German General Subjunctive (Konjunktiv II)

Overview

The German subjunctive (Konjunktiv) is a grammatical mood. The default mood is the indicative (der Indikativ); this presents information as pure fact. In contrast, the subjunctive shows that the information being presented has an element of fantasy, impossibility, doubt or a general 'unreal' quality.

The Subjunctive II (Konjunktiv II) is the verb form that we use for polite requests, wishes, suggestions, theories and hypothetical situations.

Even if you’ve never learned the Subjunctive II explicitly, you’ve most likely used it without realising.

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

Example:
Ich könnte einen Marathon laufen, wenn ich fit wäre.
I could run a marathon if I were in shape.

The modal verb ‘könnte” (could) is the subjunctive form of ‘können” (can), and “wäre” (were) is the subjunctive form of “sein” (to be). 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.  

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):

Example: 
Wenn ich reich wärekönnte ich mir 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.

‘Wären’ (were/would be) and ‘hätten’ (had/would have) 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 würde Fussball spielen, wenn ich Zeit hätte.    
I would play soccer I had (the) time. 

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 differentiate between the two, so often “würden + infinitive” is used.

Below is a chart of the modal verbs in Konjunktiv II, which only differ from their Imperfect forms insofar as umlauts present in infinitive forms are added back to the stem vowels.

KonjunktivIIModalverben 1

The translation for modal verbs in the Konjunktiv II would be:
“wollten” -> would want, “könnten” -> could, would be able to, müssten -> would have to
“sollten” -> should, dürften -> “would be allowed to”, and “möchten” -> would like to

Examples:
Er müsste täglich trainieren, wenn er besser werden will. 
He would have to practice every day, if he wants to get better. 

Ich könnte dich morgen anrufen, wenn du Zeit hast. 
I could call you tomorrow, if you have time. 

In contrast, look at the exact same sentences, but in the present tense, and not in the Konjunktiv II:

Er muss täglich trainieren, wenn er besser werden will. 
He must practice everyday, if he wants to get better. 

Ich kann dich morgen anrufen, wenn du Zeit hast. 
I can call you tomorrow, if you have time. 

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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 the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

Writing:
I can write simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. I can write personal letters describing experiences and impressions.
Spoken Production:
I can connect phrases in a simple way in order to describe experiences and events, my dreams, hopes and ambitions. I can briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans. I can narrate a story or relate the plot of a book or film and describe my reactions.
Spoken Interaction:
I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).
Reading:
I can understand texts that consist mainly of high frequency everyday or job-related language. I can understand the description of events, feelings and wishes in personal letters.
Listening:
I can understand the main points of clear standard speech on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. I can understand the main point of many radio or TV programs on current affairs or topics of personal or professional interest when the delivery is relatively slow and clear.