I understand that "sollen" typically expresses what is expected of the subject of the sentence, and found excellent accounts of that usage of "sollen" in this other StackExchange page:

Does “sollen” imply an external agent?

However, I have run across sentences that simply do not fit that usage, and let me quote them below.

(a) Klara, the speaker of the sentence, is on top of Karl, whom she has overpowered and thus addresses:

"Trotzdem, trotzdem – es verlockt mich geradezu riesig, dich zu ohrfeigen, so wie du jetzt daliegst. Ich werde es wahrscheinlich bedauern; wenn ich es aber tun sollte, so wisse schon jetzt, daß ich es fast gegenmeinen Willen tun werde."

Here it seems clear from the context that "wenn ich es aber tun sollte" simply means "but if I should do it." There is no suggestion Klara is "supposed" by anyone to do it.

(b) Later Klara says:

"Jetzt hätte ich dir schon fast unversehens die Ohrfeige aufgeputzt. Wenn du heute also noch so loskommen solltest, benimm dich nächstens feiner. Ich bin nicht dein Onkel, mit dem du trotzen kannst."

Again, the "Wenn" clause would seem to mean, "if today you should get off," i.e. just a possible outcome, not what is expected of anyone.

(c) Immediately after that:

"Im übrigen will ich dich noch darauf aufmerksam machen, daß du, wenn ich dich ungeohrfeigt loslasse, nicht glauben mußt, daß deine jetzige Lage und wirkliches Geohrfeigt werden vom Standpunkt der Ehre aus das gleiche sind. Solltest du das glauben wollen, so würde ich es doch vorziehen, dich wirklich zu ohrfeigen."

Again, the "Solltest" clause seems to mean, "If you should think it."

In all these cases, "sollen" seems to have exactly the meaning of English "shall" ("should").

The sentences are from Kafka's Amerika (Der Verschollene).

  • Is this usage rare but perfectly acceptable?

  • Was this English-like usage current in Kafka's Prague, but not outside that time or place?

  • Are there other examples of this usage?

I am dying to know. Thank you in advance for your thoughts on this.

  • I am not completely certain, I would rather translate (a) to type-II conditional omitting should alltogether: "[...], but if I did it, [...] I would be doing it against my will." Jun 18, 2014 at 5:15
  • I really love this answer. You nicely illustrate your thoughts and make it clear where you have problems ;) I hope you become a regular contributor to German Language
    – Vogel612
    Jun 18, 2014 at 7:08

3 Answers 3


... wenn ich es aber tun sollte, so wisse schon jetzt, daß ich es fast gegen meinen Willen tun werde.

In this case it's not simply sollen, it's wenn + conjunctive to express the possibility of something:

Wenn es morgen regnen sollte, bleiben wir daheim. (If it rains tomorrow, we'll stay at home.)

Sollte dass ihr letztes Angebot sein, müssen wir woanders kaufen. (Should this be your final offer, we'll have to buy elsewhere.)

The principle is really not that different from English.

Is this usage rare but perfectly acceptable?

Perfectly acceptable, yes, but not rare; on the contrary, I'd say, very common.

  • Thank you very much! Didn't expect it so soon. Very grateful to both the answer givers.
    – Catomic
    Jun 18, 2014 at 4:25
  • Is it not preferable to translate using 'were'? For instance: If it were to rain tomorrow, .... It seems this would capture the original more literally while being no less understandable. It would also highlight the 'sollte' more explicitly. .... now, however, looking at it again, I'm not 100% convinced it has the same meaning.
    – mafu
    Jul 21, 2016 at 13:32
  • Sure, you could use that, or use "should it ..."; this is really not about the English translation, though, which was only provided as a courtesy to the user.
    – Ingmar
    Jul 21, 2016 at 18:01

The verb sollen most certainly carries the same meaning of the English "should" in some contexts when it is conjugated in the Konjunktiv II (Second Subjunctive) tense (i.e., sollte, solltet, sollten).

This usage is rather common, see the following examples:

Sollten Sie noch Fragen haben, stehe ich Ihnen gerne zur Verfügung.

(Should you have any further questions, I'd be happy to help you.)

Das sollte man nicht machen. (One shouldn't do that.)


Das soll man nicht machen. (One is not supposed to do that.)

While the Konjunktiv II usage of sollen is still fairly common, phrases built on "Falls..." (i.e., "Falls Sie noch Fragen haben, ...") are perhaps becoming more popular, although I cannot substantiate this claim.

  • 1
    Also note: "Es soll heute regnen" usually does not mean that you wish (or command) that it rains today, but that it was said (probably by the weather forecast) that it will rain.
    – celtschk
    Jun 22, 2014 at 21:30

The word shall originally meant owe in Old English and the sense of obligation. The word’s use was extended in Middle English to express future in the first person and a sense of command in the second and third (“Thou shalt not kill”). Interestingly, one of the original senses (obligation) is preserved in should – what one ought or is obligated to do.

German preserves the original common Germanic meaning and therefore you cannot use sollen in the sense of Modern English I/we shall.

To express simple future in German, use werden.


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