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What is the difference between these three verbs?

Here's what I get from it:

Dürfen = May be able to. Sort of like an easier and nicer way to mean "erlauben"

Sollen = Should. Directly like English.

Müssen = Have to. Also directly like English.

Why am I asking? Because I see these three words being used interchangeably for each other. Why??

October 2, 2017



Hey there Bob,
All the answers here deal pretty well with these three verbs in the indicative mood, but I believe you will see the differences blur in the subjunctive.

  • Dürfen = May/To be allowed to (nicht dürfen = to not be allowed to)
    I can see what you mean bzgl. "erlauben". You can see these two sentences have similar meanings:

Darf man hier parken?

Ist es erlaubt, hier zu parken?

Though of course in the name of Good German I would highly recommend only using the first example.

  • Dürften = Might
    I'm still very hesitant to use the Konjunktiv II form of "dürfen"; because there's generally always an alternative (bzw. Konjunktiv II von "Können"), and I'm not too confident as to how close it can be used like "might" in English. Supposedly the difference between "dürfen" and "dürften" should be equivalent to the difference between "may" and "might"; but I'm not even too certain of the differences on the English side of this equation tbh.

  • Sollen = Shall/To be supposed to/To be to

  • Sollten = Should

  • Müssen = Must/To have to (nicht müssen = to not have to)

  • Müssten = Would have to

I believe of the 6 verb forms here, the three that could be almost used interchangeably are:

  • Sollen;

  • Dürften;

  • Müssten

This is because they all fall just short of the firm line drawn by "dürfen" (bzw. "nicht dürfen") and "müssen".

With "müssen" you must do it, with "nicht dürfen" you must not; but with "sollen" you are supposed to, with "müssten" you would have to, and with "nicht dürften" you might not be allowed to do it.

To be honest though, in my opinion, this would be worth looking up on a site like Canoo or German is easy!; because they've spent the time to really get to the core of each of these verbs.
And I haven't.

Hope I could help.


Ich versuche, es zu erklären: Dürfen - may. You are permitted, you may. But "nicht dürfen" - must not. You are not permitted! Sollen - shall. Your duty ist....Your task is.... Müssen - must. You must go home now! But "nicht müssen" - you are not forced to... So keep in mind: the negative form are different! Erlauben - ist something different. It means to give permission. I hope I could help you. :-)


I can see Müssen and Dürfen being interchangeable in a very few sentences but the sentence might have to be mixed up. For example. Wir müssen/dürfen das nicht machen but not Sollen. Ich verstehe das nicht. Join the movement for medals and trophies


Hi Bob, I don't think that "dürfen" is an easier and nicer was to say "erlauben". I would translate "erlauben" with "to permit" or "to allow". Also i would say that "dürfen" is a little bit less formal as "erlauben".

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