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The subjunctive - Easy Learning Grammar German

What is the subjunctive?
The subjunctive is a verb form that is used in certain circumstances to express some sort of feeling, or to show there is doubt about whether something will happen or whether something is true. It is only used occasionally in modern English, for example, If I were you, I wouldn’t bother; So be it.

1 Using the subjunctive

  • In German, subjunctive forms are used much more frequently than in English, to express uncertainty, speculation or doubt.
Es könnte doch wahr sein.It could be true.
  • Subjunctives are also commonly used in indirect speech, also known as reported speech. What a person asks or thinks can be reported directly:
Sie sagte: „Er kennt deine Schwester”She said, “He knows your sister”
OR indirectly:
Sie sagte, er kenne meine Schwester.She said he knew my sister.
  • Note that the change from direct to indirect speech is indicated by a change of tense in English, but is shown by a change to the subjunctive form in German.
Grammar Extra!
  • There are two ways of introducing indirect speech in German, as in English.
  • The conjunction dass (meaning that) begins the clause containing the indirect speech and the verb goes to the end of the clause.
Sie hat uns gesagt, dass sie Italienisch spreche.She told us that she spoke Italian.
  • dass is dropped and normal word order applies in the second clause – the verb comes directly after the subject.
Sie hat uns gesagt, sie spreche Italienisch.She told us she spoke Italian.
  • If you want to express a possible situation in English, for example, I would be happy if you came, you use ‘if’ followed by the appropriate tense of the verb. In German you use the conjunction wenn followed by a subjunctive form of the verb.
  • Note that the verb ALWAYS goes to the end of a clause beginning with wenn.
  • wenn (meaning if, whenever)
Wenn du käm(e)st (subjunctive), wäre (subjunctive) ich froh.
Wenn du käm(e)st, würde ich froh sein.I would be happy if you came.
  • Note that the main clause can either have a subjunctive form or the conditional tense.
Wenn es mir nicht gefiele, würde ich es nicht bezahlen.
Wenn es mir nicht gefiele, bezahlte (subjunctive) ich es nicht.If I wasn’t happy with it,
I wouldn’t pay for it.
TipThe imperfect forms of bezahlen, and of all weak verbs, are exactly the same as the imperfect subjunctive forms, so it’s better to use a conditional tense to avoid confusion.
  • wenn … nur (meaning if only), selbst wenn (meaning even if or even though) and wie (meaning how) work in the same way as wenn. This means that the normal word order is changed and the verb comes at the end of the clause.
  • wenn … nur
Wenn wir nur erfolgreich wären!If only we were successful!
  • selbst wenn
Selbst wenn er etwas wüsste, würde er nichts sagen.Even if he knew about it, he wouldn’t say anything.
  • wie, expressing uncertainty
Er wunderte sich, wie es ihr wohl ginge.He wondered how she was.
  • Unlike wenn and wie etc, the word order does not change after als (meaning as if or as though) when it is used in conditional clauses: it is immediately followed by the verb.
Sie sah aus, als sei sie krank.She looked as if she were ill.
TipIt is quite common to hear the subjunctive used when someone is asking you something politely, for example, the person serving you in a shop might ask:
Wäre da sonst noch etwas?Will there be anything else?

2 Forming the present subjunctive

  • The three main forms of the subjunctive are the present subjunctive, the imperfect subjunctive and the pluperfect subjunctive.
  • The present subjunctive of weak, strong and mixed verbs has the same endings:
PronounPresent Subjunctive: Weak and Strong Verb Endings
  • holen (weak verb, meaning to fetch)
ich holeI fetch
du holestyou fetch
  • fahren (strong verb, meaning to drive, to go)
ich fahreI drive, I go
du fahrestyou drive, you go
  • denken (mixed verb, meaning to think)
ich denkeI think
du denkestyou think
TipThe present and the present subjunctive endings are exactly the same for the ich, wir and sie/Sie forms.

3 Forming the imperfect subjunctive

  • The imperfect subjunctive is very common and is not always used to describe actions in the past. It can, for example, express the future.
Wenn ich nur früher kommen könnte!If only I could come earlier!
  • The imperfect tense and the imperfect subjunctive of weak verbs are identical.
PronounImperfect/Imperfect SubjunctiveMeaning
ichholteI fetched
duholtestyou fetched
er/sie/esholtehe/she/it fetched
wirholtenwe fetched
ihrholtetyou (plural) fetched
sie/Sieholtenthey/you (polite) fetched
  • The imperfect subjunctive of strong verbs is formed by adding the following endings to the stem of the imperfect. If there is an a, o or u in this stem, an umlaut is also added to it.
PronounImperfect Subjunctive:
Strong Verb Endings
  • Note that you add the -e to the du and ihr parts of the verb if it makes pronunciation easier, for example:
du stießestyou pushed
ihr stießetyou pushed
PronounImperfect SubjunctiveMeaning
ichgäbeI gave
dugäb(e)styou gave
er/sie/esgäbehe/she/it gave
wirgäbenwe gave
ihrgäb(e)tyou (plural) gave
sie/Siegäbenthey/you (polite) gave
  • The imperfect subjunctive forms of the mixed verbs brennen, kennen, senden, nennen, rennen and wenden add weak verb imperfect endings to the stem of the verb, which DOES NOT change the vowel. The imperfect subjunctive forms of the remaining mixed verbs bringen, denken and wissen are also the same as the imperfect with one major difference: not only does the stem vowel change, but an umlaut is also added to the a or u. However, all of these forms are rare, with the conditional tense being used much more frequently instead.
Wenn ich du wäre, würde ich rennen.INSTEAD OF
Wenn ich du wäre, rennte ich.If I were you, I would run.
Ich würde so etwas nie denken!
Ich dächte so etwas nie!I would never think such a thing!
Grammar Extra!The pluperfect subjunctive is formed from the imperfect subjunctive of haben or sein + the past participle. This subjunctive form is frequently used to translate the English structure ‘If I had done something, …’
Wenn ich Geld gehabt hätte,
wäre ich gereist.
If I had had money,
I would have travelled.
Key points
  • In German, subjunctive forms are used much more frequently than in English, to express uncertainty, speculation or doubt.
  • Subjunctive forms are commonly used in indirect speech and in conditional sentences.
  • The present subjunctive of weak, strong and mixed verbs have the same endings.
  • The imperfect tense and the imperfect subjunctive of weak verbs are identical.
  • The imperfect subjunctive of strong verbs is formed by adding the endings -e, -(e)st, -e, -en, -(e)t, -en to the stem of the imperfect and often has an umlaut change.
  • The imperfect subjunctive of mixed verbs is rare and the conditonal form of würde + infinitive is normally used instead.

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