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Verbs: modal

Modal verbs are verbs associated with possibility or necessity.

Modal verbs

Examples of modal verbs include: ‘can’, ‘should’ and ‘want’.

You almost always have to combine them with another verb to show what you can/should/want to do. For example:

  1. I can speak German.
  2. My sister should lose weight.
  3. We want to go on holiday right now.

More modal verbs

Modal verbs

Modal verb Translation
müssen To have to
dürfen To be allowed to
können To be able to
mögen To like
wollen To want to
sollen To be supposed to/ought

Making sentences with modal verbs

They follow exactly the same pattern as the future tense:

  • Pronoun + Auxiliary verb + Infinitive (at the end)

In the future tense, ‘werden‘ is the auxiliary verb. With modal verbs, the modal verb itself is your auxiliary verb. The only thing that changes, whether you’re talking about the present or the past, is the modal verb.

Modal verbs in the present tense

müssen (to have to)

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es muss I/he/she/it has to
du musst You have to
wir/sie müssen We/they must
ihr müsst You must

 

können (to be able to)

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es kann I/he/she/it can
du kannst You can
wir/sie können We/they can
ihr könnt You can

 

sollen (be supposed to)

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es soll I/he/she/it is supposed to
du sollst You are supposed to
wir/sie sollen We/they are supposed to
ihr sollt You are supposed to

 

dürfen (to be allowed to)

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es darf I/he/she/it is allowed to
du darfst You are allowed to
wir/sie dürfen We/they are allowed to
ihr dürft You are allowed to

 

mögen (to like to)

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es mag I/he/she/it likes to
du magst You like to
wir/sie mögen We/they like to
ihr mögt You like to

 

wollen (to want to)

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es will I/he/she/it wants to
du willst You want to
wir/sie wollen We/they want to
ihr wollt You want to

 

Present tense modal verbs used in a sentence

  • Ich soll heute Abend meine Hausaufgaben machen -> I ought to do my homework this evening.
  • Ich will ins Kino gehen -> I want to go to the cinema.
  • In Brighton kann man im Meer schwimmen -> In Brighton you can swim in the sea.
  • Darfst du zu Hause Alkohol trinken? -> Are you allowed to drink alcohol at home?

‘Mögen’ is usually used without an infinitive, as in ‘Ich mag Schokolade’.

If you want to say you like doing something, eg eating chocolate, use gern, as in ‘Ich esse gern Schokolade‘.

‘Mögen’ comes into its own in its ‘imperfect subjunctive’ version (möchten) which is one of the most useful verbs of all.

Modal verbs in the past

Using modals in the imperfect form is one of the easiest and most versatile ways of talking about the past.

Had to

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es musste I/he/she/it had to
du musstest You had to
wir/sie mussten We/they had to
ihr musstet You had to

 

Was able to

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es konnte I/he/she/it was able to
du konntest You were able to
wir/sie konnten We/they were able to
ihr konntet You were able to

 

Was supposed to

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es sollte I/he/she/it was supposed to
du solltest You were supposed to
wir/sie sollten We/they were supposed to
ihr solltet You were supposed to

 

Was allowed to

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es durfte I/he/she/it was allowed to
du durftest You were allowed to
wir/sie durften We/they were allowed to
ihr durftet You were allowed to

 

Liked to

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es mochte I/he/she/it liked to
du mochtest You liked to
wir/sie mochten We/they liked to
ihr mochtet You liked to

 

Wanted to

Pronoun Modal verb Translation
ich/er/sie/es wollte I/he/she/it wanted to
du wolltest You wanted to
wir/sie wollten We/they wanted to
ihr wolltet You wanted to

 

Examples of modal verb use

Modal verbs are especially useful for talking about what you were allowed/had to do during work experience. For example:

  • Ich musste Kaffee kochen -> I had to make the coffee.
  • Ich durfte Autos reparieren -> I was allowed to repair cars.
  • Ich durfte keine Telefonanrufe beantworten -> I was not allowed to answer any phone calls.
  • Ich sollte von 9 bis 5 arbeiten -> I was supposed to work from 9 til 5.

Modal verbs in the imperfect subjunctive

The ‘imperfect subjunctive’ is just like the conditional – it means would like/would be allowed to etc. Everyone should know ‘möchten’ (the most useful verb of all for making requests or suggestions). Higher candidates should also be familiar with ‘sollten’ and ‘könnten’.

 

Would like to

Pronoun Modal verb
ich/er/sie/es möchte
du möchtest
wir/sie möchten
ihr möchtet

 

Would be able to (Higher)

Pronoun Modal verb
ich/er/sie/es könnte
du könntest
wir/sie könnten
ihr könntet

 

Should (Higher)

Pronoun Modal verb
ich/er/sie/es sollte
du solltest
wir/sie sollten
ihr solltet

 

Sentences with modal verbs in the imperfect subjunctive

The ‘imperfect subjunctive’ is especially useful for making requests or suggestions, or for giving advice.

Would like to

  • Ich möchte ein T-Shirt kaufen -> I’d like to buy a t-shirt.
  • Möchtest du schwimmen gehen? -> Would you like to go swimming?

Would be able to/should (higher)

  • Wir könnten einkaufen gehen -> We could go shopping.
  • Man sollte nicht zu viel Fett essen -> One should not eat too much fat.

It is important that you can pronounce möchten/könnten correctly – they are very similar to the past forms. If you mix the pronunciations up you will accidentally change the meaning, eg:

  • Ich mochte (mo-ch-te) ins Kino gehen -> I wanted to go to the cinema.
  • Ich möchte (mer-ch-te) ins Kino gehen -> I’d like to go to the cinema.
  • Wir konnten (konn-ten) Tennis spielen -> We were able to play tennis.
  • Wir könnten (kurn-ten) Tennis spielen -> We could play tennis.

Common mistakes made by English speakers

  • Getting the word order wrong (not putting the infinitive at the end).
  • Pronouncing möchten/könnten like mochten/konnten.
  • Adding a past participle when talking about the past.

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