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What Is The Difference Between Sollen and Sollten in German?

Updated: Feb 13

German learners sometimes get confused about the difference between sollen and sollten. This post seeks to explain the difference and the underlying grammar.

The German language has six so-called modal verbs that express an intention to do something (wollen), a preference for something (mögen), an ability to do something (können) etc. Sollen is one of these modal verbs that is used to give an instruction or communicate a duty to do something. It is best translated into English as "should" or "to be supposed to". Like most other modal verbs in German, it acts as the conjugated verb in a sentence and is used along with a main verb in infinitive from, which is positioned at the end of a main clause. Let's first consider the conjugation of the verb and then look at some examples.





er, sie, es






sie, Sie


Er soll seinem Chef bei dem Projekt helfen.

(He should help his boss with the project)

Sie soll ihren Eltern etwas vom Supermarkt mitbringen.

(She is supposed to bring her parents something from the supermarket)

Ich soll dir ausrichten, dass du Carl zurückrufen sollst

(I should tell you that you should give Carl a call back)

As the examples show, sollen is used in a fairly similar way to the English should.

Sollten is the conditional tense or Konjunktiv 2 form of sollen. It is used to give advice or recommendations. It can also be translated as should or as "ought to". Depending on the context of the utterance, it can add a moral connotation to it.

Meine Freundin meint, ich sollte weniger arbeiten.

(My friend thinks I should/ought to work less)

Meine Schüler:innen sollten Vokabeln lernen, um ihr Deutsch zu verbessern

(My students should/ought to revise vocabulary, in order to improve their German)

Sie sollten im nächsten Jahr weniger Fleisch essen.

(The should eat less meat next year)

If you found this post helpful, please give it a like. Similar posts discuss müssen in German and the difference between müssen and brauchen, as well as the use of dürfen in German. If you're interested in other German grammar topics such as German adjective endings just check out our blog where you'll find hundreds of posts.



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