German Conditionals


Conditional clauses (conditionals) are dependent clauses that are introduced by the subordinating conjunction wenn. They express that an action will only take place under certain conditions. Conditional clauses can describe realistic situations as well as hypothetical ones.

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German has two forms of the subjunctive: the general and the special subjunctive. The general is the one native English speakers think of when referring to the subjunctive (e.g. could, would, should). This grammatical mood indicates hypothetical or unreal/imaginary situations, including wishes and desires.

Example: I could run a marathon if I were in shape.

The modal verb ‘could’ is the subjunctive form of ‘can.’ In this case, it is not a question of whether the speaker is physically able to run a marathon in his/her present condition or level of fitness; rather, it is speculation based on a hypothetical level of physical fitness. Notice that the word ‘were’ is also in bold in the example. This is the subjunctive of the verb ‘to be,’ and looks similar to the German equivalent. Consider the translation of the above example into German:

Ich könnte einen Marathon laufen, wenn ich fit wäre.

Typically, we find hypotheticals posited as conditionals (e.g. If X, then Y). Similarly, in German, Konjunktiv II is often expressed using the subordinating conjunction ‘wenn’ (if):

Wenn ich reich wärekönnte ich einen Ferrari leisten.          If I were rich, I could afford a Ferrari.

In the present tense subjunctive, there are three forms to learn: ‘hätten,’ ‘wären,’ and ‘würden’+ Infinitiv. Below are the conjugations of these verbs.

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‘Wären’ (were) and ‘hätten’ (had) can stand alone in the present tense subjunctive. The modal verbs and ‘würden,’ however, require an infinitive form of the main verb at the end of the sentence or clause. For example:

Ich könnte Fussball spielen, wenn ich Zeit hätte.    AND    Ich würde Fussball spielen, aber ich bin nicht fit.

The ‘würden’ + Infinitiv form is used for all regular verbs and often for most strong verbs, too, despite the latter having their own forms. The reason for this is that the subjunctive and imperfect forms of regular verbs are identical (e.g. spielte / spielte), which makes it difficult to recognize.

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

I can write a short, simple postcard, for example sending holiday greetings. I can fill in forms with personal details, for example entering my name, nationality and address on a hotel registration form.
Spoken Production:
I can use simple phrases and sentences to describe where I live and people I know.
Spoken Interaction:
I can interact in a simple way provided the other person is prepared to repeat or rephrase things at a slower rate of speech and help me formulate what I’m trying to say. I can ask and answer simple questions in areas of immediate need or on very familiar topics.
I can understand familiar names, words and very simple sentences, for example on notices and posters or in catalogues.
I can recognize familiar words and very basic phrases concerning myself, my family and immediate concrete surroundings when people speak slowly and clearly.