Modal Verbs

The most important uses of modal verbs are the communication of obligation, permission and ability. They are used in a very similar way in Polish and English, where in both languages we use a second verb in the infinitive to form a sentence. Note that these modal verbs have no perfective aspect.

Let’s look at each use in turn:


Starting now with the most complicated – powinien, which means should or ought. Powinien is known as a defective verb as it does not conjugate and is not used in quite the same way as most verbs. The English verb ought is also defective and neither ought nor powinien have an infinitive form, i.e. there is no ‘to ought‘.

This is how powinien is conjugated in the present and past tense:
Following this with the infinitive, we can make sentences such as:

Czy kot powinien pić mleko? (Should a cat drink milk?)
Powinieneś był to kupić (You should have bought that)

For a stronger sense of obligation, Musieć fills in for the English verbs must, have to and need to. Note the switch from a to e in the stem of the male person plural forms in the past tense:
Again, follow this with the infinitive:

Muszę tańczyć (I must dance)
Musieliśmy szukać pomocy (We had to search for help)

But be careful when negating musieć – nie muszę means don’t have to (there is no obligation) and it does not mean mustn’t:

Nie muszę się uczyć polskiego (I don’t have to learn Polish)


The verb móc is used to indicate permission – whether you can or mustn’t do something.
Nie możecie tu być (You can’t/mustn’t be here)
Czy mogę palić? (Can I smoke?)


Note the subtle difference between móc and umieć – whilst in English we use the verb can for both permission (I can smoke here) and ability requiring knowledge (I can play the guitar), in Polish there is a distinction. For the latter, use umieć:
Czy dinozaury umiały pływać? (Could dinosaurs swim?)
nie umiem dobrze gotować (I can’t cook well)



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The Past Tense

Forming the past tense in Polish is relatively easy compared to English. In English we have to deal with the simple past, past continuous, past perfect and past perfect continuous. In Polish, there’s only one past tense, and information about whether an action is completed or is in progress is instead expressed using aspect.


Polish verbs have two aspects, imperfective and perfective.

The imperfective form of the verb is used to talk about the present, or actions that were or will be in progress, i.e. I am writing, I was writing, I will be writing.

The perfective form of the verb is used to talk about actions that were or will be completed, i.e. I wrote, I will write.

Perfective verbs don’t exist in the present tense, so you might not have come across them at all. They are formed often by adding a prefix to the imperfective form, but can also be formed by changing the stem of the imperfective. And some perfective verbs look very different to their imperfective forms. It’s best to learn both forms of a verb separately and there are good books for this purpose, such as 301 Polish Verbs which presents the two side by side and in all their forms. Here are some examples using common verbs:

Imperfective Perfective
buy kupować kupić
cook gotować ugotować
drink pić wypić
eat jeść zjeść
go (by vehicle, once) jechać pojechać
help pomagać pomóc
listen słuchać posłuchać
read czytać przeczytać
say mówić powiedzieć
see widzieć zobaczyć
write pisać napisać


Forming the Past Tense

The past tense is formed by adding a series of endings to the stem of the verb. These are the familiar singular (I, You, He/She) and plural (We, You (pl), They) forms, but with one quirk – there are two different sets of plural forms depending on whether you are referring to a group containing at least one man, or a group not containing a man (i.e. a group of women, children or things). Here’s an example with pić:
So the verb form in the sentence wypili za dużo (they drank too much) gives you three pieces of information – the drinking took place in the past (past tense), is now finished (perfective), and was completed by a group containing at least one man (masculine 3rd person plural).

The vast majority of verbs in the past tense are formed simply by adding the endings above to the stem of the verb.
There are, as always, a couple of exceptions:

Verbs ending in follow the pattern below, with the e changing into an a in all forms apart from the masculine personal plural:
Also, verbs ending in ść, c or źć including the two common verbs below, have more unique stem changes that it’s best to learn, though the endings are reassuringly still the same:
Irregular Past Tense


It’s worth noting that while the stress on words in Polish is usually on the penultimate syllable, for the plural forms above it’s on the third-to-last syllable instead, i.e. the endings in bold are all unstressed.





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