‘Können’ Conjugations

‘Können’ conjugations translate to ‘I can / am able to, etc.’ The infinitive verb ‘können’ (‘to be able to’ in English) is one of the very first German verbs you should learn.

‘Können’ is a common German verb that you’ll need to use in various tenses and moods in order to communicate in everyday spoken & written German. It is a special type of verb, called a “modal” verb that expresses a possibility, permission, obligation or ability.

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‘Können’ Conjugations
Written by Laura Bennett
-   Updated:
- 13 minute read
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Learning ‘können’ is tricky because German verbs have more conjugation options compared to En glish verbs –so there’s more that our brains have to remember!

Key Takeaways

  • ‘Können’ (‘to be able to’) is a commonly used infinitive verb in German.
  • there are more ‘können’ conjugation options than what we have in English.
  • you need to learn ‘können’ conjugations for multiple tenses and moods.

How is ‘Können’ Used in German?

Knowing how to correctly use ‘können’ in its many diverse forms allows you to speak masterfully in German in a wide variety of contexts.

‘Können’ allows you to talk about yourself and others ‘being able to’ (I can do it/ Can you please help me/, She can speak German very well/etc.) in all manner of situations past, present, future, and hypothetical. 

You’ll use ‘können’ in order to …

  • ✅ Talk about abilities (e.g. I can sing / bake / dance; I can’t knit / cook / act).
  • ✅ Combine with other main verbs (e.g. the ‘sing’, ‘bake’, etc. above).
  • ✅ Say that you (or someone else) is, was, or will be ABLE TO DO something, etc.

What Are The 6 Conjugations of Können? 

The 6 conjugations of ‘können’ in the present tense line up with our 6 subject pronouns to give us ‘ich kann’, ‘du kannst’, ‘er / sie / es kann’, ‘wir können’, ‘ihr könnt’, and ‘sie können.’

There are, of course, even more forms of ‘können’ in other tenses (and moods). 

But it’s best to first focus strictly on the present tense conjugations of ‘können’, so let’s look at it side-by-side with the English ‘to can/be able to’:

‘Können’ (in English)

I can
you can
he/she/it can
we can
they can

‘Können’ in German is ‘can’ in English. Normally, in the present tense, we have two possible conjugations for verbs, (i.e sing and sings) ,but for most “modal” verbs. we only have one – in this case, ’can’.

Those same conjugations in German look like this:

‘Können’ (Present Tense) English vs German

Comparing German & English

It’s important to notice the patterns of similarities and differences at this point. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where does German ‘recycle’ the same conjugations?
  • Are the German & English changes to ‘Können’ (can/ be able to) occurring with equivalent pronouns?
  • Which language includes more changes compared to the other? 

‘Können’ in the Present Tense

The present tense conjugations of ‘Können’ are ich kann, du kannst, er / sie / es kann, wir können, ihr könnt, and sie können.

Put into a typical conjugation table, these options are presented like this:

Present Tense Conjugation Table:
ich kannwir können
du kannstihr könnt
er/sie/es kannsie können

You truly haven’t even begun to learn ‘können’ until you know ALL the nominative case pronouns and which form of ‘können’ each of them takes.

To talk about the conjugations of ‘können’ used by the various pronouns, we have to work backward by starting with the pronouns. 

And in order to understand nominative case (i.e. subject) pronouns, we need to talk about the grammar concept of ‘persons’.

What are ‘persons’?

The ‘persons’ (I, you, they, etc.) are split into two categories that interact with each other: 

There are 3 subcategories of ‘persons’ (1st Person, 2nd Person, and 3rd Person) and each of these has a ‘singular’ and a ‘plural’ variant. 

When we intersect this information on Y and X axes, we get these ultra-familiar English subject pronouns:

English Subject Pronouns Table

Now, here is the German version of the same table of subject pronouns: 

German Subject Pronouns Table

German & English Pronouns Side-by-Side

Where do English and German line up and where are there differences?

English and German have 1-to-1 equivalents for all pronouns … except that German has extra pronouns for ‘you’ (highlighted).

FULL German Subject Pronouns Table
2nd (informal)duihr

Understanding the ‘ihr’ plural of ‘du’ is straightforward enough: Americans might relate it to the concept of y’all. We’re simply talking to multiple ‘you’s at the same time.

But what is the deal with the singular and plural ‘Sie’?

Formal vs. Informal ‘You’

If you took high school Spanish, you’ve already been exposed to the idea of ‘you’ having an informal version and a formal version (e.g. ‘tu’ [informal] and ‘Usted’ [formal]).

It’s the exact same idea in German.

We need to use the formal ‘you’ when we address …

  • someone we don’t intimately know 
  • someone to whom we want to show additional respect
  • someone in a relative position of authority 

Of course, these separate categories have some obvious potential overlaps in that many times we perceive others as authority figures whom we also genuinely respect and with whom we wouldn’t go out to a pub for a beer because we don’t know them intimately enough.

When to Use the Formal ‘Sie’

As you can see in the table, if you’re using the formal address ‘Sie’, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to one person or multiple –the pronoun AND its conjugation of ‘Können’stays the same:

German Subject Pronoun & ‘Können’ Conjugations Table:
1stIch kannwir können
2nd (informal)du kannstihr könnt
(formal)Sie könnenSie können
3rder/sie/es kannsie können

In German, you generally need to use this formal version of ‘you’ if you’re talking with…

  • professionals (e.g. clerks, police officers, doctors, plumbers, etc.) 
  • leaders (e.g. priests, politicians, choir directors, bosses, etc.)
  • elders (e.g. anyone clearly at least a generation older than you are)

Examples of ‘Können’

Knowing how to use ‘können’ in the present tense for all the 1st, 2nd (formal and informal) and 3rd persons, singular and plural, is exactly what you should know for now. 

1st Person, Singular & Plural

Ich kann gleich kommen . (I can come right away.)
Ich kann Gitarre spielen. (I can play the guitar.)

Wir können gleich kommen. (We can come right away.)
Wir können Gitarre spielen. (We can play the guitar.)

2nd Person (Informal), Singular & Plural

Du kannst gleich kommen. (You can come right away.)
Du kannst Gitarre spielen. (You can play the guitar.)

Ihr könnt gleich kommen. (You can come right away.)
Ihr könnt Gitarre spielen. (You can play the guitar.)

2nd Person (Formal), Singular & Plural

Sie können gleich kommen. (You can come right away.)
Sie können Gitarre spielen. (You can play the guitar.)

Sie können gleich kommen. (You can come right away.)
Sie können Gitarre spielen. (You can play the guitar.)

3rd Person, Singular & Plural

Die Gruppe kann gleich kommen. (The group can come right away.)
Die Gruppe kann Gitarre spielen. (The group can play the guitar.)

Die Gruppen können gleich kommen. (The groups can come right away.)
Die Gruppen können Gitarre spielen. (The groups can play the guitar.)


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Comparing German & English

There are several interesting points to make on the above examples so that you can further your general knowledge of German beyond the specifics of ‘können’.

  • Absolutely vital is to notice how ‘können’ (as one of the so-called ‘modal verbs’) must pair with a main verb (‘kommen’ [to come] and ‘spielen’ [to play] above). Modal verbs aren’t used on their own unless the main verb is clearly understood thanks to context.
  • Notice that ‘können’ as the modal verb is conjugated and in the 2nd position of the sentence –right after the subject (if we’re using Standard Word Order). The main verb (‘kommen’ / ‘spielen’) is at the very end of the sentence and in its infinitive form. Learn more about word order here.
  • Almost every English noun pluralizes simply with ‘s’ (e.g. group -> groups), but German has SEVEN different options that we have to know how to choose between! You may have noticed specifically the -n plural at play in ‘Gruppe’ (group) becoming ‘Gruppen’ (groups). Learn more about noun plurals here.

Skills You’ll Need to Use ‘Können’ Conjugations:

‘Können’ makes it possible to relay information about what you (or someone else) can or can’t do in all manner of situations past, present, future, and hypothetical. 

‘Können’ is such a common, everyday verb that you can’t masterfully speak German if you don’t understand how to use its various conjugations.

You’ll use ‘können’ in order to …

  • ✅ Talk about physical abilities (I can’t paint artwork; I can mop floors.)
  • ✅ Communicate availability (I can come / I can’t come, etc.)
  • ✅ Use a lot of common idioms (e.g. ‘im Schlaf können’ = to be able to do something in one’s sleep)
  • ✅ Talk about ‘being able to XY’ in the past, present, and future (I can go…, etc.)
  • ✅ Speak hypothetically (e.g. I could have gone, if only …)

Building Blocks You Need For ‘Können’

‘Können’ conjugations empower you to express yourself in a LOT of different ways. You need to correctly wield ‘können’ in a variety of contexts in order to speak German capably, comfortably, and confidently.

To correctly use ‘können’ in various tenses and moods, to give commands or offer suggestions, or to speak hypothetically, you need to build these foundational skills:

  1. Know the subject [i.e. nominative] pronouns for all singular & plural persons.
  2. Learn the present and simple past tense conjugations of ‘können’ for all persons.
  3. Learn the ‘können’ conjugations for the conditional/ subjunctive moods.
  4. Know how to use the ‘double infinitive’ formulation with ‘können’.

Terminology Explained

subject pronouns are the words ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘we’ and ‘they’ in English. German has these same options BUT also three more! These pronouns are categorized as ‘persons’ that are either singular (e.g. ‘I’) or plural (e.g. ‘we’). 

conjugations are slight changes to a verb that line up with different ‘persons’. The same base verb ‘can’ is used in English for all persons, but typically there are two conjugation options (e.g. sing vs. sings). German, however, typically uses four different conjugations, even for modal verbs such as ‘können’ (see above tables).

tense & mood are simply variants of a verb such as ‘I can’ (present indicative), ‘I could’ (present subjunctive), ‘I could have’, (past subjunctive). German and English generally have all the same verb tenses and moods (sometimes German has more) and they function similarly.

double infinitives generally involve a modal verb, a main verb, and a helping / auxiliary verb (‘sein’, ‘haben’, or ‘werden’) to talk about –in the instance of ‘können’– being able to do XY [main verb] in the future or hypothetical past / future. Learn more here.

“HELP! This Feels Overwhelming!”

This can understandably feel like a LOT, but the good news is that you DON’T have to fully master all the applications of ‘können’ right now as a beginner learner –which also means you don’t have to have all the relevant lingo totally down yet, either.

The ideal place to start is by learning just the German subject pronouns and the present tense conjugations of [‘verb’]. We covered this in depth above, but here is the table with both pieces of information, again, here:

können conjugation table

Repetitious, simple sentences (like the examples I gave you above in an earlier section) will help you drill these present tense ‘können’ conjugations into your memory. 

And since all the subject pronouns are exactly the same no matter what German verb conjugations we’re learning, we’ll get lots of mileage out of learning our ‘ich’ and ‘du’, etc.

If you’re beyond a beginner level already, you’ll see those ‘ich’s and ‘du’s repeated again and again in the following tables of ALL the ‘können’ conjugations. 


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‘Können’ Conjugations in ALL Tenses & Moods

‘Können’ is used in 6 tenses (of the indicative mood), and in an additional mood, the subjunctive. We use ‘können’ to talk about (being able to) in the past, present, and future (e.g. I was able to, I am able to, I will be able to). ‘Können’ is also used to say ‘I wouldbe able to’ (subjunctive).’

For those of you who are ready for it, here are the full conjugation tables for ‘können’:

Indicative (Indikativ)

The indicative mood is how we talk most of the time: about real facts (I was able to tour the Colosseum during my trip to Rome. He can paint beautiful landscapes as well as portraits. She will be able to meet the CEO of the company tomorrow.

The indicative mood subcategories into SIX tenses in both English and German. Most of these tenses are used very similarly. 

With modal verbs explicitly, it’s essential to learn the present tense first, and then the simple past and subjunctive II mood. 

The future indicative and the subjunctive pluperfect mood (a.k.a subjunctive past perfect) are also used, but most commonly with a ‘double infinitive.’

The other tenses / moods are rarely –if ever– used for ‘können’ (and sometimes don’t even apply, such as the imperative mood.)

Present (Präsens)

‘KÖNNEN’- Present Tense (Präsens) Table
1stich kannwir können
2nddu kannstihr könnt
3rder kannsie können

Simple Past (Präteritum)

‘KÖNNEN’- Simple Past (Präteritum) Table
1stich konntewir konnten
2nddu konntestihr konntet
3rder konntesie konnten

Present Perfect (Perfekt)

‘KÖNNEN’ – Present Perfect (Perfekt) Table
1stich habe gekonntwir haben gekonnt
2nddu hast gekonntihr habt gekonnt
3rder hat gekonntsie haben gekonnt

Past Perfect (Plusquamperfekt)

‘KÖNNEN’ – Past Perfect (Plusquamperfekt) Table
1stich hatte gekonntwir hatten gekonnt
2nddu hattest gekonntihr hattet gekonnt
3rder hatte gekonntsie hatten gekonnt

Simple Future (Futur I)

‘KÖNNEN’ – Simple Future (Futur I) Table
1stich werde könnenwir werden können
2nddu wirst könnenihr werdet können
3rder wird könnensie werden können

Future Perfect (Futur II)

‘KÖNNEN’ – Future Perfect (Futur II) Table
1stich werde gekonnt habenwir werden gekonnt haben
2nddu wirst gekonnt habenihr werdet gekonnt haben
3rder wird gekonnt habensie werden gekonnt haben
Important Notes on German Tenses

Although German and English HAVE all the same tenses, they aren’t necessarily all used the same way.

In German …

  • The Present Tense covers three different English options: for example, I eat, I do eat, I am eating would ALL simply be ‘Ich esse’ in German. 
  • The Present Perfect Tense (which would technically translate to, e.g. I have eaten) actually correlates with English’s simple past (i.e.  I ate) in terms of usage.
  • The Simple Future tense is frequently avoided in favor of the Present tense and a time adverbial. 

Imperative (Imperativ)

The imperative mood is used in both English and German for giving commands. Note that a ‘du’ or ‘ihr’ subject is generally omitted, but that a ‘wir’ and ‘Sie’ must be present.

‘KÖNNEN’- Imperative (Imperativ) Table
1st– wir!
2nd Informal– [du]!– [ihr]!
2nd Formal– Sie!– Sie!

Subjunctive (Konjunktiv)

The subjunctive mood is used in both English and German (but much more frequently in German!) to communicate hypothetical (i.e. not factual [indicative]) situations. 

The subjunctive can be used to communicate a present or future likelihood (but not certainty) OR a complete impossibility in the past, present, or future. 

The subjunctive is also used for expressing polite requests vs. the commands of the imperative mood.

Present Subjunctive (Konjunktiv I) 

‘KÖNNEN’- Present Subjunctive (Konjunktiv I) Table
1stich könnewir können
2nddu könnestihr könnet
3rder könnesie können

Past Subjunctive (Konjunktiv II) 

‘KÖNNEN’- Past Subjunctive (Konjunktiv II)  Table
1stich könntewir könnten
2nddu könntestihr könntet
3rder könntesie könnten

Perfect Subjunctive (Konjunktiv Perfekt) 

‘KÖNNEN’ – Perfect Subjunctive (Konjunktiv Perfekt) Table
1stich habe gekonntwir haben gekonnt
2nddu habest gekonntihr habet gekonnt
3rder habe gekonntsie haben gekonnt

Past Perfect Subjunctive (Konjunktiv Plusquamperfekt) 

‘KÖNNEN’ – Past Perfect Subjunctive (Konjunktiv Plusquamperfekt) Table
1stich hätte gekonntwir hätten gekonnt
2nddu hättest gekonntihr hättet gekonnt
3rder hätte gekonntsie hätten gekonnt

Future Subjunctive (Konjunktiv Futur I) 

‘KÖNNEN’ – Future Subjunctive (Konjunktiv Futur I) Table
1stich werde könnenwir werden können
2nddu werdest könnenihr werdet können
3rder werde könnensie werden können

Future Perfect Subjunctive (Konjunktiv Futur II)

‘KÖNNEN’ – Future Perfect Subjunctive (Konjunktiv Futur II) Table
1stich werde gekonnt habenwir werden gekonnt haben
2nddu werdest gekonnt habenihr werdet gekonnt haben
3rder werde gekonnt habensie werden gekonnt haben

Common Confusion

 ‘Können’ or ‘könnten’?

‘Können’ is the infinitive (i.e. most base) form of this verb (‘to can/ to be able to’) that would be conjugated for the different persons in the present tense.

‘Könnten’ is the base form of the infinitive ‘können’ used specifically in the subjunctive mood, which changes its definition from ‘can’ to ‘could’. It would also need to be conjugated for all persons.

‘Können wir’ or ‘könnten wir’?

‘Können wir…’ translates to ‘Can we…?’ vs. ‘Könnten wir …?’ translating to ‘Could we …?’.

In both English and German, the first version is a more direct/stronger request vs. the 2nd version (utilizing the subjunctive mood), which conveys the additional politeness of moreso a suggestion vs. a request. 

Is ‘können’ a dative or accusative verb?

It’s not correct to think of ‘können’ as being either a dative or accusative verb. As a modal verb, ‘können’ will pair with a main verb and its *that* verb that would determine whether a dative and/or accusative complement is rendered necessary for a complete sentence.

 What is the difference between ‘können’ and ‘dürfen’?

‘Können’ means ‘to be able to’ vs. ‘dürfen’ meaning to be permitted/allowed to. Or, in shorthand: ‘können’ = ‘to can’ and ‘dürfen’ = ‘to may’. 

Whereas commonly spoken American English largely does away with this distinction between ‘can’ and ‘may’; German largely retains it.

Rapid Q&A

What is ‘können’ in Konjunktiv 1 und 2?

The Konjunktiv 2 is the more likely form you’ll need and the base form of ‘können’ becomes ‘könnten’ with an added ‘t’. See the full conjugation tables here.

What is the past tense of ‘können’?

The past tense base form of ‘können’ is ‘konnten’, which then has to be conjugated. See the full tables here.

What is the past tense of ‘kann’?

‘Ich kann’ (I can / am able to) and ‘er/ sie /es kann’ (he/ she/ it can / is able to) become ‘ich konnte’ (I was able to) and ‘er / sie / es konnte’ (he/ she/ it was able to). See the full conjugation tables here.

What are the 7 modal verbs in German?

There are really only 6.5 modal verbs, if you will, because the one –möchten (to ‘would like’) is the subjunctive subsidiary of the modal verb ‘mögen’ (to like). Read more about modal verbs here.

What are the 3 forms of ‘können’?

können conjugation 3 verb forms

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