When is it correct to use these two expressions:

Ich sollte mit Ihnen gehen

Ich hätte mit Ihnen gehen sollen 

I know the second sentence expresses 'I should have gone with you', but doesn't the past-tense version of sollen also achieve the same effect?

  • 3
    related: german.stackexchange.com/q/799/23
    – Takkat
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 21:40
  • Yeah, that pretty much clears it up: sollte refers to a past event which assumedly happened, whereas hätte ... sollen refers to a past event which was unrealized.
    – hohner
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 21:48
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    The first sentence can have to meanings: Eitehr you still have the choice to join them (it's about now) or you haven't done it (in the past)
    – Em1
    Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 22:45
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    Sometimes Ich hätte ... has the connotation of regret, which is not the case for Ich sollte ....
    – Landei
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 7:59
  • @Em1: Why do you say "you haven't done it (in the past)"? Is there anything wrong about "Ich sollte mit ihnen gehen, also ließ ich alles stehen und liegen" or "Ich sollte mit ihnen gehen, und das tat ich auch"? I would agree with you if it was "Ich sollte eigentlich mit ihnen gehen." Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 9:38

2 Answers 2


So the comments already give a lot of the answer.

Ich sollte ... can either mean:

It would probably be better if I go with you.


I was supposed to go with you.

Here I do not agree with the comment in that in my opinion it is not clear that I have not gone. It sounds a bit like it but it is still ambiguous. Me personally I would say that the first meaning is so dominating that people would use different phrasing to express the second notion just to avoid confusion.

I edited this part to make it more clear that this is the actual answer:)

Ich sollte (in the past tense sense) leaves it open whether or not I actually did it.

Ich hätte sollen leaves no doubt that I didn't do it although I was supposed to.

Hence, the 2 phrasings are not the same.

  • But is the first one grammatically correct, and does it mean the same as the second one? I.e. does Ich konnte mit Ihnen gehen mean the same as Ich hätte mit Ihnen gehen konnten?
    – hohner
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 2:11
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    @Jamie: A little correction for your comment there: "Ich hätte mit ihnen gehen können"
    – 0x6d64
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 7:05
  • They are both grammatically correct, but they don't mean the same. Emanuel posted the two possible translations for the first sentence; you, Jamie, posted the one for the second sentence. Can you see the different meanings there?
    – elena
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 8:46
  • The mechanic for können is the same. Ich konnte doesn't tell whether I did or I did not. Ich hätte können is clear in that I did not do it.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 10:22
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    I think a source of confusion here is that the conjunctive and past forms of "sollen" are identical (sollte), while for "können", they aren't (könnte vs. konnte).
    – Jan
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 13:23

Emanuel already said everything, but just to point it out in a quite different way.

In both sentences the verb sollen expresses that either someone said I had to do or if I personally have the opinion that I should do.

The first sentence can refer to a time in the past. And Emanuel is right when he doesn't agree completely to my comment. It does not necessary say that it has not happened:

Ich sollte mit Ihnen gehen, bin aber zu Hause geblieben. (not happened, I did something else)

Ich sollte mit Ihnen gehen, deswegen bin ich zum Treffpunkt gekommen. (happened or at least I tried to)

But it is more likely that I talk about a situation which happens now:

Ich sollte mit Ihnen gehen, bin mir aber noch unschlüssig. (I still need time to think about it)

In the second sentence hätte means that something did not happen although it should've happened:

Ich hätte mit Ihnen gehen sollen, bin aber zu Hause geblieben.

If you want to be unambiguous you either add a subordinate clause or you use the latter sentence.

Note regarding your comment on Emanuel's answer:

The meaning of Ich konnte mit Ihnen gehen is a bit different, but the rules are the same. Können means to have the possibility to do something. Ich konnte just says that it was possible but you don't say if you did.

But Ich hätte mit Ihnen gehen können means that you haven't done it. Here again: Ich hätte emphasizes that you missed to do it.

  • Your example of something in the present time (still needing time to think about it) is actually subjunctive (Konjunktiv) rather than past tense, as Jan pointed out in his comment on the other answer. The form is the same, but the meaning is actually different. I think you took this into account in your explanation maybe without realizing it, as I do agree with what you said otherwise.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 17:43
  • @Kevin Haven't said that it is past tense in that case.
    – Em1
    Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 18:08
  • I suppose you didn't. I just took it that way in context of the question being asked, that the asker was referring to whethe the two constructs accomplished the same meaning [in past tense]. You did a good job of covering all usage.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 21, 2012 at 3:32

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