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I've learned that sollen is used when talking about instructions from other people, while sollten (Konjunktiv II) is used for suggestions and recommendations. If that's right, why does Sentence 1 use soll? Isn't it also a recommendation like the other three sentences?

  1. Man soll lieber duschen, weil man dann weniger Wasser verbraucht.

  2. Für das Badewasser braucht man viel Energie, deshalb sollte man duschen.

  3. Jeder sollte sein Verhalten überdenken, da dafür alle bezahlen müssen.

  4. Energie ist teuer, auch aus diesem Grund sollte man Strom sparen.

(Source: Netzwerk B1 Arbeitsbuch from Klett's Deutsch als Fremdsprache series)

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Here's what I think is going on. (I'm ''not'' a native speaker, so fair warning.) First, this is the first time Ive come across the idea that you use soll for instructions and sollte for suggestions. I suspect it's less a rule and more of a guideline. In any case, German grammar rules are notorious for having many exceptions, caveats and subtleties.

I do know that the subjunctive is often used to soften requests and instructions. So I can see how one might, in general, tend to use the subjunctive for advice and indicative for instructions. But a lot would depend on the situation, the particular phrase being used, and other factors. In this case, the adverb lieber is used in the first sentence, which already softens it. So it seems like it would be going too far to soften it more by using the subjunctive (see vonbrand's comment).

English has a number of ways to soften instructions as well. For example you could say "You might want to take showers to save water," or "Please consider taking showers to save water," but combining the two, "Please consider wanting to take showers to save water" sounds odd. German has different ways of doing things like this, but I think the idea is similar: not softening instructions at all can sound impolite, but you can also soften them too much.

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"Man soll lieber" is no strict instruction, "man sollte lieber" sounds somewhat stilted to me.

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  • Thank you, vonbrand! Is it “man” or “lieber” (or both) that makes the sentence sound like it’s not an instruction?
    – user392289
    Sep 12 at 15:45
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    @user392289, "lieber" means more or less "prefer","man" is "one"; i.e., an English translation would be "One shall prefer showering, that way one uses less water". Doesn't sound right, but is nearest to the strict meaning.
    – vonbrand
    Sep 12 at 18:58
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For my feeling (I am a native speaker) the two sentences "Man soll lieber duschen ..." and

"Man sollte lieber duschen ..."

mean exactly the same thing. I don't know why they use that as an example in a German textbook. Perhaps to draw attention to one of the many exceptions?

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  • 3
    Different forms do not usually mean exactly the same thing, but have at least different connotations. Here, the difference lies in the mood (indicative versus subjunctive) of the verb sollen. Sep 14 at 10:27

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