Take the following sentence:

Ich hätte Cricket spielen können.


I could have played cricket.

spielen has haben as an auxiliary, and it is obvious that hätte können is the right way to use it.

However, with verbs that take sein as an auxiliary, which of these is correct?

Ich wäre in die Stadt gehen sollen.


Ich hätte in die Stadt gehen sollen.

They are both intending to mean

I should have gone into town.

  • "and it is obvious that hätte können is the right way to use it." - Actually, it isn't so obvious because something interesting happens here: The regular past participle in hätte gekonnt is replaced by an infinitive, resulting in hätte können. This construction is called Ersatzinfinitiv. Just for completeness. :-)
    – Chris
    Jun 19, 2015 at 19:19
  • @Chris - I more meant that it is obvious that "hätte" is the right auxiliary to use
    – Joe
    Jun 19, 2015 at 19:38
  • Ah, now I understand your reasoning: Both spielen and können take haben as auxiliary, so it mustn't be wäre but hätte. Okay. :-)
    – Chris
    Jun 19, 2015 at 19:47

1 Answer 1


The correct version is

Ich hätte in die Stadt gehen sollen.

Let's leave out the middle part for a moment; then the phrase becomes

Ich hätte gesollt.

The auxiliary is haben because the modal verb sollen demands haben, not sein. If we reinsert the middle part, which is an infinitive construction, then the past participle gesollt is replaced by the infinitive sollen (Ersatzinfinitiv).

Recipe: As we can see, the difficult part of the sentence is that it has two infinitives. How do we determine which auxiliary is needed? We must find out which of the two infinitives determines the auxiliary! Here are some clues:

  • One of the two infinitives is a modal verb. It's the modal verb that determines the auxiliary; and since modals need haben, it's hätte, not wäre.
  • If we know which of the two infinitives replaces the past participle, then we know that that verb determines the auxiliary. In our sentence it is sollen which replaces gesollt. Gesollt needs haben, so it's hätte, not wäre.
  • If unsure which of the two infinitives is the Ersatzinfinitiv, then take the last one. For example this Wikipedia article says that the Ersatzinfinitiv takes the last position in a sentence. The last infinitive in our sentence is sollen. And since we know that sollen demands haben as an auxiliary, we are done.

[To answer the question in your title: No, even for sein-verbs the construction should be hätte ... können, not wäre ... können.]

  • Actually, the Ersatzinfinitiv is not restricted to longer constructions … I often find myself saying ‘Ich hätte sollen’ instead of ‘Ich hätte gesollt.’ My spontaneous reasoning says that I mearly left out what I should have done in there, but nonetheless the sentence is short.
    – Jan
    Jun 20, 2015 at 12:14

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