Modal verbs



Modal verbs dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen and wollen form a multiple predicate when combined with the infinitive of a full verb, thus changing its content. In this case, the modal verb is connected with the infinitive without the use of the word zu.


Lena will fernsehen.
Er muss jeden Monat die Rate zahlen.
Sein Vater kann sogar besser als seine Mutter kochen.




Modal verbs modify the content of the infinitive with which they are linked. Each modal verb has one or more meanings. These multiple meanings of the modal verbs characterize the relation between the subject and the predicate. In this case, we refer to the objective meaning of modal verbs. 


The following table shows an overview of these meanings:


modal verb meaning
dürfen permission, prohibition, request/demand
können possibility, ability, permission
mögen wish, liking, concession, request/demand
müssen necessity
sollen necessity, request/demand, intention, advice, requirement, future, supposition/assumption
wollen wish, will, intention, necessity, request/demand, future




There is also a second function of modal verbs. It involves meanings of the modal verbs that refer to the attitude of the speaker towards his/her statement. In this case, we refer to the subjective meaning of modal verbs. Through the subjective meaning of the modal verbs, either the likelihood of a fact is assessed (hypothesis) or speech is reported i.e. the words of somebody.


modal verb meaning
dürfen hypothesis
können hypothesis
müssen hypothesis
sollen reporting the words of somebody
wollen reporting the words of somebody




Besides modal verbs, there are also other verbs that can modify the meaning of an infinitive in a similar way. These verbs are connected with an infinitive that is always accompanied by zu.


Du brauchst dich nicht zu bedanken.
Sie scheint glücklich zu sein.
Das Schiff drohte zu sinken.




Modal verbs can also be used as full verbs; in this case, they are not linked to an infinitive.


Ich mag Monika sehr.
Klaus will, dass ich ihm Geld leihe.


This is often the case of elliptically formed sentences, in which the infinitive is omitted because its meaning can be deduced by the context.


Kannst du Deutsch (sprechen)?
Ich muss aufs Klo (gehen).