The modal verbs müssen and können in German

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The modal verbs müssen and können

müssen en

ich muss
du musst
er/sie/es muss
wir müssen
ihr müsst
sie/Sie müssen

können en
ich kann
du kannst
er/sie/es kann
wir können
ihr könnt
sie/Sie können

Können (can, to be able) is used to refer to:

  • things you have learned or know how to do;

Ich kann Ukulele spielen.

I can play the ukelele.

  • opportunities;

Wir können hier schlafen.

We can sleep here.

  • something that is permitted.

Du kannst hier rauchen!

You can smoke here!

Müssen (must, to have to) is used to refer to:

  • situations in which there is no alternative.

Ich muss auf die Toilette gehen.

I must go to the toilet.

Note: müssen + nicht does not mean that something is prohibited, it means you have the choice to do something. We could also use brauchen + nicht + zu.

Du musst nicht mitmachen, aber du kannst mitmachen.

You don't have to join in, but you can.

Du brauchst nicht mitzumachen, aber du kannst mitmachen.

You don't need to join in, but you can.

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