German modal verbs without a second verb! Really?

German modal verbs without a second verb! Really?

Modal verbs! How much do you know about them?

You probably remember a few things things:

  • They are conjugated differently to ‘normal’ verbs.
  • There aren’t many (können, müssen, sollen, wollen, dürfen)
  • They are ‘helping verbs’ as they always come with a second verb.
  • You’ll find that second verb in its infinitive at the end of the clause or sentence.

The slides give you a quick introduction again, in case you’ve forgotten how to conjugate them.

Then there is also mögen & möchten, which are used like modal verbs but also often used without a second verb. But mögen (to like), which gets conjugated like a modal verb, and möchten (conditional of mögen, would like) hardly ever have the second verb.

For example, if we want to say that we like playing tennis, we’d rather say ‘Ich spiele gerne Tennis’ and not ‘Ich mag Tennis spielen’. However, we might say ‘Ich mag Tennis’, which tells you that I like tennis, but not whether I mean I like playing or watching it.

But in this blog post I want to get back to 4 of the 5 modal verbs mentioned above: können, müssen, wollen & dürfen.

Because in spoken German you sometimes hear them used without a second verb! And because you can’t always do that in English it makes those sentences difficult to translate.


  • Ich kann Deutsch. I can speak German. I know German. The omission of a second verb only happens with languages. Normally, if we say we can do something we need the second verb, just like you do in English. But when it comes to languages, we often don’t bother with it. If a German says to you ‘ich kann Englisch’ they mean that they can speak it. If, for whatever reason, they can only read English, they would have to mention it ‘ich kann auf Englisch lesen’.
    So, when a German asks you ‘Kannst du Deutsch?’ don’t worry about the second verb and answer, ‘Na klar kann ich Deutsch!’
  • And if others say about you ‘Er/ Sie kann gut mit den Leuten’, it means that you have the common touch.


  • Darf ich? This is like the English ‘May I?’ and the action will tell you what it is somebody wants.
  • Darf ich (das Fenster öffnen)? May I (open the window)?
  • Darf ich (hier sitzten)? May I (sit here)?
  • Darf ich (den Stuhl nehmen)? May I (take this chair)?
  • Darf ich (hereinkommen)? May I (come in)?
    If the actions are obvious, there is no need to say what it is you wish to do.
  • If a child does something and a friend worries whether they are allowed to do whatever it is, you might hear the following question and answer:’Darfst du das?’  ‘Ja, darf ich.’
  • In Germany you can buy food products with the brand name ‘Du darfst’. Can you guess what they sell? (Answer at the bottom)


  • Ich will ein Eis! If a child shouts this, it’s pretty obvious that the missing verb is either haben or essen. Either way, it wants it now!
  • Ich will nach Hause! Again, it’s obvious that the person wants to go or drive home.
  • Willst du einen Kaffee? If I asked you that question, would you worry what the second verb might be? No, you would answer with yes or no.
  • Or, sometimes you don’t want something, like Trude Herr, who doesn’t want chocolate ☺


  • Ich muss morgen nach Berlin. If you heard somebody say that, can you guess what they mean? Tomorrow I have to … to Berlin. It’s pretty obvious that the missing verb should be to drive or to fly ‘ich muss morgen nach Berlin fahren/ fliegen. As it’s so obvious, we don’t bother.
  • Ich muss zum Zahnarzt. No need to bother with the addition of ‘gehen’, we know that person needs to go to the dentist.
  • Ich muss mal. This might be whispered to you at a party and might follow the question ‘Wo ist die Toilette?’ It’s a bit like we say in English ‘I need to go (to the toilet)’.
  • Ich muss Pipi. That sentence you will only hear from a child – I need a wee!
    Of course, I have researched this and found a suitable song.
    Enjoy ☺

Answer: ‘Du darfst’ is the brand name of calorie-reduced diet products.

If this post has reminded you, that you had planned to revise how to conjugate German verbs in the present tense, my online course is the perfect help: German tenses 1 – the present tense

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