Modal verbs: the meaning

So far you know three modal verbs: können, müssen and wollen:

The modal verb können expresses an ability or possibility:
Nico kann studieren. (He has the mental ability and the financial means to study.)
In the singular, the vowel ö changes to a.

The modal verb müssen expresses a necessity or compulsion:
Nico muss studieren. (His parents are putting pressure on him. If he does not study this will have negative consequences for him.)
In the singular the vowel ü changes to u.

The modal verb wollen expresses a desire or intention:
Nico will studieren. (He wishes or plans to study.)
In the singular the vowel o changes to i.

There is one more modal verb that is used to express wishes, möchten (mögen)
Nico möchte studieren.

The modal verbs wollen and möchten are similar in meaning. Both describe something that one would like to have or do, but with a different emphasis.

  • Ich möchte … describes a wish and sounds more polite.
  • Ich will … is stronger and more definite.

The verb möchten is conjugated differently from the other modal verbs. This is because möchten is a special form of the verb mögen. But here too, the first- and third-person singular are identical.

1st person ich möchte
2nd person du möchtest
3rd person er/sie/es möchte
1st person wir möchten
2nd person ihr möchtet
3rd person sie möchten
Formal (singular and plural): Sie möchten