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Deutsche Modalverben – German modal verbs I: dürfen, können, möchten Posted by on Sep 2, 2011 in Grammar

Modal verbs modify an action or situation by expressing the ideas of permission, ability, obligation, necessity, etc.

The six German modal verbs are:

dürfen – may / to be allowed to

können – can / to be able to

möchten – to like to / to want to

müssen – must / to have to

sollen – to be supposed to / should / ought to

wollen – to want to

At first, let’s have a look at the three modal verbs: dürfen, können, möchten.




The modal verb dürfen expresses PERMISSION or PROHIBITION (‘must not’). It can be translated with  ‘may’, ‘can’ or ‘to be allowed to’. Compare the sentences below.


Das Kind spielt. – The child is playing. / The child plays.

Das Kind darf spielen. – The child is allowed to play.


Ich mache ein Foto von dem Gebäude. – I am taking a picture of the building.

Ich darf ein Foto von dem Gebäude machen. – I am allowed to take a picture of the building.


Ich helfe ihr. – I am helping her. / I help her.

Ich darf ihr helfen. – I am allowed to help her.




The modal verb können expresses ABILITY and corresponds to the English ‘can’ and ‘to be able to’.


Sie schwimmt. – She swims. / She is swimming.

Sie kann schwimmen.- She can swim. / She is able to swim.


Ich spiele Gitarre. – I play the guitar. / I am playing the guitar.

Ich kann Gitarre spielen. – I can play the guitar. / I am able to play the guitar.




The modal verb möchten is used to express INTENTION or DESIRE. It can be translated with ‘to like to’ or ‘to want to’.


Du gehst jetzt. – You are going/leaving now.

Ich möchte, dass du jetzt gehst. – I like you to go now. / I want you to go now.


Claudia spielt Tennis. – Claudia is playing tennis. / Claudia plays tennis.

Claudia möchte Tennis spielen. – Claudia wants to /likes to play tennis.



Here is a table where you can find all conjugated forms of the modal verbs dürfen, können, and möchten in the present tense.










Du(you;sgl.  informal)




Sie(you; sgl. fomal)












Ihr(you; pl. informal)




Sie(you; pl. formal)










Exercise: Now it’s your turn. Fill in the appropriate form of the modal verb in the present tense. You will find the infinitives in parentheses.


1. Sonja ______ Klavier spielen. (können)

2. Peter ______ Fussball spielen. (möchten)

3. Petra _______ nicht ausgehen. (dürfen)

4. Schade, dass ihr nicht mitkommen ________. (können)

5. Sie ______ an der Situation nichts ändern. (können)

6. Er _______ drei Stunden nichts essen. (dürfen)

7. Wir _______ noch nicht Autofahren. (dürfen)



(Key: 1-kann; 2-möchte; 3-darf; 4-könnt; 5-kann; 6-darf; 7-dürfen )

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About the Author:Sandra Rösner

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra


  1. Jon:

    How do wollen and möchten differ? I understand that ordering food or something you use möchten. But do they carry different connotations when both are meaning “to want” like; I want you. or I want that toy. Are they interchangeable in those instances and others or not?

  2. EP:

    That makes me think of Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language.” At one point he writes: I don’t know what “wollen haben werden sollen sein hätte” means, but I notice they always put it at the end of a German sentence — merely for general literary gorgeousness, I suppose.

  3. Brett:

    Möchten is used for polite requests like ordering at a restaurant. “Ich möchte noch ein Bier, bitte” I usually think of it as “would like” whereas “wollen”is definitely “to want”.

  4. Madeline:

    Brett, that’s exactly how i would explain it as well.

  5. Guitarmaster:

    Also “möchte” is a lot more used in written language, while “ich will” is more used in everyday language between friends.

  6. ponkieins:

    There’s a little difference between wollen and möchten. When you say ‘ich möchte’ you’re saying something like ‘i’d like to’. When u say ‘ich will’you’re saying ‘i want’

  7. Bruna:

    Hi,I’m starting to learn german and I have a doubt about an example.
    Ich möchte, dass du jetzt gehst. – I like you to go now. / I want you to go now.
    In this case, why the last verb was “gehst” instead of the infinite form “gehen”?

    Thanks a lot.

    • Sten:

      @Bruna Hi!

      Literally translated, it says: “I would like that you go now” (where “go” = “gehst”).

      “Ich möchte” translates to “I would like”. The form “Ich möchte, dass” means “I would like (you) to”. The English form asks for an infinitive after “to”, so in this case “go”.
      In German, “dass” creates a subclause, so basically a new sentence. In this case, “du” goes, so “du gehst”.

      I hope that clears things up!

  8. stephen:

    The verb is mögen, not möchten. Möchten is the subjunctive 2 form of the verb mögen

    • Sandra:

      @stephen To my knowledge, “möchten” is simply a flectional form of “mögen” but this doesn’t matter here because “möchten” is a common and ordinary German modal verb.

  9. Baccalaureus:

    “MÖCHTEN” as a verb does not exist. The infinitive form is “mögen” and it is in many contexts used in subjunctive II: “Ich möchte, du möchtest…”. But there are also many situations where you use the indicative form “Ich mag, du magst, er mag, wir mögen, ihr mögt, sie/Sie mögen” or the subjunctive I “Ich möge, du mögest, er möge