with umlauts is created like that of the other mixed verbs. The subjunctive forms of wollen and sollen are created like that of the weak verbs.
können
müssen dürfen mögen wollen sollen
 ich könnte  ich müsste  ich dürfte  ich möchte  ich wollte  ich sollte
du könntest du müsstest du dürftest du möchtest du wolltest du solltest
er könnte sie müsste es dürfte es möchte er wollte sie sollte
wir könnten wir müssten wir dürften wir möchten wir wollten wir sollten
ihr könntet ihr müsstet ihr dürftet ihr möchtet ihr wolltet ihr solltet
sie könnten Sie müssten sie dürften Sie möchten Sie wollten sie sollten
Like the finite forms of the present and past indicative, when used in a sentence, the present subjunctive modal verb falls in the 2nd position in a sentence (or in the 1st position in a yes-no question) and any accompanying infinitive appears at the end of the sentence:
EXAMPLES:
Ich möchte sie Ihnen vorstellen. I would like to introduce her to you.
Wir sollten es mal probieren. We should try it sometime.
Dürfte ich das Fenster aufmachen? May I open the window?
Er müsste zu schnell gefahren sein. He must have driven too fast.


PAST TENSE SUBJUNCTIVE II

Besides the present tense subjunctive, the only other form of the subjunctive commonly used with modal verbs is the past subjunctive, which is based on the perfect tense, using the subjunctive of the helping verb haben + the past participle of the modal verb.
Examples English equivalent
Ich hätte es gekonnt. I would have been able to do it.
(If) I could have done it
... [conditional]
Er hätte die Bilder gewollt. He would have wanted the pictures.
(If) he had wanted the pictures ...
[conditional]
Wir hätten ihn gemocht.
We would have liked him.
(If) we had liked him
... [conditional]
When the modal verb is accompanied by another verb in the past subjunctive, as is very often the case, instead of the past participle form, a double infinitive construction is used:
Examples English equivalent
Ich hätte es sagen können. I would have been able to say it
(If) I could have said it
... [conditional]
Er hätte die Kinder sehen wollen. He would have wanted to see the pictures.
(If) he had wanted to see the pictures ...
[conditional]
Wir hätten ihn besuchen sollen.
We ought to have visited him.
(If ...) we should have visited him
... [conditional]


FUTURE & FUTURE PERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE II

The subjunctive forms of the future tense and future perfect tense are created with the use of helping verbs. Please note that these forms are used infrequently. The present subjunctive is often used in place of the future tense subjunctive. And by virtue of its meaning as well as its stilted form in combination with other verbs, the future perfect tense does not occur with any frequency. These forms are included here only for the sake of completeness and comparison:
Tense Examples English equivalent
FUTURE Ich würde ... können. I would be able to; (if) I could
Er würde ... wollen.

PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE:
(PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE)

ich könnte ...
er wollte ...
he would want; (if) he wanted

 
 
I would be able to; (if) I could
he would want; (if) he wanted
FUTURE PERFECT Ich würde ... gekonnt haben.
I would have played
Er würde ... gewollt haben. he would have wanted
When the modal verb is accompanied by another verb in these tenses, a double infinitive construction is used:
Tense Examples English equivalent
FUTURE Ich würde ... schreiben können. I would be able to write;
I could write
Er würde ... arbeiten wollen.

PREFERRED ALTERNATIVE:
(PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE)

ich könnte ... schreiben

er wollte ...
arbeiten
he would want to work


 
I would be able to write;
(if) I could write
he would want to work;
(if) he wanted to work
FUTURE PERFECT Ich würde ... haben schreiben können.
I would have been able to write
Er würde ... haben arbeiten wollen.

**The subjunctive form of the future perfect with modals is rarely used.
he would have wanted to work


MODAL VERBS & SUBJUNCTIVE OF INDIRECT SPEECH

The modal verb forms of Subjunctive I, or subjunctive of indirect speech, follow the same patterns as for any other verb.


Modal verb meanings | Modal verb usage | Modal verb tense formation | Subjunctive of modal verbs
Summary of verb tenses | GRAMMAR INDEX



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