Go to the homepage of our German Course Chapter 8: Telephone Calls University of Portsmouth
8.11 Modal verbs

(= permission)
(is to)
(= possibility)

The German modal verbs are a group of six verbs which affect the mood of a sentence, approximating to words like "can", "must" and "will" in English. Great care needs to be taken with their usage as each verb has a number of different meanings in different uses of their various tenses.

We have already given the present tense of "müssen" and "wollen" in Chapter 6. The present tenses of the other verbs will be added when we deal with these verbs individually. You can also click here to visit the verb tables which accompany this course.

Word order
All of these modal verbs need to be used with a second verb in the infinitive form. This second verb is always placed at the end of the sentence. Here are some examples which we have already met in this course:

Modal verb Clause
dürfen    Darf ich Ihnen einen Nachtisch bringen?
("May I bring you a dessert?")
können    Kann ich Ihnen helfen?
("Can I help you?")
mögen    Möchten Sie eine Nachricht hinterlassen?
("Would you like to leave a message?")
müssen    Sie müssen leider bis morgen warten.
("You'll have to wait until tomorrow.")
sollen    Soll er Sie zurückrufen?
("Would you like him to ring you back?")
wollen    Ich wollte mit der Straßenbahn fahren.
("I wanted to travel by tram.")

If the infinitive following a modal verb comes from a separable verb, then it does not split up and behaves like any other verb:

Modal Verb Clause
können    Ich rufe zurück.
BUT: Könnten Sie mich sobald wie möglich zurückrufen?
("Could you ring me back as soon as possible?")
mögen    Du rufst an.
BUT: Möchten Sie später noch mal anrufen?
("Would you like to ring back later?")
müssen    Sie fahren ab.
BUT: Wann müssen Sie abfahren?
("When do you have to leave?")

The same construction also appears with two verbs which we met in the first conversation in Chapter 7: gehen (= to go) and brauchen (= to need):

  • Ich gehe jetzt einkaufen.
    (I'm going shopping now.)
  • Du brauchst das nicht tun.
    (You don't have to do that.)

Modal verbs without the infinitive
InformationUnlike in English, German modal verbs can sometimes be used without a following infinitive, provided that the meaning of the omitted infinitive is clear from the context. This occurs most often in conversation, and predominantly with verbs of motion:

  • Ja, da kann ich.
    (Yes, I can manage that.)
  • Frau Müller will zum Bahnhof (fahren).
    (Frau Müller wants to go to the station.)
  • Barbara Zacharias muss ins Büro (gehen).
    (Barbara Zacharias has to go into the office.)
  • Ich möchte ein Eis (haben).
    (I would like to have an ice cream.)

Weiter! Chapter 8.12: Können, mögen and wollen

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