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I have a short question, thanks in advance whoever can answer or comment on it!

In a situation, when I regret that I did (or did not do) something, in english, I would use:

I should have done it. (I did not do it, and now I regret it.)

or

I shouldn't have done it. (I did it - and now regret...)

In german, there are two ways to express this:

Ich hätte das machen sollen.
Ich hätte das machen dürfen.

What is the difference??

And for the negative - again, what's the difference?

Ich hätte das nicht machen sollen.
Ich hätte das nicht machen dürfen.

From what I found, some grammar books prefer "sollen", some "dürfen".

And what would Germans, in daily talk prefer? :)

Thanks!

2 Answers 2

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In german, there are two ways to express this:
Ich hätte das machen sollen.
Ich hätte das machen dürfen.

This is already a false premise. "dürfen" means "to may ..." or "to be allowed to ...". For "sollen" there is no direct counterpart (although "shall" is regularly offered). The closest translation is "(so) is to ...". eg:

Ich soll das machen.
I am to do that.

Analogous for negation and/or other tenses/moods.

On the other hand:

Ich darf das machen.
I am allowed to do that.
I may do that.

Notice, though, that "I may do that" also means "maybe I will do that in the future". This is not the case in German. There the meaning of "dürfen" is always limited to "I am allowed".

A sentence like "Ich sollte das machen" means: I have some reasons suggesting I do it but - for some other reasons, maybe simple inertia - I don't do it or, at least, I don't do it right now. eg:

Ich sollte aufstehen.

I should get up. In the sense of: *It would be wise to get up right now and I am aware of that but at the same time I don't really want to and - for the time being - I don't.

PS: as @CarstenS pointed out in his comment there is some overlap in the negated forms:

Ich hätte das nicht machen dürfen.
Ich hätte das nicht machen sollen.

Indeed "dürfen" here can be the stronger form of "sollen": with "sollen" there is some regret implied, but not necessarily so. It can also mean that one wasn't ought to do something but did it anyway. with "dürfen" it can be interpreted as "I did it - now I regret it" in addition to the "normal" meaning "I wouldn't have been allowed to do that". The respective interpretation depends on context, not the sentence alone:

Q: Warum hast Du das nicht gemacht?
A: Ich hätte das nicht machen dürfen.

Neutral - I didn't do it because I wasn't not allowed to.

Q: Warum hast Du das gemacht?
A: Ich hätte das nicht machen dürfen.

Has done it and now has strong second thoughts. Same situation as with "sollen" instead of dürfen", but with stronger regrets.

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  • Reg. "This is already a false premise." I did not say dürfen=sollen. Of course not. But sometimes grammar webs suggest "dürfen": Lena hätte nach Köln fahren dürfen. here ......and sometimes "sollen": Wir hätten frühzeitig losfahren sollen! here .....And, as I understand the sentences, the meaning looks the same to me, so it looks like we really have 2 options here. Please correct me if I am wrong.
    – jansulc
    Oct 25, 2023 at 9:52
  • @janulc: The meaning is not the same: "Lena hätte nach Köln fahren dürfen" means "Lena would have been allowed to go to Köln". This means either she was allowed to and missed the opportunity or she would have been allowed would some condition have been met (but wasn't). "Wir hätten frühzeitig losfahren sollen" means "we should have started earlier". This would have avoided the outcome (flight missed) but wasn't the case. Two completey different things.
    – bakunin
    Oct 25, 2023 at 18:42
  • I still hesitate to agree with you. I know that grammars usually say that, and of course it can be translated as you say, but I often met examples where "dürfen" really made much more sense if understood as "should have had...". - For example here: "Heute weiß ich, dass ich mir mehr Gedanken hätte machen dürfen!" link - It makes much more sense here to understand it as "I should have thought more seriously about it", and she now regrets she did not do it. Would you agree?
    – jansulc
    Oct 27, 2023 at 9:27
  • @jansulc: Yes, I do agree - but this doesn't change what I said. The "dürfen" in your example is a sarcastic euphemism of "sollen" in the sense of "I would have been allowed to ..., but I didn't - I wonder what has held me back from ..."? The "base meaning" is still what I said - only on top of that meaning the sarcastic (or euphemistic) subversion is possible. If you, eg, make a sarcastical remark like "I am delighted" meaning in fact the exact opposite that is also only possible because of the real meaning of "delighted" and wouldn't change the meaning of "delighted" at all.
    – bakunin
    Oct 27, 2023 at 10:13
  • understood! many thanks for your explanations.
    – jansulc
    Oct 27, 2023 at 14:49
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Short answer: the difference is in meaning, grammatically they're all valid.

The equivalent of "should" in German is "sollte", the equivalent of "should have" is "hätte sollen". I would never translate positive "dürfen" with a form of "should". In the negative case ("etwas nicht tun dürfen") it may be acceptable to translate it with "should not do something", but it loses some meaning IMO.

  1. Ich hätte das machen sollen. = I should have done that.
  2. Ich hätte das machen dürfen. = I would have been allowed to do that.
  1. Ich hätte das nicht machen sollen. = I shouldn't have done that. (Meaning: it was wrong that I did it.)
  2. Ich hätte das nicht machen dürfen. = I wasn't allowed to do that, but I still did it. (Often, this implies that I regret it, but it doesn't really say that.)

For example 4, the difference to example 3 is quite subtle. It depends on context if there's even a difference between "you should not [do this]" and "you're not allowed to [do this]".

To add a more concrete example:

Ich hätte mich in Euren Streit nicht einmischen dürfen. = I was out of bounds when I interfered in your quarrel.

Ich hätte mich in Euren Streit nicht einmischen sollen. = I shouldn't have interfered in your quarrel (e.g. because I did it badly and made everything worse).

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  • I will be open - what you say is exactly what I found in textbooks, and hoped is true. But then I found many examples which contradict what I had thought, and what you say. Eg.: Lena hätte nach Köln fahren dürfen. here They definitely do not mean to suggest that Lena "would have been allowed to go there". They mean - she decided not to go there - and now she regrets the decision. Or do you see it differently...?
    – jansulc
    Oct 25, 2023 at 12:57
  • Reg. case with "nicht dürfen", I also think it is not so clear... Take the sentence below from Remarque's novel - the soldier is desperate after he visited his mother during exceptional vacation, which he got from his commander. He thinks: if I had stayed here, fighting, it would have been, in the end, much better for me. ...And says: Ich hätte nie auf Urlaub fahren dürfen. ...And it is certainly not the case only in literature. ...Eg. Ich hätte beim Abbiegen den Schulterblick nicht vergessen dürfen. here
    – jansulc
    Oct 25, 2023 at 13:08
  • @jansulc About "Lena hätte nach Köln fahren dürfen.": Following the link I don't see how you arrived at your guess about what they mean to say. It does mean that Lena would have been allowed to go there, but didn't go. Definitely not that she regrets not going.
    – HalvarF
    Oct 26, 2023 at 9:22
  • @jansulc For the negative, I agree the actual meaning can be quite similar between "nicht sollen" and "nicht dürfen". Regarding Remarque, imo "dürfen" is stronger here than "sollen" would have been. Not only does the soldier regret how he decided, but he implies that he should have seen from the start that going on vacation was not an "allowed" option in this situation. The car example is even clearer: "dürfen" inplies that the person did not just make a bad decision but broke an existing rule when not doing the Schulterblick. "Man darf .. den Schulterblick nicht vergessen." Not just "soll".
    – HalvarF
    Oct 26, 2023 at 9:28
  • I still hesitate to agree with you. I know that grammars usually say that, and of course it can be translated as you say, but I often met examples where "dürfen" really made much more sense if understood as "should have had...". - For example here: "Heute weiß ich, dass ich mir mehr Gedanken hätte machen dürfen!" link - It makes much more sense here to understand it as "I should have thought more seriously about it", and she now regrets she did not do it. Would you agree?
    – jansulc
    Oct 27, 2023 at 9:30

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