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Modal verbs: When to use ‘vil’ and ‘skal’ in Danish

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Modal verbs: When to use ‘vil’ and ‘skal’ in Danish
Learning the correct modal verb to use in a given situation can make a big difference to your Danish. Photo: Ramberg/GettyImages

A common mistake for English speakers just starting out in their Danish journey is translating the English word ‘will’ into Danish as ‘vil’. Why is this wrong, and what word should you use instead?

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Both vil and skal in Danish are modal verbs - auxiliary verbs used to show possibility, intent, ability, or necessity.

An auxiliary verb, also known as a helper verb, is followed by a verb in the infinitive form, which in Danish usually means you leave the -r off the end of the verb.

Before I lose you entirely with explanations of grammar, let’s look at some examples.

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The most common modal verbs in Danish are kan (can/to be able to), vil (want/to want to), skal (shall/will/should/have to, to be going to), må (must/to have to and may, to be allowed to), bør (should/ought to and tør (dare/to dare to).

Let’s use jeg __ synger (“I sing) as an example, switching out the verb after jeg each time and translating each sentence into English.

First off, let’s look at the difference between kan and  when translated into English. Now, both of these could be translated into English as ‘can’ (although the correct translation of in this sense is ‘may’), but in Danish they have different meanings.

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For example, if you’re talking about your ability to do something, you would use the verb kan in Danish. Jeg kan ikke synge would mean that you do not possess the ability to sing.

Jeg må ikke synge on the other hand, means that you do not have the permission to sing - maybe you’re in a library or some other place where you need to be quiet, and there’s some rule saying you’re not allowed to sing.

  • Jeg kan synge 

I can sing

  • Jeg må synge 

I may/am allowed to sing

If you said to someone jeg kan ikke synge her, it would imply that you had lost the ability to sing wherever you were, rather than the fact that there was some sort of rule forbidding it.

Another example would be asking kan jeg gå på toilettet? (Can I go to the toilet?) To a Dane, this sounds like you’re asking if you’re physically able to walk to the bathroom, rather than if you’re allowed to. This distinction used to be a lot clearer in English, too, but now may and can are both acceptable ways of asking for permission to do something.

The next pair of modal verbs worth looking at in Danish are vil and skal.

Jeg vil synge would mean that you want to sing - a good way to remember this is to think of having a will to do something, like in the phrase “where there’s a will there’s a way”.

If you were at some sort of event and wanted to tell people you will sing - if you’re going up on stage to sing, for example - you would say jeg skal synge - where skal is used in the same way as the somewhat outdated English word ‘shall’.

  • Jeg vil synge 

I want to sing

  • Jeg skal synge 

I will/shall/am going to sing

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Finally, we have må, bør and tør - which can be translated as must/to have to, should/ought to and dare/dare to.

Note that (at måtte in the infinitive form) has two meanings: ‘may’ as described in an earlier section of this article and ‘must’, as follows.

Jeg må synge (I must sing) implies that something or someone is forcing you to sing, whether that’s a person, some sort of innate urge to break out into song, or the fact that you’re a singer who is about to get on stage for a sold-out show.

Jeg bør synge (I should/ought to sing) sounds like a recommendation or suggestion, although granted it sounds a bit arrogant in this specific example - oh, you’re hosting a charity concert? I should sing! It’s often used when giving advice, too: du bør spise morgenmad (you should eat breakfast), or hans trøje er slidt, han bør købe en ny (his shirt is old/worn out, he should buy a new one).

Finally, jeg tør synge (I dare sing) implies that you feared singing but have built up the courage to do it. Der er mange fremmødte… tør du synge? (Lots of people have shown up… do you dare to sing?)

  • Jeg må synge 

I have to sing

  • Jeg bør synge 

I should sing

  • Jeg tør synge 

I dare to sing

Obviously, there are different tenses and different combinations of modal verbs which can also complicate matters, but this article is already getting quite long so we'll stop here for now.

Did you find this Danish grammar explainer useful? What other aspects of Danish grammar would you like to see explained? Let us know if you’d like more similar content in the comments below.

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Katrina 2024/02/17 08:58
There is a contradiction in this article. It translates Jeg må synge - I must sing Jeg må synge - I may/am allowed to sing The two are very different in English and it would be good to find the right translation in Danish
Shawn Dhakal 2024/02/16 21:20
Thanks for this one. Another topic can be uses of når vs da vs om while making a sentence.

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