Grammar: Modal verbs

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Modal verbs are used to indicate how an action is performed, in other words whether it's voluntary, permitted, etc. The following table lists the most common modal verbs:

Dutch English
willen to want to
kunnen can/to be able to
moeten must/to have to
mogen may/to be allowed to
blijven to keep (doing sth.), to stay
laten to let
komen to come (in order to do sth.)

Modal verbs are followed by the infinitive of another verb, which is placed at the end of the clause. This can be the end of the sentence, but doesn't have to be if there also subordinate clauses present.

In Dutch, the infinitive is always the same as the plural form of the present simple (usually ending on -en). Note that, with the verbs listed above, the infinitive does not get the word “te” in front! Some examples:

  • "Ik wil zemmen." = I want to swim.
  • "Ik kan zwemmen." = I can swim.
  • "Ik mag zwemmen." = I am allowed to swim.

Several of the modal verbs have an irregular conjugation:

- willen kunnen mogen
ik wil kan mag
jij/u wil/wilt* kan/kunt* mag
hij/zij/het wil kan mag
wij/jullie/zij willen kunnen mogen

*both are possible, but in formal writing you should use the form ending on -t.

Zien, horen & voelen

These three verbs, all describing sensations, are not modal verbs, but they can behave in exactly the same way. When you see, hear or feel somebody (or something) performing an action, the infinitive comes at the end of the sentence:

  • "Ik zie hem zwemmen." = I see him swim.
  • "Ik hoor haar praten." = I hear her talk.

Because these verbs have a direct object, they are sometimes referred to as transitive auxiliary verbs.


There is one Dutch modal verb that is a little different from the others: “hoeven”. This verb requires the word “te” to go before the infinitive. Furthermore, it is (nearly) only ever used with a negation.

“Niet hoeven” describes a lack of obligation. Usually it is translated as ‘do not have to’. In Dutch, “niet hoeven” and “niet moeten” are not interchangeable, which can be tricky for English speakers. Some examples might make this more clear:

  • “Je hoeft niet te zwemmen.” = You do not have to swim.
  • “Je moet zwemmen.” = You have to swim.
  • “Je moet niet zwemmen.” = You must not swim.

Note: this last sentence is not the most natural and not one you are likely to encounter. It serves here only to show the difference between “hoeven” and “moeten”.

Modal verbs and the Present Perfect

Something strange happens in Dutch when you want to use the present perfect or past perfect in combination with a modal verb (such a "willen", "kunnen", "laten", etc). Instead of using the past participle (formed with the prefix ge- and suffix -d or -t for regular weak verbs), the infinitive is used. That is why this quirky grammar rule is known as the "vervangende infinitief" in Dutch, or the replacement infinitive. Snobby linguists would say infinitivo pro participio (infinitive instead of participle).

Dutch English
Ik zie haar. I see her.
Ik zie haar dansen. I see her dance.
Ik heb haar gezien. I have seen her.
Ik heb haar zien dansen. I have seen her dance.

This last sentence is in the past tense, yet none of the verbs use a past tense conjugation! That can be very confusing, if you are not aware of the construction. Note that "zien" acts as an auxiliary verb in the last sentence, whereas it is the main verb in the third.

The rule does not apply to auxiliary verbs that use "te"+infinitive, such as "proberen". Only the verbs that you learned in the Modal skill are affected. One exception is the odd modal verb "hoeven", which does use the replacement infinitive.

External links

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10/27/2017, 9:29:41 AM

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I'm still a bit confused about the sentence: Ik heb haar zien dansen, could you maybe explain another way?

10/28/2017, 10:44:15 AM
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For the auxiliary verbs that are described above, the present perfect is constructed with the infinitive ("zien"), rather than with the participle ("gezien"). There is no good reason that this happens, so I'm not sure how else to explain it.

Perhaps the Dutch wikipedia page on this phenomenon will help. Or the relevant page on

11/22/2017, 11:58:03 AM

Some of the examples in the lessons start with something like "Ik wil weten..." or "Ik blijf zoeken...". Can someone explain to me why "weten" and "zoeken" are placed directly after "wil" and "blijf" and not and the end of the sentence?

9/2/2018, 6:42:24 PM
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Hi Joseph! In general, the infinitive is placed at the end of the clause, not necessarily the end of the sentence. "Ik wil weten" is often followed by a new subordinate clause, for example: "Ik wil weten hoe jij heet"

And while infinitives usually come at the end of the clause, there are other parts of speech that can go even after that! The most common are prepositional phrases (preposition + noun). For example: "Ik blijf zoeken naar mijn sleutels." This is also explained at the end of this page:

11/15/2018, 10:59:35 AM
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