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So in a recent (chat) conversation where I asked a friend whether he is coming to an event and if he registered already I got a sentence as a response that said:

Hätte ich mich nicht anmelden müssen?

I responded saying that, no, he did everything right by registering and everything is fine. This led to quite a lot of confusion, since even though I understood "I should not have registered for it??", what was actually meant was "Shouldn't I have registered for it?" (to come).

Now it's not a big deal and the missunderstanding was clarified quickly, but I was wondering:

  1. If the missunderstanding stems from the fact that I'm not a native speaker and a native speaker would've (more likely) interpreted the question the correct way?

  2. If it's possible to rearange the sentence (just like in english!) to make it more clear, even out of context, which of the two meanings is the question more likely to have.

I'm well aware that normally one meaning would be more likely depending on the context and that if spoken, stressing different words would also seperate the two options, but this question is specifically about interpretations of written questions like this, where the context doesn't make it clear/isn't relevant.

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  • To me, the sentence is synonym to "War es nicht notwendig, mich anzumelden?" (Was it not necessary to register?)
    – user6495
    Feb 2, 2022 at 13:14

3 Answers 3

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To a native speaker, it's relatively clear that

Hätte ich mich nicht anmelden müssen?

implies

  1. He assumes he should have registered for the event.
  2. He didn't (because he uses subjunctive - irrealis)

There is, admittedly some ambiguity in the sentence,because it's subjunctive and it is not immediately clear whether the "nicht" is included in the subjunctive or not like in

nicht (irrealis that never happened)

(irrealis that never happened - nicht)

(The same applies to English, BTW).

Often, German native speakers use particles to make it clear what exactly is part of the negation. You can do that here with

Hätte ich mich etwa nicht anmelden müssen?

(He did register, and asks whether it was really necessary)

Hätte ich mich nicht etwa anmelden müssen?

(He didn't register and asks whether it would have been mandatory)

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  • I would argue that in "nicht etwa" "nicht" has become a particle and no longer forms a real negation. Thus it's semantically equivalent to saying "Hätte ich mich etwa anmelden müssen?".
    – idmean
    Feb 2, 2022 at 14:35
  • @idmean Well, you could, I partially agree. But a quick search in some dictionaries doesn't really support that claim.
    – tofro
    Feb 4, 2022 at 16:10
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The common problem in written communication is, as you already mentioned, that pronounciation/emphasis is non-existent. The sentence can indeed be understood as

Hätte ich mich [nicht anmelden] müssen? (a)

(To be understood as: I registered, but it might have been unnecessary)

Hätte ich mich nicht [anmelden müssen]? (b)

(To be understood as: I thought I had to register (but I didn't))

We can remove the negative but are faced with the same problem.

Hätte ich mich anmelden müssen? (c)

(_To be understood as: I didn't know I had to register, (and I didn't))

Hätte ich mich anmelden müssen? (d)

(To be understood as: I registered, but was it even necessary?)

Unfortunately we can not remove the ambiguity here, without providing extra information. Since I'm a native speaker, I argue that this misunderstanding is not a result of a language barrier, but simple of different expectations.

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  • 2
    I find (a) a highly unusual interpretation of the sentence and I would never understand it as such. Maybe there's a regional difference that explains this. Note though, that the English expression "must not" often confuses German native speakers, so there seems to be a tendency to understand it as in (b).
    – idmean
    Feb 2, 2022 at 14:41
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    Was soll a) denn praktisch bedeuten? Im Deutschen würde man sagen "Hätte ich mich nicht anmelden dürfen." Sich nicht anzumelden ist ja keine Handlung, sondern eine Unterlassung. Müsen/dürfen in Zusammenhang mit Verneinung verhalten sich nicht analog in EN und DE: "You must not smoke" = "Du darfst nicht rauchen", nicht "Du musst (nicht rauchen)". Klammern sind auch immer so schwer zu hören. Feb 3, 2022 at 6:10
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    I don't know why two peope are arguing with the English must not. I'm giving German examples, I don't see the relevance of posting examples that might be confusing for some in English. Feb 3, 2022 at 7:40
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This sentence just means he thinks it is necessary to register and he didn't. The fact that he didn't register is clear from the use of the conjunctive.

Hätte ich mich nicht anmelden müssen?

If he asks whether registering was wrong, he would say:

Hätte ich mich nicht anmelden dürfen?

Note that from a logical point of view, the second question doesn't even make sense: An event offers registration, so it is either mandatory or at least encouraged to help the organizers plan. So why should he assume it might be wrong to register if he wants to attend the event?

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