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

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Modal verbs: When to use ‘vil’ and ‘skal’ in Norwegian
Learning to use the correct way to use a modal verb in Norwegian can make a big difference to your Norwegian. Pictured is a Norwegian flag. Photo by Einar Storsul on Unsplash

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


Both vil and skal in Norwegian 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 Norwegian 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.

The most common modal verbs in Norwegian are kan (can/to be able to), vil (want/to want to), skal (shall/will/should/,to be going to), (must/to have to), får (may/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 får when translated into English.

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

Jeg får 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 får 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.

The next pair of modal verbs worth looking at in Norwegian 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

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

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 frokost (you should eat breakfast), or skjorten hans er slitt, han bør kjøpe 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. Mange har møtt opp... 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 Norwegian grammar explainer useful? What other aspects of Norwegian 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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nicola 2024/02/17 09:59
This was very useful! Always got those two mixed up
Dennis 2024/02/16 21:21
Luci 2024/02/16 10:32
I really enjoyed your article, it was very informative. I get confused with være and bli, maybe it´s just me but a simple explanation would be nice!
  • Anonymous 2024/02/16 13:27
    Hi, Thanks for your comment. We will try and put something together in the near future, Frazer

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