The Subjunctive Present in German

Konjunktiv: Two Subjunctive Moods

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The German Subjunctive. Silas / STOCK4B / Getty Images

Konjunktiv I und II

The German subjunctive mood (der Konjunktiv) comes in two varieties: (1) Subjunctive I (present subjunctive) and (2) Subjunctive II (past subjunctive). Despite their nicknames, it is important to understand that the subjunctive (in English or German) is a verb mood, not a verb tense. Both the so-called "past" and "present" subjunctive forms can be used in various tenses in German.


What is the Konjunktiv?

What does the subjunctive actually do? You'll find subjunctive verb forms and expressions in almost any language, including English and German. The subjunctive mood is designed to convey a message. The message can vary, but the subjunctive is telling you that a statement is not just a plain fact (the "indicative" mood), that there may be some doubt, or something is contrary to reality. In English, when we say, "If I were you..." the verb form "were" is subjunctive and it conveys a message: I am not you, but... (The indicative form would be the rather unlikely "I am you.") Other examples of the subjunctive in English:

  • "If we only had the money, we could..."
  • "That would be a crazy thing to do."
  • "God save the Queen!"
  • "They insist that she go."
  • "Be that as it may."
  • "He said he would not do that."

Notice that in the examples above the words "would" and "could" often turn up. It's the same in German.

In all of the examples given, the verb takes on an unusual form, different from the normal conjugation. It's the same in German. For instance, the indicative ("normal") form would be "God saves" rather than "God save." Instead of indicative "she goes," we see "she go" in the subjunctive. In German, the Konjunktiv is also formed by altering the verb conjugation in some way.

Which of the two subjunctive forms is more important for students learning German? Both of course! But the Subjunctive II is used more in conversational German than Subjunctive I. In fact, the past subjunctive is very common in daily German. It is found in many common expressions (ich möchte..., I would like...) and is used to express doubt or politeness. But we'll discuss all that when we get to the Subjunctive II lesson. Let's start with number one, the somewhat easier Subjunctive I.


Konjunktiv I - The Quotative - Present Subjunctive

In general, the Subjunctive I (present subjunctive) is used mostly for the so-called quotative or indirect speech (indirekte Rede). It is heard or seen less and less frequently in modern German, with the important exception of news stories on radio and TV and in the newspaper. Sometimes the Subjunctive II is also used for indirect speech, usually when the Subjunctive I form is not obviously different from the indicative form.

Recognize it when you see it!

Since the Subjunctive I is encountered primarily in a passive way — in print or in TV/radio news, it is not necessary for most German-learners to learn how to produce it. It is more important to recognize it when you see it or hear it because the subjunctive is sending a message you need to understand.

What message? Generally the Konjunktiv I is telling you that someone said something that may or may not be true. For instance, in a news feature a newspaper may report what someone said, using the Subjunctive I: "Der Nachbar sagte, die Dame lebe schon länger im Dorf." The normal present tense conjugation is "die Dame lebt," but the subjunctive form "die Dame lebe" tells us that this what someone said. The reporter/newspaper is not (legally) responsible for the truth of the statement. When you read the news in German or hear it on the radio, this so-called "indirect speech" (indirekte Rede) is a form of indirect quotation that says, in effect, that's what we were told but we can't vouch for the accuracy of the statement.

The other terms sometimes used for the Subjunctive I also say something about its use: the "quotative," "indirect discourse," "indirect speech."

Other Uses

The Subjunctive I is also used in formal or technical writing and in directions or recipes to express propositions or instructions:

  • Technical: "Hier sei nur vermerkt, dass..." ("Here let it only be noted that...")
  • Recipe: "Man nehme 100 Gramm Zucker, zwei Eier..." ("Take 100 g of sugar, two eggs...")
  • Slogan: "Es lebe der König!" ("Long live the king!")

Conjugating the Subjunctive I

Many German grammar books or verb guides will list full subjunctive conjugations, but in practice, you really only need to know the third person singular forms most of the time. The Subjunctive I is almost always found in the third-person form: er habe (he has), sie sei (she is), er komme (he's coming), or sie wisse (she knows). This -e ending (except for "to be") rather than the normal -t ending in the German third person is your clue to indirect quotation. The other non-third-person forms are rarely if ever used, so don't bother with them!

Similarity to Command Forms

The basic Subjunctive I form of a verb is usually identical to its imperative or command form. Although there are some exceptions, the third person singular subjunctive and the familiar (du) command forms often look alike: Er habe/Habe Geduld! ("Have patience!"), Sie gehe/Geh(e)! ("Go!"), or Er sei/Sei brav! ("Be good!").

This is also true for the wir-commands (let's, we-commands): Seien wir vorsichtig! ("Let's be cautious!") or Gehen wir! ("Let's go!"). For more about the command forms in German, see Lesson 11 of German for Beginners.

But remember, unless you're writing for a German newspaper or magazine, you don't need to be able to write or say the Subjunctive I forms. You only need to recognize them when you see them in print or hear them.