learning Swedish For Members

Modal verbs: When to use ‘vill’ and ‘ska’ in Swedish

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
Modal verbs: When to use ‘vill’ and ‘ska’ in Swedish
Learning the correct modal verb to use in a given situation can make a big difference to your Swedish. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

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


Both vill and ska in Swedish 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 Swedish usually means you leave the -r off the end of the verb.

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

The most common modal verbs in Swedish are kunna (can/to be able to), vilja (want/to want to), ska (shall/will, to be going to), måste (must/to have to), bör (should/ought to), få (may, to be allowed to) and töras (dare/to dare to).

Let’s use jag __ sjunga as an example, switching out the verb after jag each time and translating each sentence into English.

First off, let’s look at the difference between kan and får when translated into English. Now, both of these could be translated into English as ‘can’, but in Swedish they have different meanings.

For example, if you’re talking about your ability to do something, you would use the verb kan in Swedish. Jag kan inte sjunga would mean that you do not possess the ability to sing.

Jag får inte sjunga 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.

  • Jag kan sjunga 
  • I can sing
  • Jag får sjunga 
  • I may/am allowed to sing


If you said to someone jag kan inte sjunga här, 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 jag gå på toaletten? (Can I go to the toilet?) To a Swede, 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 Swedish are vill and ska.

Jag vill sjunga 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 jag ska sjunga - where ska is used in the same way as the somewhat outdated English word ‘shall’.

  • Jag vill sjunga 
  • I want to sing
  • Jag ska sjunga 
  • I will/shall sing


Finally, we have måste, bör and törs - which can be translated as must/to have to, should/ought to and dare/dare to.

Jag måste sjunga (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.

Jag bör sjunga (I should 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 bör äta frukost (you should eat breakfast), or hans tröja är sliten, han bör köpa en ny (his shirt is old/worn out, he should buy a new one).

Finally, jag törs sjunga (I dare sing) implies that you were scared of singing but have built up the courage to do it. Det är många i publiken… Törs du sjunga? (There are lots of people in the audience… Do you dare sing?)

  • Jag måste sjunga 
  • I have to sing
  • Jag bör sjunga 
  • I should sing
  • Jag törs sjunga 
  • I dare 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 Swedish grammar explainer useful? Let us know if you’d like more similar content in the comments below.


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Jesu Prem Spurgen 2024/02/22 10:03
Thanks! i think it is quite useful. Would like to see more of this.
Stephan Crandall 2024/02/16 05:06
Very useful. Here is a challenging topic for me. Verb location T.E. Because I am out of milk, I am going shopping. Eftersom jar har slut på mjölk går jag och handlar. I am going shopping because I am out of milk. Jag går och handlar eftersom jag har slut på mjölk. (in my limited Swedish)
Leslie 2024/02/15 17:55
Yes, love this refresher!
Becky Waterton, The Local Sweden 2024/02/15 14:05
Really glad to hear this article has been useful for you all - let me know if there are any other topics you find confusing or difficult in Swedish and we'll see if we can explain them in a new article. Becky Waterton, The Local Sweden
Mark Crowther 2024/02/15 10:54
Keep em coming! Don't think my Swedish will ever be 'great'.... men som jag brukar säga 'varje vecka blir det bättre och bättre'....hoppas jag :-)
art 2024/02/15 10:03
Ghazia Jalali 2024/02/15 09:59
This is a very useful section. I follow it daily and understanding the nuances of the language Much appreciate !
Simon Thorball 2024/02/15 09:10
Yes, very helpful. I'm often considering whether to use vill or ska.
Piero 2024/02/15 08:12
Yes very clear
SM 2024/02/14 22:07
Very useful. It will surely help us in learning Swedish.
Arun 2024/02/14 17:16
it is really useful. it will be great if you can add more content on swedish grammar

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