Firstly, let's take a look at what modal verbs are. Then we'll look into how to use them: We'll cover the present tense first, then move on to the past and future tenses.
At the very end of the article you'll also find modal verb conjugation tables.
Introduction to Modal Verbs
What are Modal Verbs?
Modal verbs are used to attach an attitude (das Modalverb) to an action verb (das Vollverb), in a sentence. When we do this, the meaning of the sentence changes. For example, consider this plain sentence:
Sebastian isst heute Abend Spaghetti
Now let’s attach an attitude to this rather plain sentence, and give it some more spice:
Sebastian will heute Abend Spaghetti essen.
Sebastian muss heute Abend Spaghetti essen.
Sebastian kann heute Abend Spaghetti essen.
The action verb for each sentence here is essen. But each sentence now carries a different attitude associated with "essen":
Modal Verb Attitudes (Table)
How to Use German Modal Verbs
In the present tense, the modal verb (Modalverb) is usually the conjugated verb in the sentence, in position 2, establishing its tense, whilst the action verb (Vollverb) is usually placed at the end of the sentence in the infinitive form.
In German sentence structure, the verb can be placed in one of three positions: At the very beginning of the sentencen (position 1), as the second word in the sentence (position 2) and at the very end of the sentence:
When using modal verbs, the action verb is pushed towards the end of the sentence and is written in the infinitive:
Wir sollen unsere Hausaufgabe machen.
Du musst jetzt richtig zuhören.
However, when the meaning of the sentence is clear without the action verb, it can be left out altogether. For example:
Now before we move on to modal verbs in the past tense, you might want to try yourself at this short text, which is makes use of different modal verbs in the present tense.
Similarly to in the present tense, the modal verb (Modalverb) is usually conjugated and placed in position 2 when used in the simple past tense, with the action verb (Vollverb) usually placed at the end of the sentence, once again, in the infinitive form.
Sometimes, however, the second verb is left out of the sentence, when it isn’t necessary (just as in the present tense).
Present Perfect & Past Perfect
Remember, that sentences in the present perfect and past perfect tenses usually use the auxiliary verbs (das Hilfsverb) “haben”, or “sein”, along with the infinitive or past participle of the verb.
1. One Verb at the End of the Sentence
When using the perfect tenses, the conjugated, auxiliary verb (das Hilfsverb) is placed in position 2, and the modal verb is placed at the end, either in the infinitive of participle.
2. Two Verbs at the End of the Sentence
When a sentence requires the use of the modal verb along with another verb in the present perfect tense, both verbs are placed at the end of the sentence, with the second modal verb placed at the very end of the sentence, with the auxiliary verb occupying position 1 or 2:
You won't encounter the modal verb “dürfen” in the past perfect tense a lot. We've included it here, but you won't hear it very often.
Now let's look at some example texts. Let's start with the present perfect:
Past Perfect Tense:
When using the future tenses, the auxiliary verb (das Hilfsverb) is placed in position 1 or 2, whilst the modal and action verb (if present) are placed in their infinitive forms at the end of the sentence.
Ich werde meinen Mann umarmen wollen.
Sie wird das Essen probieren wollen.
Ich werde meinen Mann haben umarmen wollen.
Du wirst Deutsch haben lernen können.
Using modal verbs in the future perfect tense in German is actually very rare, and you will likely very rarely or never need to use it.