1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

  • Identify and translate the subjunctive I verbal mood.
Last revised on October 3, 2014.

2. Subjunctive Mood

Up to this point we have dealt with sentences in the indicative mood, which is the verb mood used to communicate facts. Now we introduce the subjunctive mood of verbs, which signals hypothetical or contingent actions. In German it is also used in indirect discourse (reported speech), to reflect what someone thinks or feels about something, and in conditional sentences (i.e., “if . . . then” sentences). German has two forms of the subjunctive: Subjunctive I, which this unit covers and which relates to indirect discourse and some special uses; and Subjunctive II, which deals with conditional sentences and which is covered in Unit 15.

Last revised on October 3, 2014.

3. Subjunctive I

In German, whenever someone else’s statements are reported or their feelings or opinions are expressed, the subjunctive I mood is used, and that mood is signaled by distinctive forms of the conjugated verbs. Contrast these examples:

In the English sentence, “They say that she is going to Germany,” the verbs “say” and “is going” are in the indicative mood.

In the German equivalent, Man sagt, daß sie nach Deutschland reise, the verb “sagt” is in the indicative mood, but the verb “reise” is in the subjunctive mood, because it is reported speech (indirect discourse).

The meaning of the mood change is to signal that the author of the sentence does not necessarily vouch for the truth of the statement; it allows a writer to remain neutral regarding what he or she is reporting. Note that if the statement is given as a direct quotation, then the indicative mood of the original statement remains: Er sagte: “Sie reist nach Deutschland.”

The forms of the verb in the subjunctive are as follows (using the weak verb reisen (to travel) as our example):

Present Tense

Person Singular Plural
1st ich reise wir reisen
2nd du reisest ihr reiset
3rd er/sie/es reise sie/Sie reisen

Note: This only differs from the indicative mood in the second person singular and plural (-est and –et instead of –st and –t) and the third person singular (-e instead of –t). Compare the chart of indicative endings in Unit 2.

All verbs in German except for the verb sein follow this conjugation in the present tense subjunctive mood. Thus even the irregular (strong) verb wissen (to know a fact) follows the same pattern:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich wisse wir wissen
2nd du wissest ihr wisset
3rd er/sie/es wisse sie/Sie wissen

The only exception is, however, very important: sein (to be)

Person Singular Plural
1st ich sei wir seien
2nd du seiest ihr seiet
3rd er/sie/es sei sie/Sie seien

Note that sein takes no ending in the first and third person singular. These forms are important because they correspond to English “be” and “let be,” dependent on context (explained in the last section of this unit). Compare the equivalent indicative chart for sein in Unit 1.

Past Tenses

The verb forms in the past tense subjunctive are likewise very simple. They are based upon the present tense forms of haben and sein plus the past participle of the verb in question.

Present perfect:

Man sagt, daß sie nach Deutschland gereist sei.
They say that she went (has gone) to Germany.

Man sagt, daß er fleißig gearbeitet habe.
They say that he (has) worked diligently.

Past perfect:

Es wurde berichtet, daß sie nach Deutschland gereist seien.
It was reported that they had travelled to Germany.

Es wurde berichtet, daß sie das Examen bestanden habe.
It was reported that she had passed the examination.

You can see that we translate the forms of haben and sein in the subjunctive past tense according to how the reported statement is introduced. Generally speaking, if the context is in the future tense or present tense (man sagt) then we translate the reported statement in simple past or present perfect; if the context is already in past tense (es wurde berichtet) then the reported statement is best translated in the past perfect tense.

Future Tense

Just as in the indicative mood, we can recognize future tense by the use of werden with an infinitive. The conjugated verb, werden, appears in its subjunctive I form:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich werde wir werden
2nd du werdest ihr werdet
3rd er/sie/es werde sie/Sie werden
Examples:

Man sagt, daß sie nach Deutschland reisen werde.
They say that she will travel to Germany.

Es wurde berichtet, daß sie nach Deutschland reisen werde.
It was reported that she would travel to Germany.

Note: The subjunctive forms of werden can optionally be translated as “would.”

Last revised on December 12, 2014.

4. Challenges of Translation

In each of the sentences we have used to demonstrate the use of Subjunctive I, the conjunction daß (or dass in the new spelling) has been included. It is not necessary to include it when we are reporting speech, thoughts, etc., in German, because the form of the verb in the reported matter is the crucial signal to the reader that the statement is a reported one (thus not necessarily factually true!). The ability to specify this mood in German can be difficult to translate into English, since English has no such accuracy of verb moods.

Here are two different, but successful translations of a subjunctive I verb:

Die Zeitschrift berichtete, daß Gase aus der Höhle giftig seien.
The journal reported that gases from the cave are poisonous.

Die Zeitschrift berichtete über die Expedition. Die Gase aus der Höhle seien giftig.
The journal reported on the expedition. According to the report, the gases from the cave are poisonous.

In the first example, the subjunctive I meaning is successfully conveyed by the clarity in the English sentence that the “are” claim is only according to the journal. Whereas in the second example, which is broken into separate sentences, the English verb "are" is not sufficient to clarify that, so you need to add an English expression to convey the meaning of German subjunctive I.

Study this example:

Der Kanzler gab gestern eine Pressekonferenz. Er werde morgen nach China fliegen, da ein Abkommen jetzt vorbereitet sei. Im übrigen komme der chinesische Premier nächstes Jahr nach Deutschland.
The Chancellor gave a press conference yesterday. He stated that he will fly to China tomorrow, because a treaty is now prepared. The Chancellor also claimed that the Chinese Premier will visit Germany next year.

As you can see, you may find various ways to translate the subjunctive I mood, but there is no simple, direct way to translate it. You should study how English-language reports like this are phrased in news sources or scientific journals if you would like inspiration for other ways to express this.

Word Order

Besides using the subjunctive I mood in normal statement word order, as in the above example, German sentences sometimes omit a conjunction that joins two phrases. Since subordinating conjunctions affect word order (see Unit 6), omitting a conjunction can result in a “normal” word order where you may expect something else. For example, these two sentences have the exact same meaning:

Man sagt, daß sie nach Deutschland reise.
Man sagt, sie reise nach Deutschland.

Summary

In summary, you will not always see the conjunction daß before all that is reported, nor will you see repetition of the introductory phrase such as Man sagt or Es wurde berichtet. In fact, once it is established that someone said, reported, thought or felt something about a subject, then the subjunctive I mood will be the only signal of whether the statement is a reported one or one presented by the author of the text as true.

Last revised on August 9, 2017.

5. Other Uses of Subjunctive I

Sei and seien – “to let be”:

Es sei hier erwähnt, daß . . .
Let it be mentioned here, that . . .
[or:] Let us mention here that . . .

X und Y seien die Achsen.
Let X and Y be the axes.

Recipes, directions (usually with the pronoun “man” as the subject):

Man koche ein Liter Wasser.
Boil a liter of water.

Man nehme ein Pfund Schokolade.
Take a pound of chocolate.

Wishes and exhortations:

Lang lebe die Königin.
Long live the Queen.

Er ruhe in Frieden.
May he rest in peace.

Last revised on March 8, 2017.