What's in the grammar maybe

Modal particles

This page is part of the particle lexicon and an example of the use of wikis in the 2007 summer semester.


The category of "modal particles" is often confused with the category "tinting particles" (cf. the relevant entry tinting particles in the wiki or the entry on particle combinations). This is based on the one hand on the fact that the tinting particles are also referred to as modal particles, which they are not, and on the other hand because the category of modal particles is additionally described by different terms or is not clearly defined in papers or is different / is used inconsistently. Due to historical contexts or previous work ("Linie Weydt" vs. "Linie Kriwonossow") this confusing variety arose, which is why the page Particles - Overview was created, on which the various classifications and approaches of particle description in grammars / linguistic Works and their respective designations of the particles or particle subcategories used there are listed. In addition, both categories have sentence headings. However, the modal particles have few, but clearly definable features that distinguish them from the tinting particles. This primarily includes syntactically the possible preliminary position of the expressions that compete as modal particles, and functional-semantically their contribution to the modification of the dictum, which is not given in this way with the shading particles.

other names:

  • Modal word (e.g. Helbig / Helbig 1990, Helbig / Buscha 2001)
  • Sentence adverb (e.g. Erben 1972)
  • Commentary adverb (e.g. Duden 2005)

(see also Grammis)


Modal particles serve the Limitation or assessment of the validity of a fact. In the latter case, it is MPs that are used to generate the Attitude of the speaker to signal what he says (cf. Engel 1988). "With their help, the speaker can signal certainty, acceptance, distancing, emotional attitude or rational and qualitative assessment" (Helbig / Helbig 1990: blurb).

Among the model particles, a distinction is made between two subclasses (see Grammis):

1. assertive sentence adverbials
(e.g. strikingly, regrettably, known, undoubtedly, remarkably, unfortunately, ...) express the validity of an utterance. In some cases, an assessment is also carried out by the speaker at the same time:

E.g.: Fortunately, she went home yesterday.

In addition to the fact that she went home yesterday, the speaker also says that he is happy about this situation; so he expresses his "emotional attitude" through the modal particles.

2. modal attenuating sentence adverbials
(e.g. probably, possibly, maybe, supposedly, possibly, likely, hopefully, normally...) do not allow the conclusion that the embedded sentence is true. The stated facts are therefore restricted in their validity:

E.g.: Maybe he'll go.

Here an utterance is made in the form of an assumption. However, the speaker is not sure whether the embedded proposition ("he goes") will actually occur.

In addition, modal particles can be used as Responsive, i.e. act as an answer to yes / no questions (decision-making questions). The achievement of being able to function as a responsive in para-operative use also applies to shading particles (yes) or adjectives (exactly) in isolated use (cf. GDS: 367).

Example for MP: "Are you going with me?" - "Possibly / Not at all / Maybe."

Some of the "validity-related - validity-restricting or validity-evaluating-" (cf. Grammis) sentence adverbs are derived from adjectives or participles by adding the fugitive element "-er" and the suffix "-weise" or "-maßen" (thankfully, politely, deservedly) (see IDS: 58).


If a negation occurs, it always refers to the whole sentence and not just to the modal word, since this part of speech usually cannot be negated. Therefore, in most cases, a negation can only follow the MW. A negation is only possible through contrasting.

E.g.:she is not maybebut undoubtedly been there.

MW can be divided into two groups based on the declinability.

  1. On the one hand there is the group to which the non-declinable MW belong (apparently, hopefully, undoubtedly).
  2. The second group includes the MW, which "are also used as attributes" (Helbig / Helbig 1990: 11). These can be declined (certainly, for sure, probably) (see ibid).

As can be seen from the examples, the modal particles refer to the whole sentence, i.e. this part of speech in connection with a complete sentence forms a new sentence. Thus MP fulfill the same function as sentence adverbs. There is a test to distinguish between sentence adverbs and verb group adverbs, the second "subclassification of adverbs according to the complexity of the expression" (cf. Grammis):

"An expression k is a sentence adverb (iale) if the following paraphrase of a sentence s containing k is possible:

It is / was ... k the case that s´, where s´ arises from s by omitting k (see ibid).

E.g: Maybe a storm is coming. --> Perhaps it is the case that a storm is coming.

Author: Julia Heinrich, Tanja Matanovic, Thomas Breitenstein

Editing and completion: Jochen Schulz


Grammis (IDS online grammar): http://hypermedia.ids-mannheim.de/

Zifonun, Gisela / Hoffmann, Ludger / Strecker, Bruno (1997): Grammar of the German language. Berlin / New York: De Gruyter.

Engel, Ulrich (1988): German Grammar. Heidelberg: Julius Groos Verlag

Helbig, Gerhard / Helbig, Agnes (1990): Lexicon of German Modal Words. Leipzig: Verlag Enzyklopädie