Modal verbs – expressing ability, necessity etc.


Modal verbs modify an action or situation by expressing the idea of ability, obligation, permission etc.:

Sie kann sehr gut schwimmen. She can swim very well.
Wir müssen jetzt gehen. We have to go now.
Hier dürfen Sie rauchen. You are allowed to smoke here.

Modal verbs in German
In German there are six modal verbs:

dürfen may/to be allowed to
können can/to be able to
mögen to like (to) (also used in the form möchten).
müssen must/to have to
sollen to be supposed to/should/ought to
wollen to want to

Meaning and most common usage
dürfen – permission, prohibition (‘must not’) dürfen usually conveys the idea of permission and can be translated with ‘may’/‘can’ or ‘to be allowed to’:

Darf ich hier fotografieren? Am I allowed to take photos here?
Hier dürfen Sie parken. You can/are allowed to park here.

It often adds a sense of politeness and can be used in more formal situations:
Darf ich Ihnen behilflich sein? May I help you?

When used in the negative, dürfen expresses prohibition (‘must not’, ‘not to be allowed to’):

Das dürfen Sie nicht. You must not do this.
Als Kind durfte sie nie fernsehen. As a child she was never allowed to watch TV.