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I understand that one is the indicative and the other is the subjunctive, but I often hear that wollen is used when someone intends to do something while the subjunctive form is used when someone wants to make a suggestion in an unsure manner (less certain than möchten)

examples as I understand it:

  • Ich wollte Kuchen essen - I wanted to eat cake (but I'm not sure about it)
  • Ich will Kuchen essen - I intend to eat cake (no matter what anyone says)

3 Answers 3

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First off, one of the problems with the Verb "wollen" is that there is no direct counterpart in the english language. Your example sentence:

Ich will Kuchen essen.

Could either mean "I intend to eat cake" as you mentioned, but it could mean "I want to eat cake." Notice that the former somewhat implies there is cake available whereas the latter can be said regardless of cake being there or not.

A second problem is that "wollte" could be one of two forms: Präteritum or Konjunktiv.

Ich wollte Kuchen essen.

This is mostly interpreted as Präteritum if it stands on its own: you wished (wanted, intended) to eat cake, but that was somewhere in the past. The Konjunktiv (subjunctive) would usually require some clause, i.e.:

Ich wollte Kuchen essen, sofern einer da ist.

"I'd eat cake if some is there" or "I'd want to eat cake if some is there". Or, without such a clause, in questions:

Wer wollte nicht Kuchen essen?

"Who wouldn't want to eat cake?" or "who wouldn't eat cake?"

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As you see in the full Wiktionary table, wollte is ambiguous, it can mean subjunctive or past, and the exact meaning depends on the context.

Where uniqueness is required, typically for the subjunctive as the less frequently used form a different phrasing is used instead, like Ich hätte Kuchen essen wollen.

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Modal verbs in German have a so called subjective use. In indicative, it's for assertions and in Konjunktiv II for assumptions.

Thomas will keinen Alkohol mehr trinken.

Well, Thomas wants to but his internist says no.

Thomas wollte keinen Alkohol mehr trinken.

That was a New Year's resolution he gave up quickly.

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  • I understand your second example as past tense. For subjective, I’d think of sentences like “ich wollt‘ ich wär ein Huhn”.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 8:42
  • It's not about the past but about fiction. Präteritum and Konjunktiv II are two sides of the same coin. That's also why they can easily share forms and no one sees a problem.
    – Janka
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 13:17

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