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Both translate to "should". I understand "sollten" is the past tense of "sollen" but sometimes I see "sollten" when I would expect "sollen."

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  • 4
    "sollten" is not only past tense, but also subjunctive. I guess (without examples, I need to...) that's what you have seen.
    – tofro
    Jul 20, 2016 at 22:00
  • Can you please explain why we use konjunktive 11 of sollen for ratschlag machen?
    – Athhira
    Oct 18, 2020 at 14:03
  • Doesn't the subjunctive of sollen have an umlaut? Present indicative: ich soll; preterite indicative: ich sollte; present subjunctive: ich söllte Nein?
    – Michael
    Dec 29, 2020 at 0:34

2 Answers 2

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Since you mentioned you know that sollten is the past tense (Präteritum) of sollen, I'm going to focus on the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive.

The best way to understand the difference between sollen (present) and sollten (subjunctive, called Konjunktiv II in German) is to translate them as "have to" and "should", respectively.

Die Kinder sollen im Haus bleiben. - The children have to stay inside.

Die Kinder sollten im Haus bleiben. - The children should stay inside.

sollen sounds quite a bit harsher, basically an order. You could even translate the above sentence as "The children shall stay inside." (and "shall" is indeed the indicative form of "should") but this form is not really used in the English language anymore and sounds quite old-fashioned. It can still be found in books, though.

sollten is advice or recommendation.

Note that this is a very basic explanation. Apart from "should", sollen can also be used to express hear-say in indirect speech (e.g. Ich habe gehört, dass er jetzt irgendwo im Ausland leben soll. - I heard he lives abroad.) but this is another matter. I mention it only for completeness sake.

edit: I'm not sure how well you understand German, but there are some nice examples and explanations of sollen on this website: Canoo.net - sollen

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  • As an English native speaker, I have grown up with rather the opposite rhetorical impression of the difference between "shall" and "should". It is true that "shall" has fallen from general use, with the major exception of the rhetorical question "Shall we?", posed when a point of departure is a foregone conclusion. This makes it seem like a superfluous and soft suggestion, rather than a harsh command. If it survives in English at all, I imagine "shall" will take on a general suggestive character. "Should" can sound quite harsh, especially in contrast.
    – S. G.
    Oct 30, 2020 at 18:50
  • A good translation for "sollen" is often "to be supposed to".
    – RHa
    Dec 29, 2020 at 23:17
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If in present tense:

du sollst = you should (more an instruction)
du solltest = you rather should (more a recommendation)

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  • Willkommen. Wir wünschen uns eigentlich keine Einzeiler, sondern etwas vollständigere Antworten. Es wäre schön, wenn Sie die Ihre etwas erweiterten.
    – Ludi
    Jul 29, 2016 at 16:52
  • Oh sorry, Ich wollte das nur hinzufügen, weil ich denke dass es gut als 'Rule of Thumb' funktioniert. Ich denke nicht, dass zusätzliche Erklärungen notwendig sind. Hypnoxas hat es generell gut beantwortet.
    – Annamarie
    Jul 29, 2016 at 17:11

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