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Special Subjunctive

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Dartmouth German
  Studies Department

  If I'd wanted foreplay, I'd have said so.

The Subjunctive Mood in English:

English, like German, has the general subjunctive, a system for talking about hypothetical situations:

These forms are very common, but speakers are not always conscientious about using them correctly: we hear toughs say, "If I was you, I'd keep my mouth shut," and sports commentators claim, "If I'm the coach, I'm happy with the way the game is going." Colloquial speech is most comfortable with constructions employing "would" (the subjunctive form of "will"): "I would do it if I could."

The general subjunctive is sometimes called the "past subjunctive" because it builds off past tense forms, but it does not necessarily refer to the past. In fact, "If I were rich..." refers to an undetermined time not in the past - it could be in the present or the future. To talk about an unreal situation in the past, we would have to say, "If I had been rich...."

The General Subjunctive Mood in German (Konjunktiv II).

Just like English, German uses the simple past forms as a basis for the general subjunctive. In fact, the subjunctive form of weak verbs is indistinguishable from the simple past:

Wenn ich diesen Wagen haben wollte, kaufte ich ihn sofort.
If I wanted to have this car, I would buy it immediately.

The strong verbs also use the simple past, adding an umlaut where possible, together with the same endings that follow the "-t-" of the weak simple past:

ich wäre wir wären
du wärest ihr wäret
Sie wären
er/sie/es wäre sie wären

  If you could kiss only one person in your life, who would it be?.

The irregular weak verbs add an umlaut to the imperfect form: brächte, dächte, hätte, wüsste, although some of them substitute an "-e-" for the "-ä-": brennte, kennte, nennte, rennte, sendete, wendete.

Modals also add an umlaut to the imperfect form - if there was one in the infinitive: dürfte, könnte, möchte, müsste. "Sollen" and "wollen," however, do not add an umlaut: sollte, wollte.

(Some verbs have retained subjunctive forms that reflect archaic constructions. Thus "helfen" traditionally becomes "hülfe." However, these forms now seem pedantic, and we increasingly find "hälfe." You can click here for a listing of the subjunctive forms of the more common strong verbs).

Thus we can construct sentences like:

Wenn ich dieses Lied wüsste, sänge ich es. If I knew this song, I would sing it.
Wenn es nicht regnete, gingen wir schwimmen. If it weren't raining, we'd go swimming.
Ich kaufte das Buch, wenn ich Italienisch lesen könnte. I'd buy the book if I could read Italian.
Ich brächte Blumen mit, wenn die Geschäfte nicht zu hätten. I'd take flowers along if the stores weren't closed.
Wenn das Wörtchen "wenn" nicht wär', wär' mein Vater Millionär. If it weren't for the little word "if," my father would be a millionaire (~ "If wishes were horses, then beggars could ride.").
Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär',/ Und auch zwei Flüglein hätt'/ flöge ich zu dir'. If I were a little bird,/ And had two little wings,/ I'd fly to you. [from a folksong].
Wenn deine Großmutter Räder hätte, wäre sie eine Straßenbahn. If your grandmother had wheels, she'd be a trolleycar [= Yiddish proverb].

  If my boyfriend broke as many promises as the chancellor, I'd throw him out.

Similar to English's use of "would," colloquial German most comfortably employs "würde", the subjunctive form of "werden". In conditional sentences ("if...then"), "würde" is normally part of the "then-clause":

Wenn ich dieses Lied wüsste, würde ich es singen. If I knew this song, I would sing it.
Wenn es nicht regnete, würden wir schwimmen gehen. If it weren't raining, we would go swimming.

Tenses in the General Subjunctive:

Note that constructions with "würden" resemble the future tense (i.e. "werden" + infinitive). But a future meaning is not necessarily implied. In contrast to the special subjunctive, the general subjunctive has in fact only two tenses - the non-past and the past - but we can construct each of these tenses in several ways.

The non-past, an indeterminate time in the present or future, can be constructed with or without ""würde":

Wenn ich schneller führe, hätte ich bestimmt einen Unfall.
Wenn ich schneller führe, würde ich bestimmt einen Unfall haben.
If I drove faster, I would surely have an accident.

To create a past tense, an indeterminate time before the present, we employ a perfect construction, using the subjunctive forms of "haben" or "sein" as the auxiliary verbs:

Wenn ich schneller gefahren wäre, hätte ich bestimmt einen Unfall gehabt.
Wenn ich schneller gefahren wäre, dann würde ich bestimmt einen Unfall gehabt haben.
If I had driven faster, I would surely have had an accident.

When the sense calls for it, both tenses might be used:

Wenn ich das damals gewusst hätte, wäre ich jetzt ein reicher Mann.
Wenn ich das damals gewusst hätte, würde ich jetzt ein reicher Mann sein.
If I had known that then, I would now be a rich man.

Note that only the "unreal" portion of the sentence is in the subjunctive:

Wenn ich damals gewusst hätte, was ich jetzt weiß, wäre ich ein reicher Mann.
If I had known then what I know now, I would be a rich man.

Other forms of "if-then" clauses:

Inverted word order can replace "wenn" (compare the English, "Had I known..."):

Hätte ich gewusst, wer ihr Vater ist, hätte ich etwas anderes gesagt. Had I known who her father is, I would have said something else.
Regnete es, gingen wir nach Hause. Were it to rain, we'd go home.

  You're afraid of growing old... A TB-patient in the Third World would be delighted by it.

Other Uses of the Subjunctive:

(For further information, see the special subjunctive (Konjunktiv I)