Harte Fakten, hartes Business – umso wichtiger ist es, den Umgangston mit Hilfe von Modalverben ein wenig sanfter und freundlicher zu gestalten. Achten Sie außerdem darauf, die kleinen Wörtchen „must“ und „have to“ nicht zu verwechseln – sonst sorgen Sie für einige Verwirrung… Hier einige Tipps von BANKINGCLUB und Business Spotlight.

Modal verbs are verbs that are used in combination with other verbs to express ability, possibility, permission, intention and obligation. These verbs are can, could, may, might, must, ought, shall, should, will and would. Need can also act like a modal verb in certain situations.


  • She can speak Greek. He can’t handle the contract, I’m afraid.


  • Speaking theoretically: I might be ready to leave at four.
  • We could all be fired someday.
  • Speaking conditionally: If we didn’t have all this work, we could all go on holiday.


  • Making logical deductions: I must have left the folder in her office.
  • Fairly certain: She should be here soon.


  • Strong obligation: You will get it done. Prohibition: Unauthorized personnel may not enter.


  • Expressing willingness: Would you let me know?
  • Asking for permission: May I come in?

Modal verbs have only one form. They take no final “s” in the third person singular.

  • She may have the report ready by three.

Questions, negatives and tags are made without “do”.

  • Would you take a look at the report today?

Modal verbs (with the exception of ought) are followed by the infinitive without “to”.

  • I absolutely must finish this today.

But: We ought to figure out a way to do this.
They can also be followed by a progressive, perfect or passive infinitive.

  • I could have cried when we lost that client.

Unlike in German, modal verbs do not have infinitives or participles. In this situation, other words are used as substitutes.

  • I can’t do that, but I’d like to be able to. (can)

Most modals do not have past-tense forms. Other expressions are used instead.

  • They must hand in the report today. They had to hand in the report yesterday.
  • We may change our policy. We considered changing our policy.

Would and could can serve as the past forms of will and can, but usually in the simple past this is limited to sentences containing negation, as the following examples show.

  • He will take me along. He was prepared to take me along. (would) Can he get tickets to the fair? Was he able to get tickets to the fair? (could)


General comments
The verbs “must” and “have to” have very similar meanings. Both are used to talk about things that we have an obligation to do, or things that we are sure about. But there are certain differences between the two verbs. In particular, “must”, as a modal verb, has only one form, and it is used only in the present tense. Whenever you need to use another tense, or an infinitive form, “have to” is your only choice. So, for example, “must” is possible only in the first of these three sentences:
Present: I must / have to go home now.
Infinitive: I hate to have to go home now.
Past: I had to go home then.

1. Obligation and necessity: present tense
“Must” and “have (got) to”* are both used to talk about obligation and necessity:

  • Employees must / have (got) to wash their hands before returning to the kitchen.
  • I must / have (got) to remember to call her after work.

Both verbs are used in the same way in this context, although there is a slight difference between US and British usage. In US usage, “have (got) to” is used much more frequently than “must”. For details on British usage, and for talking about obligation and necessity in other tenses, see the opposite page.

2. Certainty: present tense“Must” and “have (got) to” are also commonly used to talk about certainty:

  • This must / has (got) to be the worst job in the whole company.
  • That must / has (got) to be the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.

In US usage, one usually hears “have (got) to” in this context. In British English, “must” is far more common.

3. Negative forms
The negative forms “must not” and “do not have to” have totally different meanings. The negative form “must not” is used to forbid people to do something:

  • You mustn’t talk that way to a client. It’s bad for business.

In contrast, “don’t have to” is used to express that it is not necessary for something to be done:

  • Oh, you don’t have to clean up. I’ll do that.

Note that the German translation of “you don’t have to” is Sie müssen nicht. “You must not” should be translated as Sie dürfen nicht.

© Business Spotlight

Vorheriger Artikel6,2% weniger Unternehmensinsolvenzen im April 2010
Nächster ArtikelProf. Dr. Winfried Hassemer
Thorsten Hahn, Jahrgang 1967, ist Gründer und Geschäftsführer der BANKINGCLUB GmbH. Der Profinetzwerker zählt auf Plattformen wie XING und Linkedin zu den Nutzern mit der besten Vernetzung in die Finanzbranche. Wie kein Zweiter versteht er dieses Netzwerk zu nutzen und auch anderen zugänglich zu machen. Außerdem ist der erfahrene Banker und Diplom-Kaufmann Herausgeber der BANKINGNEWS, welche 10 Jahre lang als Onlinemagazin und seit Sommer 2014 als Printzeitung (7.500 Empfänger) erscheint, sowie Autor verschiedener Fachbücher und Buchbeiträge.


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