German modal verbs – Past, present, & future

Modal verbs express an attitude about an action expressed in the sentence. German has six modal verbs.

Modal verbs with principal partsMeanings (“modes”)
dürfen, (darf), durfte, gedurftto be allowed to, may (permission)
können, (kann), konnte, gekonntto be able to, can (ability)
mögen, (mag), mochte, gemochtto like (liking)
müssen, (muss), musste, gemusstto have to, must, to need to (necessity)
sollen, (soll), sollte, gesolltshall, to be supposed to (obligation)
wollen (will), wollte, gewolltto want to, to intend to (desire)


Modal verbs are usually accompanied by another verb that expresses the action. In the present and simple past tenses, this other verb is an infinitive at the end of the sentence.

Der Zug soll um 10 Uhr hier sein.The train is supposed to be here at 10 am.
Wann müssen Sie morgen aufstehen?When do you have to get up tomorrow?
Carola durfte mit uns mitkommen.Carola was allowed to come with us.
Möchtest du das Lied hören?Would you like to hear the song?

Modal verbs: Finite tenses

Present tense of modal verbs

The present tense conjugation of modal verbs is irregular. The six verbs follow a similar pattern of irregularity: ich-, du-, and er/sie/es-forms have a stem change (except for sollen), and in the ich– and er/sie/es-forms, the regular personal endings are the ich-, du-, and er/sie/es-forms.

German modal verbs present tense

Möchten (would like) is a special form of the verb mögen. It is used very frequently in German. Its conjugation pattern is more regular than that of the other modal verb forms. Note that the ich– and er/sie/es-forms are identical. See also: Subjunctive forms of modal verbs (coming soon).

German modal verb möchten


Simple past tense of modal verbs

The simple past tense of modal verbs is much like that of the mixed or weak verbs. The verbs with an umlaut in their infinitive drop the umlaut in the simple past conjugations.


Modal verb usage: Present and simple past tenses

Modal verbs are usually used in combination with another verb. In the present and simple past tenses, the modal verb is conjugated and the other verb appears at the end of the sentence in the infinitive form. Note that the tense of a sentence is carried by the modal verb.

Die Kinder wollen draußen spielen.
Die Kinder wollten draußen spielen.
The children want to play outside.
The children wanted to play outside.
Er darf die Sendung sehen.
Er durfte die Sendung sehen.
He is allowed to see the film.
He was allowed to see the film.
Wir können den Mann nicht verstehen.
Wir konnten den Mann nicht verstehen.
We can’t understand the man.
We couldn’t understand the man.

The infinitive at the end of the sentence may be omitted if the meaning of the sentence is clear without it. It happens most typically when the infinitives are fahren, gehen, machen, haben, sprechen, and tun. But it can happen with other verbs, too.

Willst du ein Stück Kuchen haben?
Willst du ein Stück Kuchen?
}Do you want a piece of cake?
Ich musste früh ins Bett gehen.
Ich musste früh ins Bett.
}I had to go to bed early.
So was kann er nicht machen.
So was kann er nicht.
}He cannot do something like that.

Only the verb mögen is regularly used without an additional infinitive. Mögen is used to say that one likes something or someone, rather than liking to do something, so it doesn’t require a second verb to complete its meaning. The verb mögen is most commonly used in statements and in negative questions.

Ich mochte den Film.I liked the film.
Magst du mich nicht mehr?Don’t you like me anymore?
Mögen Sie kein Fleisch?Don’t you like meat?

Modal verbs: Compound tenses

Perfect tenses

The perfect tenses of modal verbs are formed just like the perfect tenses of all other verbs — using the helping verb (haben) and past participle of the modal verb — only when not accompanied by another verb.

Present perfect tense:Ich habe die Schule gemochtI liked school.
Wir haben es so gewollt.We wanted it that way.
Past perfect tense:Er hatte das Mädchen gemocht.He had liked the girl.

When a modal is used with an additional verb in the present perfect tense, a double infinitive construction is used in lieu of the past participle. The perfect tense auxiliary (haben) is conjugated to agree with the sentence subject and the infinitive forms of the main verb and modal verb appear together at the end of the sentence.

Present perfect tense:Habt ihr den Bus nehmen müssen?Did you have to take the bus?
Er hat das Buch nicht lesen können.He couldn’t read the book.
Past perfect tense:Ich hatte das Museum besuchen wollenI had wanted to visit the museum.

The simple past tense of modal verbs is frequently used to avoid the double infinitive construction in the present perfect tense. The meanings are the same.

Simple past tense:Musstet ihr den Bus nehmen?Did you have to take the bus?
Er konnte das Buch nicht lesen.He couldn’t read the book.
When a modal verb is used with an additional verb in the past perfect tense, the double infinitive is the only option. There is no alternative tense.

Future tense

The future tense is similarly formed using a double infinitive construction when a modal verb is used. Here, the future tense auxiliary werden is conjugated and the infinitive forms of the main verb and modal verb appear together at the end of the sentence.

Future tense:Werdet ihr den Bus nehmen müssen?Will you have to take the bus?
Er wird das Buch nicht lesen können.He will not be able to read the book.

See also: Special meanings of modal verbs.

See also: Subjunctive mood (coming soon).

See more about German verb tenses.