Coming across the six modal verbs in the German language, I've put them in correspondence (1:1) with English ones (or similar English verbs used in conjunction with main verbs):

1a. müssen --> must

1b. sollen --> should/have to

2a. wollen --> want

2b. mögen --> like/would like

3a. dürfen --> may/be allowed to

3b. können --> can

In this way category 1 expresses a duty (mandatory or advised); category 2 expresses willingness; category 3 expresses the potential to do something.

I'd like to know whether this correspondence, especially within the same category, is correct, or if there are some details I'm missing.

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    I'm a beginner in the language, too. As far as I know, all the six modal verbs in German are polysemic. A random example involving sollen: du sollst nicht töten, where sollen is the equivalent of the English shalt: thou shalt not kill. – indoxica Jul 19 '13 at 7:43
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    At first glance everything's OK. But pay attention: 'must == müssen', but 'must not != nicht müssen'. But I hope someone will mention this in their answer. – Em1 Jul 19 '13 at 7:58
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    have to is more often müssen than sollen in my view. – chaero Jul 19 '13 at 9:28
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    Actually, "nicht müssen" is the opposite to "müssen" but "must not" is not the opposite to "must". While "must" is ~"have to", "must not" is ~"not allowed to". Emanuel said "... but it must not be taken 1:1". He could also say "Under no circumstances you should..." or something like that. In German "must not" means "nicht dürfen". And "dürfen" in English is "allowed to". – Em1 Jul 19 '13 at 12:57
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    A negation (the negation?) of "müssen" is "nicht brauchen", habe ich gelernt: "Du muss das machen" <-> "Du brauchst das nicht zu machen". – c.p. Jul 19 '13 at 17:30

With the exceptions of sollen which should be shall instead of should (which would be sollte) and - as chaero has mentioned in a comment - to have to which is more often müssen than sollen, your structure is ok, but it must not be taken 1:1 (mind my usage of must in the last sentence). Similarly, there are overlaps between mögen and may... especially when it comes to their true modal usage. So it is more like a loose guide.

German and English modal verbs are not the same. Not all the verbs you mentioned are modal verbs in English (like, want, have to, be allowed to). Also, the definitions of what exactly a modal verb is are different in both languages. One thing to understand is that modal verbs in German do not exclusively express modes. In fact, können and mögen are mostly used as stand alone normal verbs.

  • Ich kann Deutsch sprechen.

is not a modal expression, when you mean that you are able to do it.

  • Ich mag Käsekuchen.

is not a modal expression either. As far as the categories go, I have recently read that grammarians distinguish between only 2 groups. One was obligation and the other one was (not sure though) potential. So in order to categorize them you first have to single out their pure modal meaning.

Etymologically, the correspondence is like this:

  • müssen - must
  • sollen - shall
  • wollen - will
  • mögen - may
  • dürfen - (nothing to my knowledge)
  • können - can
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    The English line of dürfen has died out, but there is of course already a Facebook group which purpose is to reintroduce 'tharf' in the modern English language :) facebook.com/pages/… – jarnbjo Jul 19 '13 at 16:43

There are difference in the way you use must/must not

must not == darf nicht

eg. You must not go there.

have to == müssen

I have to go to the bathroom.

need to == müssen

I need to go to the bathroom

I'd translate

sollen == suppose to

You're supposed to be there at 9am.

dürfen == to have permission, can

You can enter the area before we'll be there. You have permission to enter the room before the teacher will arrive.


"have to" can also be translated literally... "Wenn ich Dir das sage, dann hast Du das zu machen." Hat etwas von Befehl und Hierarchie.

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