The meaning of “dürfen”

Hello everyone,

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



And this one definitely deserves a dedicated look, because not only does the meaning of dürfen seem a bit hazy to many students, there are also a few uses in daily life that don’t seem to even be in the haze. And the related words, wow, they’re so crazy they’re basically hazelnuts. Haha, get it, get it.

Seriously though, there’s definitely a lot to talk about 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

er, sie, esdarfdurfte
wir, siedürfendurften

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 that it is about having permission. 

  • Thomas darf Pause machen.
  • Thomas has permission to take a break.


  • Du darfst das Einhorn streicheln, aber nicht füttern.
  • You‘re allowed to pet the unicorn, but not feed it.
  • 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.

And 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.
  • Darf ich dich was fragen?
  • May/can I ask you something?
  • Darf ich bei euch mal auf Toilette?
  • Can (“to have permission”) I use your bathroom? (in a restaurant or bar)
  • “Maria, darf ich deinen Nagellack benutzen?
    “Nein Thomas, darfst du nicht?”
  • “Maria, can/may I use your nail polish?”
    “No, Thomas, you may NOT!”

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

less obvious uses of “dürfen”

For one thing, dürfen is also used in  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?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Thomas darf keine Pause machen, sonst implodiert das Universum.
  • Thomas must not take a break, otherwise the universe will implode.

In the first one, können would still be an okay alternative but especially the last two would be a bit odd with können – it just doesn’t sound “cogent” enough, it lacks the urgency. So yeah, if must not had a perfectly fitting translation, it would be nicht dürfen.  Uh… I mean it is the perfect translation.

Anyway, so in the examples we just had, we kind of had the circumstances allowing for something. So there is a connection to the core idea.  That is different for the next use though.

  • 10 Euro dürften reichen.
  • 10 Euro should be enough.
  • Die Kritik dürfte ihn geärgert haben.
  • That criticism probably pissed him off.

One word on the form first… we’re looking the “conjunctive” form. Dürfte- is the equivalent for könnte- (could) or müsste- (would have to). Literally, it should mean “would be allowed to”, but as we can see in the examples, it can also be used to express that something is probable, likely.
How does that connect to the 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.
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 :)

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.

needy related words

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, it’s just a few days.”

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

Here, Thomas … uh.. the person saying the second sentence basically wants to express that the other person SHOULDN’T throw a fit. It’s basically “Don’t throw a fit!” in disguise, so in some way it’s a permission denied. Sigh, no wonder Maria wanted to take a break with Thomas.
Anyway, as silly as these examples were, I hope you could see that there’s a connection between need and obligation.
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.
Eventually, the entire verb focused on permission and the connection to needing was completely forgotten.
Or was it?
Well, the needing-idea is still very much alive in the related words. Which is quite a surprise to native speakers because they’re absolutely not aware of the connection.
Anyway, so the first word 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.

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.

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.  (people would only phrase it that way as a joke)
  • I require (parts of) your money to pay my beer.
  • “Bedürfen” zu benutzen bedarf meiner  vollen Grammatik-Power.
  • Using “bedürfen” requires my full grammar power.

The nouns based on this on the other are SUPER common.   Yes, you heard that right – two nouns. Der Bedarf and das Bedürfnis. And yes, they do translate to the same word the need. The difference is what kind of need. A 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.
  • Maria hat ein Bedürfnis nach Natur.
  • Maria has a need/longing for nature.
  • Mein Bedarf an Oper für diese Dekade ist gedeckt.
  • My need for opera is covered for the decade.
  • Was die Grammatik angeht, habe ich Nachholbedarf.
  • When it comes to grammar, I have need to do some catching up.
  • Der Energiebedarf darf nicht weiter steigen.
  • The demand, need for energy must not increase further.

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.
  • Die Wohnung ist renovierungsbedürftig.
  • The flat needs to be renovated (“is in need for renovation”).
  • Thomas ist sehr kuschelbedürftig.
  • Thomas is “cuddle-needy”, has a high need for cuddling.

Poor Thomas. Should have done the dishes more often, man.
Anyway, I think we#re done for today.
This was our look at dürfen. Today, it’s about having permission, but originally it was about need and this connection still shows in the related words.
As always, 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.


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