When studying German, you will get to know the two verbs “müssen,” and “dürfen” quite quickly as people constantly use them. Yet, many students find it confusing to choose the right verb. Therefore, this article aims to explain the difference between “müssen” and “dürfen” in German.  

 

“Müssen” vs. “dürfen”

To have a good foundation, you should know that the German verb “müssen” means “to must” or “to have to,” and the translation of “dürfen” is to “be allowed to.”  

 

The verb “müssen”

The verb “müssen” is part of the modal auxiliary verb group. This means that if you use the verb “müssen,” you always need to add a second verb to your sentence because otherwise, it is grammatically wrong. However, when talking, people tend to use modal verbs without a second verb, but you should never (!) do that when writing or trying to pass a German exam because it is a mistake.

An example for this is:

  • A: “Musst du wirklich schon gehen?” (“Do you really have to go already?”)
  • B: “Ja, ich muss.” (“Yes, I have to.”)

Usually, there is a difference between the conjugation of all singular persons in the general German verb conjugation, but this does not apply to the modal verbs. The first person singular (ich) and the third person singular (er, sie, es) share the same conjugated verb form (as you can see in the table below). Also, as most modal verbs are irregular and come with a shift in the vowels, the “ü” of “müssen” becomes an “u” for the singular persons in the present tense. You should also keep in mind that Germans generally use “müssen” in Präteritum (simple past) and not in Perfekt.  

 

Conjugation of “müssen”

  Präsens Präteritum
ich muss musste
du musst musstest
er muss musste
sie muss musste
es muss musste
wir müssen mussten
ihr müsst mussten
sie müssen mussten

 

The usage of “müssen”

In German, you use the verb “müssen” if you have to do something or if you must do something. This means by using this verb; you can express an obligation. For instance: “Ich muss das Buch lesen! (I have to read the book.). However, when trying to negate “müssen” there is a common misunderstanding between German and English. Though “must” and “have to” are synonymous, they are not when it comes to their negation because “must not” in English means “not to be allowed to” and not “do not have to.” Therefore it is a prohibition, and if you wish to express “must not” in German, you need to use the verb “dürfen” which will be explained in the following. 

For example: Ich muss heute nicht in die Schule gehen. – I do not have to go to the school today (but I would be allowed if I wanted to)  

 

“Müssen” + verb

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the verb “müssen” generally needs a second verb. Forming a classical German declarative sentence means that you have to put the second verb to the very end. Besides, there is no need to conjugate the second verb, and you can leave it in the infinitive form (e.g., machen, singen, laufen …) 

For instance:
  1. Ich muss nächste Woche mit meiner Freundin ein Referat vorbereiten.
    • I have to/must prepare a presentation with my friend next week.
  2. Im Englischkurs müssen wir nicht jeden Tag Hausaufgaben machen.
    • In the English course, we don’t have to do homework every day.

 

The verb “dürfen”

As already discussed at the beginning of this article, the verb “dürfen” means “to be allowed to” or “may.” Since it also is part of the “modal verb group,” it also requires a second verb. Though it is also grammatically wrong for this verb, people sometimes use it without a second verb when speaking, as you could already see with  “müssen.”

An example for this is:

  • A: “Darf ich mich setzen?” (“May I sit? Am I allowed to sit?”)
  • B: “Ja, du darfst.” (“Yes, you may. / Yes, you are allowed to.”)

Also, for “dürfen,” the first person singular (ich) and the third person singular (er, sie, es) share the same conjugated verb form. In addition, “dürfen” is an irregular verb, and therefore, its “ü” becomes an “a” for all singular persons in the present tense.  Additionally, it would be best if you generally use “dürfen” in Präteritum (simple past) and not in Perfekt.  

 

Conjugation of “dürfen”

  Präsens Präteritum
ich darf durfte
du darfst durftest
er darf durfte
sie darf durfte
es darf durfte
wir dürfen durften
ihr dürft durftet
sie dürfen durften

 

The usage of “dürfen”

As already mentioned, you should use the verb “dürfen” if you would like to express permission or prohibition. Or, in other words, you can use it if you want to say: “to be allowed to,” “may,” “must not,” “not to be allowed to” or “may not.” Also, with “dürfen,” the second verb goes to the end of the sentence and stands in the infinitive form.  

 

“Dürfen” + verb

  1. Lara darf heute ihre Freundin besuchen.
    • Lara may / is allowed to visit her friend today. 
  2. Meine Schwester darf heute nicht in die Disco gehen.
    • My sister must not/ is not allowed to go to the disco today.

 

To be allowed to or to have to?

I hope that after reading this article, you fully understood the difference between “müssen” and “dürfen.” You can also check out the song “Du must gar nix” to hear an example of how Germans use “müssen”. If you want to know more about other modal verbs, you can check out the difference between “wollen” and “möchten.” 

Bis bald!

Steffie


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