I tried to ask a question about the two meanings of Konjunktive II with a modal verb, but chose a bad example which led the discussion astray. Let me try a better one here. Look at the English sentence

He could have been killed.

This can mean two things.

(1) He is now dead. He wasn't sick, and he likely didn't commit a suicide, so he was probably killed.

(2) He is now not dead. He was caught in a gunfight, and if a gunshot had hit him, he would have been killed.

How would one express these two meanings in German? Is it:

(1) Er kann/konnte getötet worden sein.

(2) Er hätte getötet werden können.


  • Related: german.stackexchange.com/a/11743/1691
    – c.p.
    Jun 4, 2014 at 13:26
  • In English and German, there are even more interpretations than those two. For example, you don't know nothing about whether he's alive or not. You haven't seen him for a while and you're assuming "He could have been killed".
    – Em1
    Jun 4, 2014 at 14:52
  • @Em1 Thanks for your comment, but for this thread let's just focus on the two interpretations that I gave :)
    – boaten
    Jun 4, 2014 at 17:06

2 Answers 2


(scroll down for english answer)

Deutsche Version

Die richtige Antwort lautet:

Er könnte getötet worden sein.

Der Satz kann auf genau die beiden Arten interpretiert werden wie die englische Vorgabe. »Kann« und »konnte« sind aber falsch, es muss »könnte« sein.

Die zweite Variante (»Er hätte getötet werden können.«) lässt nur die Interpretation zu, dass er noch am Leben und einem potentiell tödlichen Ereignis entkommen ist. Dieser Satz lässt die andere Schlussfolgerung (er ist tot, man weiß aber nicht genau warum; vermutlich wurde er getötet) nicht zu.

Same in English

The correct answer is:

Er könnte getötet worden sein.

This sentence can be interpreted in exactly the same two ways as the english original. »Kann« and »konnte« are wrong, it must be »könnte«.

The second variation (»Er hätte getötet werden können.«) can only be interpreted in one way: He is still alive and he escaped from an potentially deadly event. This sentence can not be interpreted in the other way (he is daed, nobody knows exactly why; maybe he was killed).

  • kann is possible as well. You can but don't have to use the difference of kann and könnte to express likelihood.
    – Toscho
    Jun 4, 2014 at 19:42
  • @Toscho Is "Er kann getötet worden sein." a legitimate sentence? Sounds weird to me. For comparison: Er könnte gegangen sein./Er kann gegangen sein.
    – user6191
    Jun 4, 2014 at 21:51
  • @Hulk: No sentence has the meaning of »Er hätte getötet worden können.« because this is a wrong sentence. If you replace »worden« by »werden« you get a correct sentence: »Er hätte getötet werden können.« Jun 6, 2014 at 10:19
  • @HubertSchölnast true - this was just a typo by me, removed my comment to avoid confusing people
    – Hulk
    Jun 6, 2014 at 14:57

(1) (Dead body lying on the floor.) »He might have been killed.« => Vielleicht ist er getötet worden.

(2) (Returning from a gunfight, high-noon style.) »He could have been killed!« => Er hätte umkommen können! Er hätte draufgehen können! The literal translation sounds a bit clumsy to my ears.

(Re-reading your question, I'm not sure why you're looking to reproduce the ambiguity of the English sentence. That ambiguity happens due to lack of context. Sort of contrived to be wanting to translate that into another language.)

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