German: Subjunctive Mood

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by John Pustejovsky

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What it is, and what it's for

What is Mood?

Mood is a grammatical structure that conveys information on the reality of the sentence's information. German (like English) has three moods:

  1. Indicative: for stating facts or open conditions
  2. Imperative: for giving commands
  3. Subjunctive: for talking about things that are speculative, not factually true.

The verb structures you've learned up to this point have been mostly indicative and imperative.

Subjunctive tenses: past and non-past

  • Past subjunctive is used for speculating about things that didn't happen
  • Non-past subjunctive is used for speculating about things that don't (can't) or won't happen.

Two forms:  the common form, and the exception!

Subjunctive II: This is the most common form; it is used for the purposes noted above.

Subjunctive I: But there's always a special case!  The subjunctive is also used to indicate what someone else has said or written, without using quotes or phrases such as "According to X,..." or "He maintained that..."
In German, Subjunctive I provides a special grammatical form for indicating that someone else's utterance is being repeated.  It is also typically used to connote that the person repeating the utterance of someone else is skeptical about its validity.  Hence you might think of Subjunctive I as a grammatical way of putting "air quotes" around a statement.

Where you find it

Because speculation involves more complex sentences ("if A, then B"), the subjunctive is usually part of such a longer sentence. 

"If more people had voted for McCain, he would have won." 

In German, such a sentence usually includes a wenn-clause [subordinating word order in the wenn-clause] and calls for careful attention to the position of the main (SV) sentence verb.

What's hard about the subjunctive?

Because we use it automatically in English, and not always with great grammatical precision, you'll need to concentrate on the thing you're going to say and decide if it expresses something contrary to fact, a fact, or an open condition.  By doing this, you'll avoid falling into the trap of many American German students, and using subjunctive all the time once they've learned to form it.

Getting Organized

The English subjunctive is often “smeared” into the simple past, or even the present, (especially by sports commentators: “If he catches that, it's a touchdown.”). The German subjunctive stays neatly separated from the indicative. You must know:

✓ how to conjugate würden, hätten, and wären in all persons and numbers;

✓ the past tense forms of all verbs, strong and weak;

✓ the past participles of action verbs.

Universal Formulas

Past subjunctive:

The past subjunctive is formed using *hätten / *wären and the past participle of the action verb.

Wenn er sie geheiratet hätte, wäre er jetzt viel glücklicher.
If he had married her, he would be much happier now.

Non-past subjunctive:

The non-past subjunctive can be formed in either of two ways:

1. One-word form: Using the simple past of the verb (and adding an Umlaut and endings if it's a strong verb);

Wenn sie einen besseren Job fände, verdiente sie mehr Geld.
If she found a better job, she would earn more money.

2. Two-word form:Using würden and the Infinitive. (This one is used much more often.)

Wenn sie einen besseren Job finden würde, würde sie mehr Geld verdienen.
If she were to find a better job, she would earn more money. (This form is less common in English.)

One-word form required for some verbs:

Although the 2-word form is more common, the 1-word form is always used with some verbs:

–   sein (Es wäre schön, wenn ...)
–   haben (Wir hätten mehr Zeit, wenn ...)
–   wissen (Wenn ich wüsste, wo sie wohnt,, ...)
–   and all modals (Carola könnte besser schlafen, wenn sie weniger Kaffee trinken würde.)

The Big Picture Decoder

Predicate information:

Every German predicate (even the simple ones) contain 4 kinds of information:

  1. Relation (agreement) of subject and verb.
  2. Time
  3. Reality
  4. Agency

'Tools':

The German language has "engineered" tools for capturing this information consistently:

  1. Conjugation: is the tool for ensuring agreement in between subject and verb (making the person and number of the subject and predicate agree)
  2. Tense: is the tool for indicating Time
  3. Mood: is the tool for indicating Reality
  4. Voice: is the tool for indicating Agency

The Big Picture chart illustrates these tools in reverse numerical order, simply for visual design reasons:  4 has the fewest subdivisions; 1 has the most.

The Big Picture

Not the huge picture. See nearly everything, but not everything!

Subjunctive "Big Picture"

4

Agency

(Voice)

3

Reality

(Mood)

2

Time

(Tense)

1

Subject/Verb Agreement
(Conjugation)
Examples in 3rd person singular

 

Nota Bene

 

A
C
T
I
V
E

S
u
b
j
u
n
c
t
i
v
e

 

 

 

 

Subjunctive

       II

Non-past
(present or future)

Das Kind läse das Buch.
Es bliebe zu Hause

würde + infinitive =
the 1 word non-past

Das Kind würde das Buch lesen.
Es würde zu Hause bleiben.

Past

Das Kind hätte das Buch gelesen.
Es wäre zu Hause geblieben.

 

 

Subjunctive

        I

Non-past

Das Kind lese ein Buch.
Es bleibe zu Hause.

 

Past

Es habe ein Buch gelesen.
Es sei zu Hause geblieben.

 

P
A
S
S
I
V
E

S
u
b
j
u
n
c
t
i
v
e

 

Subjunctive

       II

Non-past
(present or future)

Ein Buch würde von dem Kind gelesen werden.

 

Past

Ein Buch wäre von dem Kind gelesen worden.

 

Subjunctive

         I

Non-past

Ein Buch werde von dem Kind gelesen.

 

Past

Ein Buch sei von dem Kind gelesen worden.

 

Exercise

Create sentences in the indicative telling about facts or past events. Create sentences in subjunctive using these elements, combining them with “wenn” so as to speculate on the Counterfactual.