The use of modal verbs

We can use modal verbs in different situations:

  • Ability or opportunity: können können, Präsens

Rüdiger kann nicht singen.

Rüdiger can't sing.

Wir können Samstag ins Kino gehen.

We can go to the movies on Saturday.

  • Obligation or urgent recommendation: müssen müssen, Präsens

Ich muss morgen arbeiten.

I have to work tomorrow.

Du musst mir helfen.

You must help me.

  • Orders, advice or questions about what someone wants: sollen sollen, Präsens

Du sollst erst die Suppe essen.

You should eat the soup first.

Soll ich dir helfen?

Shall I help you?

  • Permission: dürfen dürfen, Präsens

Hier darf man schwimmen.

You are allowed to swim here.

Wo darf ich rauchen?

Where can I smoke?

  • Plans or (impolite) wants: wollen wollen, Präsens

Wir wollen nächstes Jahr nach Frankreich fahren.

We want/intend to go to France next year.

Ich will ein Bier.

I want a beer.

  • Desires or questions about them: möchten (polite form of wollen) möchten, Präsens

Wir möchten ein Doppelzimmer.

We would like a double room.

Möchten Sie etwas trinken?

Would you like something to drink?

  • Things you like to eat or do, preferences: mögen mögen, Präsens

Caroline mag Fleisch.

Caroline likes meat.

Wir mögen Katzen.

We like cats.

Note: the negation nicht müssen means “don't have to” (something not absolutely necessary), not “must not” (something prohibited).

Du musst mir nicht helfen. = Du brauchst mir nicht zu helfen.

You don't have to help me.

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