Subjunctive/Conditional 2 -Word order and verb forms

Hey, I just have a question about word order, how would the following sentence read in German?:
“I knew what I should have done”

Also sentences like “I should have tried…”
The answer just completely eludes me and I don’t even know what this construction is called or if there is a name for it.


(asked by Briguy)

5 comments on “Subjunctive/Conditional 2 -Word order and verb forms

  1. So … the correct term for this in German is “Vergangenheit des Konjunktiv 2” … we have a past form in the first part (I knew) and a past conditional 2 in the second (should have done). German verbs do not have an own past conditional 2 form so we always need a helper… either haben or sein adn the rule is the same as it is for the mere past…. so if we talk about movement (kind of) then it is sein, all the rest uses haben, including the modals.
    And the helper verb (haben or sein) will carry the conditional AND the past information.

    – Ich wusste, was ich HÄTTE tun sollen.

    now … this might look unexpected. Let’s look at an example with no minor sentence for a second. Here are the different tenses /modes.


    – Ich soll dich anrufen.
    – I shall/have to call you.


    – Ich sollte dich anrufen.
    – I was supposed to call you.

    present conditional 2:

    – Ich sollte dich anrufen.
    – I should call you.

    And yes… the sentences in German are exactly the same for sollen…. you can only know by context.

    past conditional 2:

    – Ich hätte dich anrufen sollen.
    – I should have called you.

    So… the reason why it is not “gesollt” is that in these kinds of constructions (haben+ modal+ real verb) the ge-form is dropped… for some reason :).
    Here is another step-by-step-development… watch, how the verb that was in position 2 always moves to the very end so they pile up there:

    – Ich rufe dich an.
    – Ich soll dich anrufen.
    – Ich habe dich anrufen sollen (spoken past of sollen, not used that much)
    – Ich hätte dich anrufen sollen.

    And now let’s make that into a minor sentence:

    – Ich weiß, dass ich dich anrufe.
    – Ich weiß, dass ich dich anrufen soll.
    – Ich weiß, dass ich dich habe anrufen sollen.
    – Ich weiß, dass ich dich hätte anrufen sollen.

    This is another exception for those haben+modal+real verb combinations…. the haben does not go to the end but it preceedes the rest…. based on the normal rule it should be:

    – Ich weiß, dass ich dich anrufen gesollt hätte.

    But it’s not. Here are some more examples like this:

    – Ich weiß, dass ich hätte Klavier spielen können.
    – I know, I could have been able to play piano.

    – Ich weiß, dass ich dich hätte anrufen müssen.

    – Ich weiß, dass ich dich nicht hätte warten lassen dürfen

    ok… the last one was a bit extreme :)

    So … the sentence you asked for would be:

    – Ich wusste, was ich hätte tun sollen.

    And the main reason why it looks so unfamiliar is that there is a special rule for combinations of verbs haben+modal+real verb… and that is NOT limited to conditional tense.

    – Ich weiß, dass du dir die Haare hast schneiden lassen.

    Here the step by step guide:

    – Du schneidest dir die Haare.
    – Du lässt dir die Haare schneiden.
    – Ich weiß, dass du dir die Haare schneiden lässt.
    – Ich weiß, dass du dir die Haare hast schneiden lassen. (instead of the by the book version)
    – Ich weiß, dass du dir die Haare schneiden gelassen hast…. would be logical but is wrong :)

    So… I hope this wasn’t too jumbled but it is really hard to explain with some background without writing 3000 words :)…. hope it helps anyway

  2. Briguy says:

    Ohhh wow, you did a really good job making that easy to understand. Unfortunately, the inventor of German was not so kind!

  3. ads says:

    Your explanations are wonderful, thanks!

    On a similar vein, I’ve been getting very confused over the translation of “has been/would have been/had to have been” as it seems both sein and werden are used and I’m not sure how you can tell when to use which one!

    For example:

    I understand
    – sie muss hier gewesen sein
    as there’s no other way to use “been” for she must have been here

    but for actions, it’s a bit more ambiguous (at least in meinem Kopf!)

    I understand
    -das Haus wäre verkauft

    but these are confusing to me
    – the house would have been sold
    -das Haus wäre verkauft worden?
    -das Haus wäre verkauft gewesen?

    -the house has been sold
    -das Haus ist verkauft gewesen?
    has Haus ist verkauft worden?

    this ones a bit separate as my german friend gave me a different translation that threw me a bit
    -he would have been asking
    -er wäre gefragt gewesen? (my attempt)
    -er würde gefragt haben? (her translation – I thought this would just be “he would have asked?)

    The following are easier to form given there’s no ambiguity whether its been or become.
    -could have been (hätte….können?)
    -should have been (hätte…..sollen?)
    I guess I confuse myself with the presence in English of the “been”
    because when I break it down to a normal sentence eg Meine Schlüssel hätten dort sollen, it’s fine but for things which involve an action “could have been sold” is confusion for me because of the been/sein or become/werden business!

    totally hanging out for your answer :)
    Vielen Dank im Voraus!

    • hahah… to be honest, I am a bit confused now :)… I’ll just comment on your examples and hopefully answer your questions that way:

      – he would have been asking

      In not too grammatical Terms: it is past active and conditional and progressive… German doesn’t have the latter so we’re left with the first three

      – Er hat gefragt (active)
      – Er hatte gefragt (active past)
      – Er hätte gefragt (active past conditional)… that’s it
      – Er würde gefragt haben… means the same but for the modals we usually do not use the würde-conditional It’s not wrong, just not idiomatic

      – meine Schlüssel hätten dort sein sollen…

      the “sein” was missing in your sentence but I suppose that was a typo

      – the house would have been sold

      We have something in passive, past and conditional
      The German passive knows two forms… one (the werden one) focuses on the ongoing Action while the sein one talks about the result.

      – Das Haus wird verkauft. (present passive)
      – The house is being sold./Will be sold.

      – Das Haus wurde verkauft./war verkauft worden (past, passive… there is a slight difference in meaning between the two but we needn’t bother with that here)
      – The house was sold/had been sold

      All that’s missing is the conditional

      – Das Haus wäre verkauft worden. (werden passive)
      – Das Haus wäre verkauft (gewesen) (sein passive)

      – The house would have been sold.

      The difference between the two passives doesn’t always translate. If you Need to read more on that check out my articles on werden on you’ll find them under the Word of the Day menu.

      So… this was Kind of random but I hope you could take something ut of it anyway :).
      generally, I think the best way is to build the German forms from scratch because a “would have ” can easily translate to “wäre” and so on

      — I would have gone
      – Ich wäre gegangen.

      When it Comes to the difference between the divers German past passive forms… well, there is debate about what exactly they mean but in daily use no one really cares… or knows :)
      ich hoffe das hilft.

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