The meaning of “dürfen”

Written By: Emanuel Updated: July 1, 2024

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day,
this time with a close look at one of the famous modal verbs…

dürfen

 

And this one definitely deserves a dedicated look, because first off, as you might know from personal experience, the meaning of dürfen seem a bit hazy to many students.
Then, there are a few uses that don’t even seem to be in the same haze.
And the related words, wow, they’re so crazy they’re basically hazel…. nuts.

Seriously though, there’s definitely a lot to learn about dürfen so let’s jump right in :)

One quick word before we start: I am not going to talk about too much about the basic grammar of modal verbs. If you feel shaky about that, just check out my article on the modals.

German Modal Verbs 101

But since dürfen is somewhat irregular with the conjugation, here are the forms in present and past

ichdarfdurfte
dudarfstdurftest
er, sie, esdarfdurfte
wir, siedürfendurften
ihrdürftdurftet

And now let’s see how to use it.

The normal uses “dürfen”

Dürfen is by far not as useful as other modals like können or wollen. Some of you might not even have used dürfen at all.
But I’m pretty sure most of you have heard somewhere at some point that it’s got something to do having permission.

Like… that’s its main meaning actually.
Let’s look at some examples:

  • Thomas darf Pause machen.
  • Thomas has permission to take a break.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

 

  • Du darfst das Einhorn streicheln, aber nicht füttern.
  • You‘re allowed to pet the unicorn, but not feed it.
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  • Kaum zu glauben, dass man in Flugzeugen früher mal rauchen durfte.
  • Hard to believe that you were allowed to/you could smoke in airplanes back in the day.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The translation doesn’t always have to literally include the words allow or permission. What matters is the idea.

  • Sie dürfen die Braut jetzt küssen.
  • You may now kiss the bride.
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  • Darf ich dich was fragen?
  • May/can I ask you something?
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  • Darf ich bei euch mal auf Toilette?
  • Can (“to have permission”) I use your bathroom? (in a restaurant or bar)
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  • “Maria, darf ich deinen Nagellack benutzen?
    “Nein Thomas, darfst du nicht?”
  • “Maria, can/may I use your nail polish?”
    “No, Thomas, you may NOT!”
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

You could use können in all these examples and they would be essentially the same. Dürfen just sounds a little tiny bit more formal or pleading but in colloquial speech können is actually more common, I would say.
Though you’re running the risk of someone being REALLY funny and going like “I don’t know if you CAN use the bathroom, but you certainly may.”
We have the same speech police in German, though not as strict as in English maybe.

You definitely dürfen use können for dürfen, if you want to :).

Anyways, so permission is the core of dürfen.
But there are uses that don’t involve a real permission.

The important side meaning of  “nicht dürfen”

So, besides actually having permission, dürfen is also used to express a somewhat general sense of “It’s (not) okay, good, productive.” .

  • Bei dem Preis darf man ja wohl sauberes Besteck erwarten.
  • For this price, you can damn well expect clean silver ware, no?
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Du darfst keine zu hohen Erwartungen an deinen Deutschkurs haben. Du selber bist verantwortlich für deinen Erfolg.
  • You shouldn’t have too high expectations of your German course. You yourself are responsible for your success.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Of course, there’s no real “ban” on having high expecations for a German course. You don’t need “permission” for it. It’s just not a good idea.
And this usage brings us right over to the important side meaning of the negation nicht dürfen.

  • Bei einer guten Party darf gutes Bier nicht fehlen.
  • At a good party, there must not/can’t be be a lack of good beer.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas darf keine Pause machen, sonst implodiert das Universum.
  • Thomas must not take a break, otherwise the universe will implode.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

That’s right. The English must not is translated with nicht dürfen. And it’s not just A translation. It’s THE translation.
You see, the German nicht müssen is about there NOT BEING AN OBLIGATION, while the English must not is about there BEING AN OBLIGATION NOT TO.
Let’s put the two side by side.

  • There’s no obligation to eat meat. (nicht müssen)
  • The is an obligation to NOT to eat meat. (must not)

These are very different as you can see.
And the English must not is translated as nicht dürfen. So essentially, in German we express the idea of must not by saying having no permission. I mean… it makes sense if you think about it in terms of the negative consequences both kind of bring with them.

So yeah, nicht dürfen is the translation for must not. This is really important, actually, and you must not use nicht müssen ;).

  • Du darfst nicht nicht müssen für must not verwenden.

Cool.
Now let’s move on to another little odd side translation that might throw learners for a loop.
And that’s the conditional form… dürfte(n).

The Meaning of “dürfte(n)”

dürfte- is the conditional form of dürfen.  So it’s the equivalent for könnte- (could) or müsste- (would have to).  And its basic meaning is would have permission.

  • Es wäre schön, wenn man in dieser Sauna Bier trinken dürfte.
  • It would be great if one was allowed to drink beer in this sauna.

However, there’s a second use that’s quite common in daily life and that might throw learners off a bit.

  • 10 Euro dürften reichen.
  • 10 Euro should be enough.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

If you come across this in the wild, you might be like “Bruh what? dürften also means should now?!”
But no, that’s not really what’s going on.
Here’s another example that’ll make a bit more clear what this use dürften is actually about:

  • Die Kritik dürfte ihn geärgert haben.
  • That criticism probably pissed him off.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The core idea in both examples is the idea of something being  probable or likely from your perspective.
That’s what dürfte- is often used for.
Does it connect to the core idea of permission?
Well, I guess a fundamental notion of positive potential does the trick. If you have permission to enter, there’s a potential for you entering. If you’re “likely to enter” there’s also a potential for you entering. Not sure, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, this use is not too common and you certainly don’t need to use the verb that way yourself. Just keep in mind that if you hear a dürfen that absolutely doesn’t make sense as permission, it might be this one, the one about probability.
Cool.

Now, we can’t talk about dürfen without also mentioning its use in” store talk”. Because, I bet that has confused quite a few beginners as well.
Here’s a little dialogue.

  • “Guten Tag, was darf’s sein?”
    “Hallo, ich hätt’ gern 100 Gramm Bergkäse.”
    “Gerne, darf’s sonst noch was sein?”
  • “Hello, what would you like/what can I get you?”
    Hi, I’d like 100 grams of mountain cheese.”
    “Sure, would you like anything else?”
    (I actually don’t know how these talks are in idiomatic English, please help :)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

These two lines a  THE main way to ask what you’d like to buy in grocery stores. Using dürfen in that context is not all that crazy. It’s a bit like “What can I get you?“. The German phrasing is a bit different though,  and when you translate it literally, I’m sure many of you will end up with the same question…

“What is it allowed to be?”
“Is it allowed to be something else?”

The question is  of course what the hell is “es” referring to? And for that, we’ll turn to the writings of the famous German psychologist Sigmund Freud:

The “es”  people refer to in store talk is THE “es” , id in English –
the instinctual unregulated part of our being, pure, raw desire.
Our id sees the cheese and wants all of it. The sales clerk is asking
us which part of our largely suppressed id our ego is allowing to
manifest in our groceries – “What is id allowed to be.”

Yeah… of course that’s complete nonsense. The es doesn’t really stand for anything, think of it as a filler, just take these sentences as fixed phrasings. I mean, you don’t even use the phrasing to answer these questions.
“Ja, es darf noch ein Brötchen sein“… they would be really confused at the bakery, and maybe even feel like you’re mocking them.
So what was all that nonsense about id and our innermost desires and needs good for?
Well, it  kind of leads us to the related words of dürfen.
Because those are all about needs.

The needy relatives of “dürfen”

We’ve learned that the core of dürfen is permission.
But back a few hundred years ago, the core of the family was something different – need.
The sentence “Du darfst schlafen” used to be “You need to sleep.“.

How do you get from one to the other? Well, the first step is to see the connection between needing and obligation.

“Honey, you really need to do the dishes!”
“Ugh… come on, the pile is just a few days high.”

Here, the person addressed hasn’t really felt like there’s a need to do the dishes.
The person speaking is creating that very need with that very statement. So it’s kind of a hidden obligation.

“No, I don’t need to do them.”
“Yes you DO need to do them.”

Or take the need to breathe. That’s a need, but also kind of an imperative, an “obligation” to self.
All right. So that was step one, and the second step is to add a negation to such an obligation.

“You STILL haven’t done the dishes?!?! 
“Hey, it’s just dirty dishes, no need for drama.”

Here, Thomas … uh.. the person saying the second sentence basically wants to express that the other person SHOULDN’T make a fuss about it. It’s basically “Don’t do drama!” in disguise. So in some way it’s a permission denied.

And for some reason** (**no reason, really, just German being stupid) the phrase “nicht dürfen” slowly shifted from “not needing” to “not being obliged to”  and then to “being obliged not to”.
Which is basically not having permission.
And eventually, the entire verb focused on the new notion of permission and the connection to needing was completely forgotten.

Except it wasn’t.

It was lost completely for dürfen itself and no native speaker hears even a hint of need in that word nowadays.
But the idea of needing is very much alive in the related word to dürfen. Which is quite a surprise to native speakers because they’re absolutely not aware of the connection.

The first example for this is the adjective dürftig. Literally, it once meant “needy” and today it means poor but in the sense of “needs improvement”. So you’d use it in contexts of results, not for actual poverty.

  • Das Ergebnis vom Brainstorming war eher dürftig.
  • The result of the brainstorming was kind of poor.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

And there’s notdürftig, which literally means something like “out of the need in an emergency” and which expresses the idea a quick, make-shift fix, that’s not going to last long.

  • Ich habe das Fahrrad notdürftig repariert, aber lange hält das nicht.
  • I made a make-shift repair of the bike/patched up the bike, but it won’t last long.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

But the really useful ones are those based on a prefix version of dürfen – bedürfen.
Bedürfen itself, which was a more intense version of  the original need-dürfen, is still around, but it’s quite rare, especially in spoken German. If you ever need a REALLY fancy sounding choice for to need, this is one to pick, but be aware… it goes with Genitive ;).

  • Ich bedarf deines Geldes um mein Bier zu bezahlen.
  • I require (parts of) your money to pay my beer.
    (people would only phrase it that way as a joke)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • “Bedürfen” zu benutzen bedarf meiner  vollen Grammatik-Power.
  • Using “bedürfen” requires my full grammar power.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The nouns based on this are SUPER common, though.
Yes, you heard that right – nouns.
There’s two of the: Der Bedarfand das Bedürfnis.
They both translate to the same word: the need. The difference is what kind of need.

Bedürfnis is a need that comes from within one person, the soul, if you will. A bit like an urge, but not as strong and compelling. A Bedarf is a more objective need. A single person can have both, a Bedarf and a Bedürfnis, but a company for example can only have a Bedarf.

  • Ich habe das Bedürfnis, zu rauchen, aber ich darf nicht.
  • I have the urge, want to smoke but I’m not allowed to.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Maria hat ein Bedürfnis nach Natur.
  • Maria has a need/longing for nature.
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  • Mein Bedarf an Oper für diese Dekade ist gedeckt.
  • My need for opera is covered for the decade.
    (Bedürfnis would work as well)
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Was die Grammatik angeht, habe ich Nachholbedarf.
  • When it comes to grammar, I have need to do some catching up.
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  • Der Energiebedarf darf nicht weiter steigen.
  • The demand, need for energy must not increase further.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

The funny thing about the last example is that most native speakers wouldn’t even notice that there were two “darfs” in a row – so different do the words seem to them.
Anyway, last but not least, there’s the adjective bedürftig, which means in need.

  • Der Mann sieht bedürftig aus.
  • The man looks poor, like someone in need.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Die Wohnung ist renovierungsbedürftig.
  • The flat needs to be renovated (“is in need for renovation“).
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

  • Thomas ist sehr kuschelbedürftig.
  • Thomas is “cuddle-needy”, has a high need for cuddling.
  • Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop

Well Thomas… as long as there’s Mt. Disherest in the kitchen, I don’t think Maria is going to feel particularly cuddly.

But anyway, I think we’re done for today. Hooray!!

This was our look at dürfen. Today, its core meaning is about having permission, but originally it was about need and this connection still shows in the related words.
As always, if you want to check how much you remember, you can take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course, if there’s a Bedarf for clarification or you have a Bedürfnis to try out some examples, just leave me a comment. I hope you enjoyed it and see you next time.

Further Reading:

 

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