Why are we Starting with Subjunctive II?
Great question — there must be a reason why the first article isn’t about Subjunctive I (in German, it’s Konjunktiv I und II).
And here it is — you will hardly ever need to use the Subjunctive I. You’ll basically only come across it if you’re reading or watching a news program, because this mood is only used to show indirect speech. What’s indirect speech? That’s when you’re telling what someone else said about a topic, and you may be casting doubt on the truth of what that person said. Go to the next article in this series to learn more about it.
On to Subjunctive II — which is much more commonly used in German. The English subjunctive revolves around the word “if,” and helping verbs like “should,” “could,” and especially “would.” It is used to express a wish, or an unfulfilled state of being or a hypothetical situation.
Example: “I would be happy if I had a new car.”
In German, here’s how that sentence is written:
“Ich wäre glücklich, wenn ich ein neues Auto hätte.“
That’s Easy for you to Say
And it will be easy for you to write and say. The Subjunctive II in German is often called the "past subjunctive" — not because it refers to past events, but because it is built off past tense forms. Look at the German example — notice that wäre and hätte are the verbs. If you take the umlauts off, you have the simple past tense forms for "to be" and "to have."
That's how Subjunctive II works. If you don't want to use wenn (which means "if"), you don't have to, but then the action verb needs to move to the front of that clause:
"Ich wäre glücklich, hätte ich ein neues Auto."
In other words, "would" + an action verb can be written just by taking the simple past of the action verb, and adding an umlaut if there is a vowel in the verb that takes one. The bad news, as so often with German, lies with the strong verbs. Yes, you need to memorize the principal parts: infinitive, simple past/preterite, and past participle. They will come back to haunt you again, and again, and again.
Just One More Thing
Conjugation is exactly the same in Subjunctive II as it is for the simple past. The only visible difference will be the umlaut. If you're dealing with a verb that doesn't take an umlaut, which is fairly rare, the context of the sentence should let you know whether you're talking about past events or something that is wished for.
However, there are two modal verbs that are used with this mood. "Would" does have a German equivalent that you can certainly use: würden.
As far as conjugation, this verb works just like werden, which means "will" — it's the helping verb for the future tense. Here's an example of how you might use würden.
English: Would you bring me a soda?
German: Brächtest du mir bitte ein Cola? (Remember, the simple past of bringen is brachte.)
Würdest du mir bitte ein Cola bringen? (Look — just like with the future tense, the action verb goes to the end of the sentence.)
The other modal verb is möchten, which means "would like." This is an extremely common verb in German. The conjugation is -e, -est, -e, -en, -et, -en, -en.
And here's how it's used:
English: "Would you like some mustard with that?"
German: "Möchten Sie etwas Senf damit?"
It can also be used with an action verb:
English: "I would like to go shopping today."
German: "Ich möchte heute einkaufen gehen." Note that the same rules apply as for werden and the other modals: the action verb goes to the end of the sentence.
This post is part of the series: The Subjunctive Mood in German
- Writing and Recognizing the Subjunctive II in German
- Writing and Understanding the Subjunctive I in German