1. Objectives

In this unit you will learn how to:

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

2. Subjunctive II Meaning

In the previous unit we dealt with the subjunctive as used in indirect discourse and a few other special cases. That was Subjunctive I. Subjunctive II is the form of subjunctive used in wishes and conditional sentences to signal whether a situation is hypothetical or not. Its most common usage is in “if . . . then” statements. For example, when the German words wenn (if) and so or dann (then) precede the clauses in the sentence, you can often expect the verbs to appear in their subjunctive II forms. This mood is usually expressed in English with the verb “would” or with the simple past form of the verb: “I would buy one, if I had the money.”

If the concept of the subjunctive mood is unfamiliar to you, an informal, but accurate, online introduction to the subjunctive mood as used in both English and German can be found at: http://german.about.com/od/grammar/a/konjunktivII.htm (link opens in new window).

Last revised on October 3, 2014.

3. Subjunctive II Forms

Whereas the subjunctive I forms of the verbs are based on the infinitive form (sei from sein, habe from haben, etc.), the subjunctive II forms are based on the simple-past forms of the verbs.

The reading challenge for you is that whereas subjunctive I verb forms are always clearly, visibly unique to subjunctive I, subjunctive II forms are only distinctively unique for some irregular verbs. For regular and some other irregular verbs, the subjunctive II present-tense forms are completely identical to the indicative (normal) simple-past verb forms. Fortunately, for this very reason, it is for irregular verbs that you will more often encounter subjunctive II usages.

Present Tense

Taking the irregular verbs haben and sein as examples, note that the verb endings are all the same as for subjunctive I (which is a helpful cue) and that the roots are the verbs’ simple-past forms (which is a similarity you’ll need to watch out for):

Person Singular Plural
1st ich hätte / wäre wir hätten / wären
2nd du hättest / wärest ihr hättet / wäret
3rd er/sie/es hätte / wäre sie/Sie hätten / wären

For these two very common verbs you can also see that the easily recognizable differences from the simple-past verb forms (e.g., hatte / war) are: 1) the umlaut and 2) – in some cases – the signature additional syllable (spelled with –e-) that is shared by subjunctive I and II. For other irregular verbs, consult the irregular-verb chart in your dictionary to check whether a particular verb form you see is simple-past indicative or present-tense subjunctive II.

For regular verbs and any irregular verbs that have no such visible distinction, you will need to consider context, such as the Wenn …, dann … construct, to make that reading decision.

Examples demonstrating both regular and irregular verbs:

Wenn er viel Geld hätte, (so) reiste er nach Deutschland.
If he had a lot of money, he would travel to Germany.

Wenn sie reich wäre, (so) kaufte sie ein neues Haus.
If she were rich, she would buy a new house.

Wenn ihre Eltern kämen, (dann) gingen sie ins Restaurant.
If their parents came, they would go to a restaurant.

Here’s a time-saving tip to help you recognize subjunctive II for some common irregular verbs whose vowels do not take an umlaut to signal subjunctive II mood: Verbs whose past-tense, singular, 1st- and 3rd-person forms do not end with an –e, such as gehen (ging), bleiben (blieb), etc., do get an –e ending in their subjunctive II form. The top example here is in indicative past tense, and the lower one is in subjunctive II present tense:

Ging er ….? Ich blieb….
Did he go …? I stayed ….

Ginge er …. Wenn ich bliebe, ….
If he were going … If I were to stay …

Past Tense

As with subjunctive I, the subjunctive II past tense follows the model of German present-perfect tense. (So there are no “simple past” subjunctive forms at all.) So when you encounter a present-perfect construction which uses the above subjunctive-II forms of the auxiliary verb haben or sein instead of their normal present-tense indicative forms, then you are dealing with past tense subjunctive II mood.

Wenn sie nach Deutschland gereist wären, (so) hätten sie den Kölner Dom gesehen.
If they had travelled to Germany then they would have seen Cologne cathedral.

Wenn der Ingenieur die Maschine richtig repariert hätte, (dann) wäre der Unfall nicht geschehen.
If the engineer had repaired the machine correctly, (then) the accident would not have happened.

See how this same pattern works even when a modal verb is involved:

Ich hätte das gestern machen sollen.
I should have done that yesterday.

Wir brachten unsere Schlafsäcke mit, falls wir übernachten hätten müssen.
We brought our sleeping bags along, in case we would have had to stay overnight.

Can you construct how the above examples would appear if they were indicative (normal) statements instead of subjunctive II?

Last revised on October 3, 2014.

4. Würde Construction

This construction is a common way of expressing the subjunctive II mood. You will encounter it as predominant in spoken, informal, and contemporary German generally, and for those verbs whose subjunctive II form of the verb is indistinguishable from simple-past tense. Like the English “would” construction, it is based on the subjunctive II form of werden plus an infinitive, which makes it quite easy to read for English speakers:

Person Singular Plural
1st ich würde wir würden
2nd du würdest ihr würdet
3rd er/sie/es würde sie/Sie würden
Examples:

Wenn Sie fleißig lernten, so würden Sie das Examen bestehen.
If you studied hard, you would pass the exam.

Wenn ich mehr Zeit hätte, würde ich um die ganze Welt reisen.
If I had more time, I would travel around the whole world.

Wenn sie die Ruinen entdeckt hätten, würden sie ein Buch darüber geschrieben haben.
If they had discovered the ruins, they would have written a book about it.

The above examples could also have been expressed using subjunctive II forms of the main verbs. This is less likely, but in any case, the meanings would be identical:

Wenn Sie fleißig lernten, so bestünden [or:] beständen Sie das Examen.
If you studied hard, you would pass the exam.

Wenn ich mehr Zeit hätte, reiste ich um die ganze Welt.
If I had more time, I would travel around the whole world.

Wenn sie die Ruinen entdeckt hätten, hätten sie ein Buch darüber geschrieben.
If they had discovered the ruins, they would have written a book about it.

Last revised on February 6, 2017.

5. Challenges of Translation

It is important to note the following points:

  1. hätte and its forms can be translated as “had” or “would have.”

  2. wäre and its forms can be translated as “were,” “would be” and “would have.”

  3. würde and its forms can be translated as “would” when used with other infinitives, “would become” by themselves; “would be” or “were” in the passive voice.

  4. Subjunctive II is also sometimes used to "soften" a request, question, or statement, simply making it more polite. Usually this translates fairly directly into English, but sometimes it will help you to notice this particular intention when translating.

  5. Sometimes the rules of English will require you to translate German subjunctive mood using the English subjunctive construction "were to (infinitive verb)":

    Wenn ich es heute kaufen würde, ginge der Preis morgen sicher noch tiefer.
    If I were to buy it today, the price would surely fall even further tomorrow.

  6. In “if – then” sentences, the verb is in final position in the “if” clause, the clauses are separated by a comma, and the “then” clause is the main sentence. Also, the words dann or so may be omitted from the “then” clause.

  7. You will also encounter “if – then” statements without wenn. Your clue will be that the verb appears in first position, which otherwise only occurs in questions or in commands:

    In indicative (normal) mood:

    Nimmt der Widerstand zu, (dann) mindert sich der Strom.
    If resistance increases, then current decreases.

    The equivalent sentence in subjunctive mood:

    Nähme der Widerstand zu, minderte sich der Strom.
    If resistance were to increase, current would decrease.

    More examples:

    Hätte ich viel Geld, (so) würde ich ein Haus kaufen.
    Had I a lot of money, then I would buy a house.
    [or:] If I had a lot of money, I would buy a house.

    Führe sie nur öfter Rad, brauchte sie weniger Blutdruckmedikamente.
    If she would just bike more often, she would need less blood-pressure medication.

Last revised on October 3, 2014.

6. “As If” Clauses

In German, “as if” clauses are expressed by als ob or als wenn or als followed by the subjunctive form of the verb. For example,

Das Kind sieht aus, als ob es krank wäre.
The child looks as if it were ill.

Der Manager tat, als wenn er entlassen worden wäre.
The manager acted as if he had been fired.

Es schien, als hätten wir den ganzen Tag geschlafen.
It seemed as if we had slept the whole day.

Last revised on October 3, 2014.

7. Subjunctive II Forms of Modal Verbs

In Unit 10 we dealt with the modal verbs, dürfen, können, müssen, mögen, sollen and wollen and we learned that the lack of an umlaut on conjugated forms of the first four was an indicator of simple past tense. When an umlaut does occur, that indicates the subjunctive II mood:

dürfte would be allowed to / might
könnte would be able to / could
müßte would have to
möchte would like to

Sollte and wollte do not differ visually from their indicative simple past forms. They mean “should” or “would be supposed to,” and “would want to,” respectively.

Examples:

Dürften die Gefangenen jetzt nach Hause gehen, was würden sie zuerst essen?
If the prisoners were allowed to go home now, what would they eat first?

Wenn ich es wollte, dann würde ich es auch machen.
If I wanted to, I would just do it.

Last revised on October 3, 2014.