Where is the difference between "wolltest" and "willst". I am a native german speaker myself, but was asked this by a native english speaker, and I can't explain the difference.


"Wann wolltest du mit mir sprechen?" vs "Wann willst du mit mir sprechen?"

I believe it has something to do with the time the intention to speak with me was made.

"wolltest" -> the decision to speak with me at a certain time was made in the past

"willst" -> the decision to speak with me at a certain time has still to be made.

But this is just guessing. Am I close?

  • Jetzt fragt ein Muttersprachler in einem Englisch dominierten Forum um Hilfe zur Muttersprache. Hu? Wo sind wir? Keine Anmache! Bin einfach irritiert...
    – alk
    Jan 30 '19 at 20:11
  • 1
    @alk Ich bin viel auf StackExchange unterwegs, und wüsste nicht wo ich sonst fragen könnte. Meine Arbeitskollegen kannten die Antwort auch nicht. Und sonst hab ich kaum soziale Kontakte mit Menschen. Ich habe mir da nichts Böses bei gedacht.
    – Pudora
    Feb 1 '19 at 12:25

The modal verbs wollen and sollen unfortunately do not distinguish past indicative and past conjunctive (as do mußte and müßte or konnte und könnte).

If wollte is past indicative, there is indeed a contrast in time:

Ich wollte dich vorhin etwas fragen, aber jetzt habe ich die Frage vergessen.
(colloquial) Ich hab dich vorhin was fragen wollen...

However, the past subjunctive never refers to the past. It can be used for 'politeness':

Ich müßte Sie mal was fragen. (is less direct than) Ich muß Sie mal was fragen.
Guten Tag! Ich wollte Sie mal was fragen, und zwar...

It can also be used as irrealis:

Wenn ich wollte, könnte ich jederzeit mit dem Trinken aufhören. Aber ich will nicht.

If you need to refer to the past, the perfect with the auxiliary in the past conjunctive is used:

Auch wenn ich das damals gewollt hätte, hätten meine Eltern mich nie studieren lassen.

As past subjunctive, wollte can be replaced by würde plus infinitive, at least in spoken language:

Ich würd mal was fragen wollen.
Wenn ich wollen würde, ...

  • Thank you for your answer, this does make sense. How do you notice if past indicative is used? Are there special words which need to be followed by past indicative?
    – Pudora
    Jan 30 '19 at 14:03
  • It depends on the context. As a native speaker, you could try which of the following paraphrases fits the meaning better: habe wollen or würde wollen, but that doesn't help language learners.
    – David Vogt
    Jan 30 '19 at 15:26

The difference is pretty simple, you are correct with your assumption.

"Wann wolltest du mit mir sprechen?"

This is in the past. You're asking: When did you want to talk to me?

"Wann willst du mit mir sprechen?"

This is in the present, or maybe future: When do you want to talk to me?

  • I got confused because of the colloquial way of asking it. You don't assume you missed the time you wanted to talk to someone when using "wolltest". It feels weird. Thank you for your answer!
    – Pudora
    Jan 30 '19 at 14:02
  • Yes, but i think that's a general problem with languages. Idioms and sayings are getting mixed up from time to time and sometimes will be adapted by a part of the society, not noticing the mistake.
    – miep
    Jan 30 '19 at 14:56

To my mind, there are differences in use and connotation between the two.

Wann wolltest du mit mir sprechen?

This seems natural to ask when

  1. We have already discussed the time of our conversation, but I have forgotten the result. The question asks for a reminder. In that situation it would be natural to insert »nochmal«.
  2. Or: Suppose I find out something that you concealed, and in defense you answer that you had wanted to discuss this with me. In that situation the question expresses surprise that you didn't talk to me before. This depends on intonation as well.

Wann willst du mit mir sprechen?

This seems most natural as an instant reply when you ask me for a conversation.

I'm not sure how to systematize this. Perhaps the first case (past tense) puts more focus on »Wann«, and is used to express uncertainty or surprise about the time of conversation; whereas the second case (present tense) puts focus on »willst«, and is adequate only when an intent has recently been expressed.

At any rate, it would seem to me that the English sentences differ in the same way, so that's not specific to German.

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