German Verbs: How to Recognize the German Subjunctive I, II

Improve your understanding of this verb tense

How do you recognize the subjunctive tenses of German verbs? The Konjunktiv I is usually formed by adding an e-ending to the infinitive stem of a verb (-en in the plural), rather than the normal (indicative) t-ending. This form of the verb is also known as the "indirect discourse" or "indirect quotation" form. It is used to indicate what someone has said, without any claim that it is true or not. One rare exception to the rule is sein (to be), which has the unique Subjunctive I forms sei and seien (pl.) in the third person.

Subjunctive I Examples:

haben to have (infinitive)
er hat he has (3rd person indicative)
er habe (he says) he has (Subjunctive I, quotative)

gehen to go (infinitive)
er geht he goes (3rd person indicative)
er gehe (he says) he has (Subjunctive I, quotative)

sein to be (infinitive)
sie ist she is (3rd person indicative)
sie sei (she says) she is (Subjunctive I, quotative)

arbeiten to work (infinitive)
er arbeitet he works (3rd person indicative)
er arbeite (he says) he works (Subjunctive I, quotative)

können to be able, can (infinitive)
er kann he can (3rd person indicative)
er könne (he says) he can/could (Subjunctive I, quotative)

By its "quotative" nature, the Subjunctive I forms are usually seen in the third person: er kommesie seider Mann lebe, and so forth. Because the third-person plural Subjunctive I forms are usually identical to the indicative forms, the Subjunctive II forms may be used instead.

("Die Leute sagten, sie hätten kein Geld." = "The people said they have no money.")

In the chart below, you can see an example of how the Subjunctive I forms of the verb gehenonly differ from the indicative present tense in the third person singular and the du/ihr familiar forms (rarely used):

Subjunctive I of gehen (to go)
ichdu*er/sie/eswirihr*sie/Sie
gehegehestgehegehengehetgehen
Present Indicative of gehen (to go)
gehegehstgehtgehengehtgehen
*Although different from the indicative, the Subjunctive I forms of du and ihr are rarely seen or used.

Unlike most German verbs, the highly irregular verb sein (to be) has a distinct Subjunctive I form that differs from the present tense indicative in all persons. But, as with most other verbs in the Subjunctive I, the "present subjunctive" of sein is rarely seen in the non-third-person forms. The same is true of the German modal verbs (dürfen, müssen, können, etc.) and wissen (to know) in the Subjunctive I.

Subjunctive I of sein (to be)
ichduer/sie/eswirihrsie/Sie
seiseistseiseienseietseien
Present Indicative of sein (to be)
binbististsindseidsind
Although they are different from the indicative, the non-third-person Subjunctive I forms of seinare rarely seen or used.

As the above charts make evident, students of German can concentrate on recognizing the third person forms of the Subjunctive I (aka "the quotative"). It makes no sense to study all the subjunctive forms that are never or rarely used. For all practical purposes, you only need to learn to spot the quotative forms when you see ersie or es used with a verb that ends in e. To learn more about what the quotative forms mean, see Subjunctive I - Part One.

Other Tenses

The Subjunctive I is a verb mood, not a tense. The subjunctive can be used in any tense, present, past, or future.

To form the various tenses in the subjunctive, the verbs habensein, and werden (in their subjunctive forms) are used to form a compound tense. Here are a few examples:

Er sagte, er schreibe den Brief.
He said he's writing the letter. (present tense)
Er sagte, er habe den Brief geschrieben.
He said he wrote the letter. (past tense)
Er sagte, er werde den Brief schreiben.
He said he will write the letter. (future tense)

Sie sagte, sie fahre nach Hong Kong.
She said she's traveling to Hong Kong. (present tense)
Sie sagte, sie sei nach Hong Kong gefahren.
She said she traveled to Hong Kong. (past tense)

How Do You Form the Subjunctive II?

The Konjunktiv II is usually formed by adding an Umlaut ( ¨ ) to the vowel (a, o, or u ONLY) in the imperfect (simple past, preterite) form of the verb... and adding an -e (if there isn't one already; -en in the plural).

 Exception: The modals sollen and wollen do NOT add an umlaut in the subjunctive.

Four Examples:
haben to have (infinitive)
hatte had (imperfect, simple past)
hätte would have/had (Subjunctive II) 

mögen to like (infinitive)
mochte liked (imperfect, simple past)
möchte would like (Subjunctive II) 

gehen to go (infinitive)
ging went (imperfect, simple past)
ginge would go/gone (Subjunctive II) 

sein to be (infinitive)
war was (imperfect, simple past)
wäre would be/were (Subjunctive II)

The most commonly used subjunctive forms are those for haben and sein and the modal verbs (e.g., möchte, könnte). For most other verbs, the würde (would) + infinitive combination (subjunctive substitution) is used.

Although technically every German verb has a subjunctive form, in practice the würde-subjunctive substitution is used for most verbs other than those named above. For example, instead of ginge (would go), more often one hears würde gehen (would go). This is particularly true for plural forms in which the subjunctive and the imperfect forms are identical: wir gingen(we went - imperfect, past) and wir gingen (we would have gone - subjunctive).

Example:
Wenn das Wetter schön wäre, gingen wir zum Strand. (Subjunctive II)
Wenn das Wetter schön wäre, würden wir zum Strand gehen. (würden + infin.)
If the weather were nice, we'd go to the beach.

This has the practical result that most learners need only learn the subjunctive forms of haben,sein and the modal verbs. For most other verbs they can just use the würde + infinitive construction. NOTE: The würde construction is NEVER used for habensein, or the modal verbs.

Subjunctive II of haben, sein,
the modals, and werden

ich/erduwir/sieihr
hättehättesthättenhättet
wärewärestwärenwäret
dürftedürftestdürftendürftet
könntekönntestkönntenkönntet
müßtemüßtestmüßtenmüßtet
solltesolltestsolltensolltet
wolltewolltestwolltenwolltet
würdewürdestwürdenwürdet

 

Other Tenses

The Subjunctive II is a verb mood, not a tense. The subjunctive can be used in any tense, present, past, or future.

To form the various tenses in the subjunctive, the verbs habensein, and werden (in their subjunctive forms) are used to form a compound tense. Here are a few examples:

Hättest du Lust, mit uns zu gehen?
Do you feel like going with us? (present tense)
Ich wäre gern mit euch gegangen.
I would have liked to go with you guys. (past tense)
Wenn sie kein Geld gehabt hätte, wäre sie nicht nach Asien gefahren.
If she had not had the money, she wouldn't have gone to Asia. (past)
Ich würde es kaufen, wenn...
I would buy it if... (future/conditional)

QUIZ

Now that you've reviewed the subjunctive tenses, test your knowledge with the following quiz. Complete items 1-5 with the correct subjunctive form of the verb infinitive shown in ( ). Also pay attention to verb endings!

NOTE: For all 15 quiz items, please write umlauts as "ae" (ä), "oe" (ö), or "ue" (ü). The "ß" character should be written as "ss." Also watch your capitalization!

1. Wenn Klaus das Geld (haben) (________), würde er nach Hawaii fahren.

2. Eike und Uschi (mögen) (________)  Blumen kaufen.

3. Wir (werden) (________) gerne nach Chicago fliegen, aber Thomas hat Angst vorm Fliegen.

4. (können) (________)  Sie mir das Salz reichen?

5. (sollen) (________)  er Zeit für uns haben, dann wäre das sehr nett.

INSTRUCTIONS: For items 6-10 decide whether the sentence requires the subjunctive or indicative. Base your choice on the context of each set of sentences. Use the correct form of the verb in ( ).

   Ex. A - (haben) Wenn wir das Geld haben, fahren wir nach Kalifornien. (indicative)

   Ex. B - (haben) Wenn wir das Geld hätten, würden wir nach Europa fahren. (subjunctive)

6. (sein) Wenn die Nacht nicht so kühl (________), könnten wir hier länger bleiben.

7. (haben) Wenn Maria ihr Auto (________), fährt sie zur Arbeit. Heute nimmt sie den Bus.

8. (haben) Wenn ich meine Uhr (________), weiß ich immer wie spät es ist.

9. (können) Wenn ich das Geld hätte, (________)  wir nach Berlin fliegen, aber jetzt müssen wir mit der Bahn fahren.

10. (sein) Wenn ich du (________) , würde ich die Stelle nehmen.

INSTRUCTIONS: Complete items 11-15 with the correct subjunctive form of würden.

11. Das (________)  ich nicht sagen.

12. Wir (________)  mit dem ICE fahren.

13. Was (________)  ihr tun?

14. Das (________) er nicht so schreiben.

15.  (________) du mit mir fahren?

Annotated Answer Key - German Subjunctive II

If you want to know how well you did, use this answer key. Correct answers are in bold type. Also see bonus info at the end of this key. 

INSTRUCTIONS: Complete items 1-5 with the correct subjunctive form of the verb infinitive shown in ( ). Also pay attention to verb endings. For all 15 quiz items, please write umlauts as "ae" (ä), "oe" (ö), or "ue" (ü). The "ß" character should be written as "ss." Also watch your capitalization!

1. (haben) Wenn Klaus das Geld hätte, würde er nach Hawaii fahren.
   (If Klaus had the money, he'd travel to Hawaii.)
   - Conditional, contrary to reality

2. (mögen) Eike und Uschi möchten Blumen kaufen.
   (E and U would like to buy flowers.) NOTE: -en ending, plural!

3. (werden) Wir würden gerne nach Chicago fliegen, aber Thomas hat Angst vorm Fliegen.
   (We would gladly [like to] fly to Chicago, but T is afraid of flying.)

4. (können) Könnten Sie mir das Salz reichen?
   (Could you pass me the salt?) - Polite (formal 'you') request.

5. (sollen) Sollte er Zeit für uns haben, dann wäre das sehr nett.
   (Should he have / If he should have the time for us, then that would be very nice.)

INSTRUCTIONS: For items 6-10 decide whether the sentence requires the subjunctive or indicative. Base your choice on the context of each set of sentences. Use the correct form of the verb in ( ).

Ex. A - (haben) Wenn wir das Geld haben, fahren wir nach Kalifornien.
   (indicative, "When we have the money...")

Ex. B - (haben) Wenn wir das Geld hätten, würden wir nach Europa fahren.
   (subjunctive, "If we had the money..")

NOTE: In this section, the meaning of WENN is determined by the verb! If it is subjunctive, then WENN means IF. If the verb is indicative, then WENN means WHEN or WHENEVER.

6. (sein) Wenn die Nacht nicht so kühl wäre, könnten wir hier länger bleiben. - SUBJUNCTIVE
   (If the night weren't so cool, we could stay here longer.) NOTE: German word order puts the verb first in the second (dependent) clause.

7. (haben) Wenn Maria ihr Auto hat, fährt sie zur Arbeit. Heute nimmt sie den Bus. - INDICATIVE
   (When[ever] Maria has her car, she drives to work. Today she's taking the bus.) - i.e., she usually has her car.

8. (haben) Wenn ich meine Uhr habe, weiss ich immer wie spät es ist. - INDICATIVE
   (When[ever] I have my watch, I always know what time it is.) - i.e., I don't have right now, but I usually do.

9. (können) Wenn ich das Geld hätte, könnten wir nach Berlin fliegen, aber jetzt muessen wir mit der Bahn fahren. - SUBJUNCTIVE
   (If I had the money, we could fly to Berlin, but now we have to go by train.) - i.e., conditional, wishful - I wish I had the money, and if I did, then... NOTE: Plural ending (-en) for "wir"

10. (sein) Wenn ich du wäre, würde ich die Stelle nehmen. - SUBJUNCTIVE
   (If I were you, I'd take the job/position.)

INSTRUCTIONS: Complete items 11-15 with the correct subjunctive form of werden.

11. Das würde ich nicht sagen.
   (That I wouldn't say. / I wouldn't say that.)

12. Wir würden mit dem ICE fahren.
   (We would take the ICE [high-speed train].)

13. Was würdet ihr tun?
   (What would you guys [ya'll] do?)

14. Das würde er nicht so schreiben.
   (He wouldn't write it that way.)

15. Würdest du mit mir fahren?
   (Would you travel/go with me?)

Bonus Info

The subjunctive is NOT a tense. It is a "mood" that can be used in different tenses/times. Look at the following examples of the subjunctive in various tenses:

PRESENT: Hätte ich die Zeit, würde ich sie besuchen.
   (If I had the time, I'd visit her.)
PAST: Hätte ich die Zeit gehabt, hätte ich sie besucht.
   (If I had had the time, I would have visited her.)

FUTURE: Was würdest du tun, wenn...?
   (What would you do, if...?)
PAST: Was hättest du getan, wenn...
   (What would you have done, if...)

PRESENT: Er sollte eigentlich arbeiten.
   (He really ought to be working.)
PAST: Er hätte eigentlich arbeiten sollen.
   (He really should have been working.)

PRESENT: Wenn ich das wüsste, würde ich...
   (If I knew that, I'd...)
PAST: Wenn ich das gewusst hätte, hätte ich...
   (If I had known that, I would have...)

PRESENT: Wenn sie hier wäre, würden wir...
   (If she were here, we'd..)
PAST: Wenn sie hier gewesen wäre, hätten wir..
   (If she had been here, we would've...)

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Flippo, Hyde. "German Verbs: How to Recognize the German Subjunctive I, II." ThoughtCo, Sep. 11, 2016, thoughtco.com/how-to-recognize-the-german-subjunctive-4085474. Flippo, Hyde. (2016, September 11). German Verbs: How to Recognize the German Subjunctive I, II. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-recognize-the-german-subjunctive-4085474 Flippo, Hyde. "German Verbs: How to Recognize the German Subjunctive I, II." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-recognize-the-german-subjunctive-4085474 (accessed September 20, 2017).