German Modal Verbs in Present Tense

By Wendy Foster

Part of Intermediate German For Dummies Cheat Sheet

In German, modal verbs modify the main verb in the sentence. Here’s how they work: You take a plain old verb or phrase like eat, sleep, walk, plant a garden, play tennis, learn how to play chess, or do nothing. Then you think about your attitude toward these activities, and you decide you want to say I like to eat, I must sleep more, I would like to walk every day, I should plant a garden, I can play tennis well, I want to learn how to play chess, or I may do nothing. The underlined modal verbs offer you a wide range of ways to express your attitude toward actions such as eat, sleep, play, and learn.

Modal verbs such as obligation (sollen), ability (können), or permission (dürfen) usually come in second position; any other verbs get booted to the end of the sentence or clause. Modal verbs may stand alone without the main verb when the meaning of the main verb is clear from the context.

These verbs all have regular verb endings in their plural forms (wir, ihr, sie, and Sie). Most of them also have irregular verb changes, some of which you can see in the examples in the following table.