Level up your Danish with Modal Verbs

Simple Danish Newsletter #10

Hi friends,

The weather in Denmark in April is always a joker. So far this week, we have woken up to snow, rain, wind and sunshine. Luckily, this weekend the weather is lovely, right when we can enjoy it the most.

I (Rasmus) am learning Polish in my free time, and recently I had somewhat of a breakthrough in my progress. This breakthrough came, when my teacher and I finished our lesson on modal verbs (mådeudsagnsord in Danish). For those unaware, modal verbs are just a fancy name for the group of verbs – can, may must, shall and will – they get a fancy name, because they modify the other verb(s) in the sentence and expresses whether the action is a plan, a necessity, an intention and similar.

I am still quite a beginner in Polish, but adding the modal verbs to my vocabulary, instantly improved my verbal output, and It allowed me to express myself much more freely and with much more nuance.

That’s why we thought we’d dive into the modal verbs this week by going over the following:

  1. What are modal verbs
  2. What are the modal verbs in Danish?
  3. Common mistakes, and differences between Danish and English

What are modal verbs?

As mentioned above, modal verbs modify an action and say something about whether it is a plan, a necessity, an intention and similar.

For example: You may not go for a walk before you have finished your Danish homework = Du  ikke gå en tur, før du har færdiggjort dine dansklektier.

If you pay attention to the second verb in the danish phrase (at gå), you’ll notice it is in the infinitive form, but you leave out the “at” (to) that normally accompanies infinitive forms.

What are the modal verbs in Danish?

In the present tense, the Danish modal verbs are vil, skal, må, kan, tør and bør. However, you will see that translating them to English is not exactly a 1:1 match up with the English Modal Verbs but more on that in a bit:

Vil = will / want to

Bør = ought to / should

Må = may / must

Kan = can / able to / may

Skal = must / shall

tør = dare

Here’s how you conjugate them:

There are other verbs that are sometimes included such as behøve (to need) and gide (to want to).

Let’s look at how you can use the modal verbs:

Ville = will / want to
You use ville when you want to express a want:

  • jeg vil gerne have en kop kaffe = I want a cup of coffee

You can use it when you express an intention (not to be confused with a definite plan, where you instead use skal):

  • Jeg vil besøge alle verdens kontinenter før jeg fylder 50 = I intend to visit all the world’s continents before I turn 50.

Lastly you can use vil, when you want to express a prediction or an opinion:

  • Du vil ikke kunne løfte den vægt – den er alt for tung = You will not be able to lift that weight – it is way too heavy

Burde = ought to / should
You can use burde to appeal to authority (any kind) or to express criticism:

  • Du burde spise sundere = You ought to eat more healthily

To express how something should be ideally (by using the present tense):

  • Man bør ikke ryge hvis man er gravid = One should not smoke if they are pregnant

Måtte = may / must
Måtte can be used to express a necessity:

  • Jeg måtte vente 1 time på bussen = I had to wait 1 hour for the bus

To express a deduction or common sense:

  • Det  være katten der har spist af min havregrød. Der er fodspor over hele huset. = It must be the cat that ate my oatmeal. There are footprints all over the house.

To express a permission or a prohibition:

  • Du  ikke køre bil når du har drukket alkohol = you are not allowed to drive a car when you have been drinking alcohol.

Kunne = can / able to / may
Can be used to express ability or skill:

  • jeg kankan ikke køre motorcykel = I can/can’t ride a motorbike.

To express a possibility:

  • Gæsterne kan komme når som helst = The guests can arrive at any minute

To express an opportunity:

  • Du kan komme forbi til en kop kaffe og vi kan snakke om jobmuligheder = You can come by for a cup of coffee, and we can discuss job opportunities

Skulle = must / shall
Skulle is a very versatile verb in Danish.

You can use it to express a plan (with a high certainty!):

  • Jeg skal i Tivoli i aften = I am going to Tivoli tonight

You can use it to give suggestions or instructions:

  • Du skulle prøve at lytte til Simple Danish Podcast = You should try listening to the Simple Danish Podcast

You can use it to express a promise or an assurance (usually by using it with nok):

  • Pyt med det. Det skal nok gå altsammen = Don’t mind it. It will all work out.

You can use skulle it to ask- or explain the pattern behind something:

  • Hvorfor skal du altid høre musik når du træner? = Why do you always have to listen to music when you work out?

You can use skulle to present an opinion:

  • Jeg har hørt, at maden her skulle være rigtig god = I have heard that the food here should be really good.

You can use skulle to explain your fears:

  • Jeg er bange for, at jeg en dag skulle glemme alt jeg har lært om mådeudsagnsord = I fear that I shall one day forget everything I have learned about modal verbs.

Turde = dare
Turde is probably the least used modal verb, and can be used to express something you either do or don’t dare to do:

  • Jeg tør ikke sove alene, efter at have set gyserfilm = I don’t dare to sleep alone after watching horror movies

Common mistakes, and differences between English and Danish

As you may have seen, there are a lot of nuances to the different modal verbs, and they don’t overlap perfectly with the English modal verbs.

A common mistake is translating the English word “will” into “vil” because they are similar, when it in fact should have been “skal”.

Vil vs. Skal As they are also some of the most important modal verbs for beginners, then let’s look at them in a bit more depth:


Skal is most commonly used to express plans in the future:

  • Jeg skal ud og løbe efter arbejde = I am going running after work
  • Jeg skal hjem til min familie til jul = I am visiting my family for christmas
  • Vi skal besøge min mor i weekenden = We are visiting my mother this weekend

Plans with skal have a very high degree of certainty, and almost certainly something bad would have to happen for your plans to get cancelled when you use skal.

However, with vil it’s different.


‘Vil’ is very often used to express wishes:

  • Jeg vil gerne have en øl
  • Jeg vil gerne til Bornholm.

…but can also be used in a future context and this is where a lot of beginners make their mistake.

When you use vil about the future, you express intention and not the same degree of certainty as skal. So if we swap out skal from the sentences above we get:

  • Jeg vil ud og løbe efter arbejde = I want to go running after work
  • Jeg vil hjem til min familie til jul = I want to visit my family for christmas
  • Vi vil besøge min mor i weekenden = We want to visit my mother this weekend

Although they are things you want to do, they are not in the calendar yet.

Nuances lost in translation

Skulle and måtte can both mean to have to. However, Måtte, has an element of resistance. Take for example the sentence (courtesy of Anders Basby):

jeg ville ikke i skole, men min far, sagde jeg skulle, og så måtte jeg gøre det

I did not want to go to school, but my father said I had to and so I had to.

In this case you lose some of the nuance in translation, and it can be even harder to go the other way – translating something to danish using måtte.

Let’s say you are were a party and you had to leave early. If you had to leave early, because you were excited to leave early next morning for your trip to Bornholm you can say:

  • Jeg skulle gå tidligt fra festen = I had to leave the party early

However, if there had been a degree of reluctance in your reason, you would use måtte. So if you for example had to leave the party early because your parents told you that you had to, or because you felt sick, then you would say:

  • Jeg måtte gå tidligt fra festen = I had to leave the party early (reluctantly, or due to necessity).

…There are 1.000 more nuances to describe about modal verbs in Danish, and even more grammatical quirks, but I hope you have at least gotten a glimpse into modal verbs in Danish from this newsletter.

If you can start incorporating them in your Danish, I assure you, you will be able to express yourself much more freely, and you are going to take a big step towards native-level speaking.

It is not easy, but I am sure you will progress fast if you start with the basics (skal & vil for example) and then work from there.

❤️ Our Favourite things

Idiom of the week: Det med småt

“that with small/little” or more legibly: the fine print.

Har du læst det med småt? Did you read the fine print? You will often see this when websites are trying to be transparent or quirky about their terms and conditions. So you might encounter a link or a website titled “det med småt” if you are trying to buy something.

Word of the week: Aprilsvejr

Remember the weather I described in the first part of the newsletter? Very unstable, changing from rainy to sunny at an instant? In Danish we have a word for that, and that is “Aprilsvejr” or “Aprilvejr” meaning april-weather. It is a very accurate description of the weather now in April, so I wonder where the term comes from 🧐.

  • Det er et rigtigt aprilsvejr vi har i dag = It is quite the unstable weather we have today.

Have a great week 😊

Best regards,

Antonina & Rasmus


Do you like the Simple Danish Newsletter, and want to support our work?