The Verb 2 – The Special Ones

conjugating german verbsHello everyone,

and welcome to the 3rd part of the German-is-easy Online Course.

In the last post we have talked about how to conjugate pretty much any verb in German… except for 7 special ones and these are the ones we are going to deal with today. And without any further ado
here they are:

Sooo…  what exactly makes them so “special”? Well first of all they are all REALLY important words to know. You will need them all the time and you mustn’t think anymore when using them… they must become like extensions of your body,  you have to become one with these verbs. This is the only way to ever become a master in German…. oh and what also merits them a separate article is the fact that they conjugate differently and share other special characteristics regarding the grammar.
Now when you open a textbook for German or you sit in class, these verbs will be called modal verbs. This term is used as if you automatically know what it means… but how could you.
German and English modal verbs are not the same. Example: To want is not a modal verb in English while the German translation wollen is one of the most important ones.
What’s also interesting is that the English Wikipedia claims that French and other Roman languages don’t have modal verbs. That might be linguistically correct but when I was in school I was sure told about French modal verbs. So while being used as if it were a clearly defined term, in reality, “modal verb” is rather blurry. There is not simply “modal verbs”. There is just “English modal verbs” and “German modal verbs” and they are not the same.

Except for wissen, the verbs on the list above are the German modal verbs but what’s important here is that they conjugate differently… they have a different dress code if you will. That is why they are in one group, not the modal part.
The first difference in the conjugation are the endings you have to add to the stem.

lern-en  soll-en
  • ich
  • du
  • er/
  • wir
  • ihr
  • sie
  • lern – e
  • lern – st
  • lern – t
  • lernen
  • lernt
  • lernen
  • soll –
  • soll – st
  • soll –
  • soll – en
  • soll – t
  • soll – en


“What, and that’s all?? Cool. I was afraid it was going to be REALLY different?”
As you can see, the endings are not that different. Only ich and er lose their endings and the forms end up being identical. The rest is as you already learned it. But please absorb the special endings as well, because you need those for the real past all the time.
The regular endings are:

singular:    e – st – t  plural:     en – t – en    (with and occasional e added if it is not pronounceable)

and for the special ones:

singular:     _ – st – _  plural:      en – t – en

But there is more. All the special verbs except for sollen, that just somehow happened to be in our example above, change their stem-vowel… AT RANDOM. I mean… it’s not like they show up with a different stem vowel every 2 weeks. They do stick with one change but this change is not logical.  But note that only the singular persons change. The plural ones do not, there the conjugation is totally regular, all the time… as it is in real life by the way ,only individuals behave individually, the mass just goes by the consensus.
What we’ll do now is look at the special verbs one by one, see (roughly) what they mean and look at the vowel change… and then we are done with conjugating in present tense. Awesome.

können – kann

Können covers everything between can and to be able to and it even extends into the realm of having permission.

This sentence can mean that he has the option to watch TV, it can mean that he is has the equipment you need to TV or that he has the permission to watch TV… the last one only for spoken German.
Germans decide by context which of the meanings it is. This gives us ample opportunity for incredibly funny jokes like this one:

Thomas meant “Can you tell me what time it is?” while Maria answers to “Are you able to tell me what time it is?”. She definitely did that on purpose though. This is a situation where it is very obvious. If you wonder as to how funny this really is… well not that much but everyone does it every now and then… I think mainly to piss the other person off a little tiny bit. You certainly shouldn’t do it to strangers, that would seem very arrogant…. just to your friends.
Most of the time the context makes it clear. But let’s say you want to go for a weekend to the seaside with your roommates. The question is who is going to drive. If you say:

you might be asked whether you’re really not able or you just don’t have a German license. Anyway, these occasions are rare and you definitely don’t need to be scared to mix things up.

Können is a German modal verb and I guess by default it doesn’t really make sense on it’s own but in spoken German it does. Especially kids would say things like this:

The missing verb is haben (to have) but everyone understands it. However, I would suggest not to try those things too soon, because if you don’t get the intonation right it won’t sound like genuine native German but rather like a HUGE grammar mistake. What’s also important for you is to get used to that whole verb leftovers at the end thing.

As you have seen the vowel change goes to a  so the conjugation is

wollen – will

Oh god, the headline… oh no.. they will think that… oh god, too late, they’ve read it… NOOOOOOOOO!
What have I done…
Why I am so upset? Because the headline is going to make you think that wollen has something to do with the English will. That is not the case. I mean the origins are the same but the meanings are certainly not.

  • I will drink beer.
  • Ich will Bier trinken.

These 2 just won the German-English-Look-alike award and yet the English sentence is future while the German one expresses a desire in present… now clever people might argue that this is the same. As long as I am not drinking the beer, how can I be certain that it will happen. What more than the expression of a desire is “I will drink beer.” then again there is also “The apple will fall.”… anyways.. what were we doing here… oh yeah… wollen. Wollen means to want … no more, no less. So

translates to

  • I want to drink a cold beer.

Wollen is a German modal verb and I guess technically needs another verb for completion but in spoken German things like the following are very very very common.

As for können the “missing” verb here is haben. I wouldn’t write something like this but in spoken it totally fine.

The vowel change is no surprise here anymore…. it is an i so the complete conjugation is:


müssen – muss

Now in this case the familiarity is not misleading and müssen does indeed mean must , to have toand to need to do sth.  Please do not try to translate to have to with haben or need to with brauchen. It works at times but the proper word for now is müssen.

This is pretty straight forward except for one exception.

  • mustn’t  open the window.

This form of must does not really mean not to have to and consequently it is NOT translated with müssen. If you say

you are saying that you are not obliged to open the window.
Let’s do one example with need to.

Now can müssen stand alone? Yes it can. Usually it comes along with mal. You might want to remember the following example. It is VERY handy for a long car ride.

Everyone will understand it and the driver won’t miss the next chance to stop. Why? The missing part is to go to the toilet.

I think you’ve all figured out the vowel change. It just loses the “Umlaut”. So the complete conjugation is:


mögen – mag

This verb is also very important and you will need it every day. It has the same origins as the English may but the real meaning of mögen is to like. Hmm… let’s say it again to give it some more attention from you … it’s not like I don’t know that you are all on Facebook while you’re reading this. To like in German is mögen.

This works straightforward for everything pretty much so I won’t give more examples but rather have YOU translate the next example. It is not easy and you sure need to do some research on-line but it is doable. And as a special little treat the first one to post the correct answer in a comment will get a six pack of beer … at some point… from someone… probably in exchange for money or friendshippy behavior. So here is the phrase:

Yeah, that’ll make you think … :).
Just for completion here the complete conjugation for mögen:


dürfen – darf

This word doesn’t really have a relative. The core meaning is “to have the permission to do something”. So it could be translated to can or may. I’d say dürfen is less formal than the English may. German kids would ask for permission using dürfen.

“Mom, may I watch TV tonight?” sounds a bit odd to me… but then again I am no native so this might be bullshit. Anyway, just to make sure… dürfen does not mean may in sense of “It may rain.” It really only means “to have the permission”. In spoken German you can always use können instead, so dürfen is not that extraordinarily useful but still it is good to know.

Just as können, dürfen sometimes stands alone because the verb haben is skipped.

This sounds really childish though and you shouldn’t use it at all.
Now here is the complete conjugation:


sollen – soll

Sollen is the only one of the special ones that does not change its vowel. It is the least important of all of them, and often people find it difficult to get the meaning. Technically it is related to shall,  but this relation really only works with the past/conditional should which is sollte. These 2 mean the same but shall and sollen don’t … at least not enough.
Sollen means an obligation or constraint that is inflicted by a human being. So sollen is the same as müssen, but müssen is broader. Sollen always includes that someone told you so. Thus it also includes the option of disobedience. Something you musst do might be at times inevitable. Something you sollst do, is always up to you in the end.

Now sollen can definitely be replaced by müssen all the time. So as long as you understand it, that is enough for now. But we will meet this again when we talk about past and conditional so don’t discard it completely.

The complete conjugation is boring so I won’t it here :).


 wissen – weiß

So far, all the verbs we discussed are German Modal verbs but wissen is not. However, for some reason it is the only non-modal verb that conjugates like them. Maybe the regular verbs have sent a spy to the special ones to see what they are up to or it is some kind of union thing going on. Anyway, wissen doesn’t only conjugate differently, it is also uuuuuuuuuuseful. Actually if you can only remember one word of all the verbs here you should remember wissen. Because basically it allows you to express that you don’t know anything else.

So wissen means to know… and now comes a huge but…
To know translates to either wissen or kennen, depending on what it is that you know. Persons, movies, books, songs… all these things that are not really facts work with kennen. You cannot wissen a movie or person. You can know how the movie was and who the person is but not them as a whole.
Kennen could also be translated as to be acquainted with.
The boundaries between the 2 verbs are blurry and there are many situations where either is proper. I don’t want to get too much into detail here but I might write a post on the difference between the 2 soon.
Let’s do some examples with wissen.

Now all of you are probably gnawing fingernails wondering what letter that is.  It is called “s-z” (ass-tsat) or sharp s or, and this is my personal favorite, Rucksack-s. A Rucksack is a backpack so it is an s with another s in its backpack. Anyway, it is basically a double s. As your keyboards probably won’t have ß, go for ss.

So… wissen changes its vowel to ei and that is pronounced “uy”. The complete conjugation is:


Sentence structure and wrap up

So this is it… these are our special verbs, with their oh so special conjugation and their even more special vowel changes. Just a quick reminder:

I want to say a few words about the word order in the sentence before we call it a day. In the last post  I have already explained one of the most important concepts of German sentences. The main verb, the conjugated one, is at position number 2. All the leftovers pile up at the end. In the last post our leftovers were these little prefixes like an, auf or ein. With the verbs discussed today you will also often have leftovers but this time it’s other verbs.

Now you may ask “And what if the sentence is really really long…like REALLY long?” And German will answer “Size doesn’t matter, you must not say the leftovers prematurely.”… yeah, German is a dork sometimes…
Here is an example. for a loooong sentence.

Famous and well renowned students of the German language have declared that this … sucks.
And I have to admit that it looks scary. But once you are used to it it is fun. The sentence or phrase has a defined ending, no matter how it looks. If you cut the part how long he has been dating her, the German sentence is just shorter but still ends the same way. This verb-at-the-end-thing really gives some gravity to the end of the sentence. It doesn’t just end at some point. It ends with whats most important. This is also a reason why German politicians appear to be very good listeners. Truth is, they just can’t interrupt, because they can’t know what the other one is saying…. sure… you can anticipate a LOT. But a German needs this final verb. It makes him feel well. If you forget it, it will feel incomplete, if you say it too early your sentence is not that interesting anymore.. there is no more suspense in it.

Even if it makes your brain bend,
put the verb’s leftovers at the end.

Yeah… that is so poetic. I think we’re done for today… the words in this article are ESSENTIAL for German, so make sure you understood everything. If not it is probably because the explanation sucks. Just leave me a comment and I’ll see to it. But now I’ll look into this whole gas station plan… if you do not know what I am talking about you have so not read the examples ;).

Next time, we will talk about how to ask questions… in German.
Till then take care.

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