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German Modal Verbs

Some features of modal verbs:

1. Modals are considered irregular verbs, because their present tense endings do not follow the normal pattern.

i.e. The “ich” part of almost every other verb ends in –e, and the er/sie part ends in –t. This is not true of modal verbs which all end in a consonant, and – here’s the first bit of good news: these two forms I just mentioned are always the same as each other.


Ich kann à er kann

Muss ich? à sie muss

Darf ich? à Man darf nicht…

2. When using a modal verb, the second verb will ALWAYS be in the infinitive form, at the end of the clause, whether the sentence refers to past, present or future.

3. When using a modal verb, the extra zu is never needed.

4. It’s rare to use modal verbs in the future tense. If you “must” do something it implies the future anyway. Think of it as either past or non-past tense.

5. When using a modal in the past tense, you have the choice of

a. simple past (imperfect) as shown in the table above: „Am Sonntag wollten wir fernsehen.“

b. or the perfect tense: „Am Sonntag haben wir fernsehen wollen.“

There is absolutely no difference in meaning, just register. The perfect tense is more conversational, imperfect more formal.

Modal verbs all take haben as the auxiliary verb, as do all verbs which are abstract.

Modal verbs do have a past participle, but only when it stands alone without another verb.

Use the infinitive as the past participle when the other verb is mentioned.

Ich habe gewollt.

Wir haben nicht gekonnt.

Wir haben es nicht machen können.

The good news: using modal verbs sounds impressive, whether you are trying to pass and exam or sound conversationally proficient in real life, but it is often easier than not doing so. The reason for this is that once you have learnt the patterns, it eliminates the need to mess around with any potential irregularities of the main verb, because this will always be in the infinitive form and *there is no such thing as an irregular infinitive*.

However, there are some cases when translating a modal verb directly from English can sound strange:

Fügen Sie in den folgenden Sätzen die richtigen Modalverbformen hinzu.

i. The sentences below already make sense, but add a modal verb to change the meaning.

ii. Having done this, can you think of an alternative modal verb that would still make sense?

iii. Can you put it into the past tense? [Answers below]

1. Er kommt mit uns ins Kino. (wollen)


2. Ich arbeite am Sonntag. (müssen)


3. Rufst du deine Eltern an? (sollen)


4. Ich bestelle eine Tasse Kaffee. (mögen)


5. Heute kocht meine Mutter nicht. (wollen)


6. Fahrt ihr mit uns nach Wien? (dürfen)


7. Wann wirst du zu Hause sein? (müssen)


8. Hilfst du mir bei den Hausaufgaben? (können)



1. Er will mit uns ins Kino kommen.

2. Ich muss am Sonntag arbeiten.

3. Du sollst deine Eltern anrufen.

4. Ich möchte eine Tasse Kaffee bestellen.

5. Meine Mutter will heute nicht kochen.

6. Dürft ihr mit uns nach Wien fahren?

7. Wann müsst ihr zu Hause sein?

8. Kannst du mir bei den Hausaufgaben helfen?

This worksheet is designed to accompany the podcast, which you can find on Spotify:

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