As you learn German, you'll soon see that the German conditional tense comes up frequently in spoken and written German every day. You can express yourself more fluently in your German conversations by learning how to form conditional phrases.
In this post, you’ll learn how to use the subjunctive form in German, ask questions about hypothetical situations, make statements, and tell stories fluently without struggling with grammar!
The German conditional tense is easy to learn, even if you have been studying German for a while without mastering it. So, let’s dive right in.
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What Is The German Conditional Tense?
The conditional is used in English and German to communicate something that “would” or “could” happen “if” specific circumstances are met.
You can convey any facts, fiction, or fantasy, from unimaginable past encounters to hypothetical futures that have yet to be seen.
In English, we use “if” to express the concept of a condition. For example, “if I got a new job, I would buy a house” is a conditional sentence. In German, the process is similar but has a different name.
Conditional sentences in German use the subjunctive form or Konjunktiv, which is like the present, past, and future tenses. Verbs in the subjunctive take a form of their own, but fortunately, you don’t have to remember every form of every verb.
The German word wenn translates to “if” in English. Wenn is used to introduce dependent clauses that you use in the subjunctive. But there’s a little more to the conditional than simply throwing wenn into your sentences and changing verbs into their subjunctive forms.
Let’s first take a look at how conditional sentences are formed.
How To Form Conditional Sentences In German
There are different ways to form Konjunktiv clauses in German, depending on the situation. The Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II are the two forms Germans use to create conditional sentences.
Although the explanations may sound complex, I promise that these concepts are more straightforward when you put them into practice.
The German Konjunktiv II
First, let’s start with the conditional or subjunctive, also known as Konjunktiv II, in German, since you frequently need this form. The Konjunktiv II is considerably easier to form than you may believe, and you can do it in two ways.
The first uses an auxiliary verb, werden (to become), whereas the second modifies the imperfect.
Some verbs like haben, sein, and German modal verbs are used without the auxiliary. In these circumstances, the verbs retain their imperfect tense conjugation stem but receive an umlaut and an “-e” if necessary.
Let’s look at eight verbs and how they change in Konjunktiv II.
- Haben – hätten (to have/would have)
- Sein – wären (to be/would be)
- Können – könnten (can/could)
- Mögen – möchten (want/would want)
- Müssen – müssten (must)
- Sollen – sollten (should)
- Dürfen – dürften (may)
- Wollen – wollten(want)
Every verb has a subjunctive form, but not all verbs receive umlauts or vowel changes. Whether your verb is regular or irregular, the subjunctive form is always based on simple past conjugation patterns.
Luckily, you only need to remember the forms of the eight verbs above. You can avoid learning their subjunctive forms for all other verbs and use a form of werden (to become) instead.
German Conditional Sentences With Werden
If you know how to use the subjunctive form of werden, you know the subjunctive form of every other verb. The only exceptions are the top eight verbs, which you should remember. Once you’ve memorized all nine verbs, you can form nearly any conditional German sentence.
Let’s look at the different ways to conjugate werden.
- ich würde (I would)
- du würdest (you would)
- er/sie/es würde (he/she/it would)
- wir würden (we would)
- ihr würdet (you guys would)
- Sie/sie würden (you formal/you plural would)
A few examples can help you understand how to build sentences with werden.
- Example: Wenn du viel Geld hättest, würdest du eine Weltreise machen? (If you had a lot of money, would you travel the world?
- Example: Wenn wir könnten, würden wir zusammen reisen. (If we could, we would travel together.)
- Example: Wenn er im Lotto gewinnenwürde, würde er es dir sagen. (If he won the lottery, he would tell you.)
Notice how the auxiliary verb werden is the only verb you need to conjugate in the sentence after the wenn clause. The primary verb remains in its infinitive form.
Next, let’s explore using conditional sentences with werden in the past. This form is essential for speaking about what could have, should have, or would have been different in the past.
Conditional Sentences With Werden In The Past
The Subjunctive II is only available in two tenses. First, the “present,” as seen above, and second, the indefinite past. Because of the unreal character of the subjunctive, these two are uncertain.
For example, the sentence “If you had the money, you’d travel the globe” might refer to a possibility in the future. In contrast, the remark “I wouldn't have stayed home if it hadn’t rained” relates to an imaginary moment in the past.
Using the past in Konjunktiv II is difficult but not enough to trigger a meltdown!
You’ll need sein or haben as auxiliaries or helping verbs in the subjunctive forms. Then, you need to add the past participle of the verb you want to convey in the subjunctive form.
- Example: Wenn es nicht geregnet hätte, wäre ich nicht zu Hause geblieben. (If it hadn’t rained, I wouldn’t have stayed home.)
- Example: Wenn ich nicht im Lotto gewonnen hätte, hätte ich mein neues Hause nicht gekauft. (If I hadn’t won the lottery, I wouldn’t have bought my new house.)
- Example: Wenn ich von der Verspätung gewussthätte, wäre ich später aus dem Haus gegangen. (If I would have known about the delay, I would have left the house later.)
If you’re familiar with the German past tense, you probably remember that a form of haben or sein always accompanies a verb in the present perfect. The same rule applies to subjunctive verbs. Only here, you’re using the past tenses.
The German Konjunktiv I
You’ll rarely use the German Konjunktiv I because it is outdated and typically only used in literature. But you may still want to know how to recognize the form when you see it.
There are four tenses in Konjunktiv I: the present, past, future, and future perfect. In Konjunktiv I, the auxiliary or helping verb is conjugated.
- Present: Ich sagte, ich habe kein Interesse. (I said I am not interested.)
- Past: Ich sagte, ich sei nicht zufrieden. (I said I wasn’t satisfied.)
- Future: Ich sagte, ich werde es morgen tun. (I said, I will do it tomorrow.)
- Future Perfect: Ich sagte, ich werde das Project bis Montag fertig haben. (I said I will have finished the project by Monday.)
If you feel like expressing yourself with literary eloquence, you can use the Konjunktiv I to amaze your German-speaking friends.
Forming Conditional German Sentences With Konjunktiv I
Constructing Konjunktiv I is a relatively simple process. Unlike Konjunktiv II, which you create from the root of its imperfect conjugation, take the present tense stem and add the same endings as before.
Let’s look at the verb haben in the Konjunktiv I.
- ich habe
- du habest
- er/sie/es habe
- wir haben
- ihr habet
- Sie/sie haben
The verb sein is the second essential verb you need in Konjunktiv I.
- ich sei
- du seis
- er/sie/es sei
- wir seien
- ihr seiet
- Sie/sie seien
Although this is a critical ability to learn if you want to improve your written German, I can't emphasise enough how rarely this form is used.
You can practice recognising it in online newspaper accounts and see if you can tell the difference between what a person did and what a person is claimed to have done.
Expressing Nuances With Conditional German Sentences
Using the subjunctive in German allows you to express various conditional sentences with incredible accuracy. Consider the following examples.
- Example: Wenn ich mich mehr bewege, werde ich abnehmen. (If I exercise more, I will lose weight.)
- Example: Wenn ich mich mehr bewegenwȕrde, wȕrde ich abnehmen. (If I were to exercise more, I would lose weight.)
- Example: Wenn ich mich mehr bewegthätte, hätte ich abgenommen. (If I would have exercised more, I would have lost weight.)
In the first example, you talk about a situation that is certain to take place.
But in the second example, you are speaking about a hypothetical situation and what would or could happen but probably won’t.
In the third example, you speak about a hypothetical situation in the past that didn’t happen and can no longer happen.
Final Thoughts On The German Conditional Tense
Learning how to form the German conditional tense using the subjunctive form or Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II is a fast way to improve your German language fluency.
The Konjunktiv II is the easiest way to form conditional sentences, especially since, in most cases, you only need to remember nine verb conjugations. I hope using the subjunctive helps you express yourself more clearly the next time you’re conversing in German.
To help you pick up and use the German conditional tense even faster, make sure you use the StoryLearning® method. As you immerse yourself in German books, you'll spot conditional sentences and they'll soon become second nature.
Wenn du den Konjunktiv übst, wirst du fleißend Deutsch sprechen! (If you practice the subjunctive, you will speak fluent German!)