Explore the Impossible with the Marvelous German Conditional Tense

The German conditional tense is important if you want to talk about hypothetical situations or things that could possibly happen in the future. 

With this tense, you’ll be able to express any fact, fiction or fantasy, from impossible past events that would require a time machine to possible futures still unseen.

In short, it’s one of the coolest and most flexible grammar patterns you’ll ever learn. Let’s jump in.


What Are Conditional Sentences?

I’m going to trot out some fancypants grammar terms for just a moment. If you’re into this kind of thing, it may help you. If you find this confusing, skip it!

Technically, most grammarians think the conditional reflects the subjunctive mood, not a tense. The subjunctive mood refers to wishes or unreal situations. A sentence like Ich bin eine Frau (I am a woman), on the other hand, is in the indicative mood, which covers statements of fact.

Both English and German use the subjunctive in similar ways, as we’ll see in a second. But it can be a teeny bit confusing in that the German name for this is konjunktiv, not subjunktiv as you might expect. German, in fact, has two konjunktiv forms, creatively named Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II. We’re only going to worry about Konjunktiv II in this post.

Phew. Grammar theory chat over. Let’s look at some examples.

You can usually build the Konjunktiv II in two ways. The first form involves figuring out the preterit stem, adding umlauts for strong verbs and then putting the appropriate conjugation at the end, like so:

finden (to find): fand-

ich fände         wir fänden
du fändest      ihr fändet
er fände          sie fänden

sein (to be): war-

ich wäre             wir wären
du wär(e)st       ihr wär(e)t
er wäre               sie wären

haben (to have): hatt-

ich hätte        wir hätten
du hättest     ihr hättet
er hätte         sie hätten

That might still seem overwhelming, but there’s good news: This form is dying out for most verbs anyway, and the second form is way easier. This involves leaving the verb completely alone, not touching a thing, and using a form of würden for support instead.

Just think of the Konjunktiv II with würden as the equivalent of using “would” in English for the same situation.

denken (to think)

ich würde denken     (I would think)
du würdest denken  (You would think)
er würde denken      (He would think)
wir würden denken  (We would think)
ihr würdet denken    (You would think)
sie würden denken   (They would think)

sagen (to say)

ich würde sagen     (I would say)
du würdest sagen
  (You would say)
er würde sagen
      (He would say)
wir würden sagen
  (We would say)
ihr würdet sagen    (You would say)
sie würden sagen   (They would say)

So don’t panic! Yes, this form is longer, but look closely: It is just like English in its structure. No crazy new umlauts or cross-checking preterits required. If you can remember the forms of würden, then you already know a Konjunktiv II form of literally every German verb, because you just slap it on there.

If you want to see more examples and practice Konjunktiv II further, using a program like FluentU can be beneficial.

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Now we’ll look at a very common way of using this subjunctive mood: conditional sentences with an if-then form.

German Conditional I: Strong Possibilities

Wenn + present tense + future or present tense

Wenn es morgen regnet, bleiben wir zuhause. (If it rains tomorrow, we will stay home.)

Okay, so after all that talk about Konjunktiv II, where is it? Well… not in Conditional I. Remember how the subjunctive applies to unreal situations and wishes? Conditional I doesn’t cover that. It covers statements of strong intention and facts. We don’t know if it will rain tomorrow, but we do know that if it does, we’ll stay home. That much is a fact.

What’s important here is that you start with wenn for “if” and that you pay attention to your verb movement. German verbs can move around in ways that English verbs don’t, and getting it right takes practice. Think of this as a comma sandwich: you’ll always have a verb, then a comma in the middle, then another verb. This is the same no matter which kind of conditional sentence you’re building.

German Conditional II: Weak Possibilities to Impossible Situations

Wenn + Konjunktiv II + Konjunktiv II

Wenn ich eine Million Dollar hätte, würde ich dir ein Haus kaufen.
(If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a house.)

Wenn ich Angela Merkel wäre, würde ich das Gesetz ändern.
(If I were Angela Merkel, I’d change the law.)

Now we’re seeing the Konjunktiv! The above example assumes that you do not have a million dollars. But if you did have a million dollars, then you could buy a house! It’s not likely, but you can dream. Furthermore, I will never become Angela Merkel, but if I somehow could, I’d do things differently. This is where Conditional II is appropriate.

Again, we start with wenn for “if” before adding another comma sandwich: Konjunktiv II, then a comma, then another Konjunktiv II verb. If you do this with würden plus another verb, then würden goes in the sandwich and the main verb goes at the very end.

German Conditional III: The Impossible Past

Wenn + participle + Konjunktiv II + Konjunktiv II + participle

Wenn du mich eingeladen hättest, wäre ich zur Party gekommen.
(If you had invited me, I would have come to the party.)

This is as tough as it gets. We’re referring to two different impossible situations in the past, one of which would have caused the other if it had occurred. These are the time machine cases: They’re so impossible that we would literally need to change history to make them happen.

This sentence implies that you did not invite me to the party. Rude, but I can’t change the past. Just like you can’t change the fact I didn’t go to your party. (You missed out, buddy!) But now we have two past situations that we cannot change, so we’re going to have to let it go.

Hopefully the sentence structure is becoming familiar. The sentence starts with wenn again. But then we have a participle in there, which is usually the form with ge- at the beginning. Then we have the Konjunktiv-comma sandwich we’ve already seen, and then at the very end we have another participle.

Challenge Mode: The Exceptions

Confused enough yet? Well, it can get even tougher if you really want to become fluent.

First of all, how do we decide whether a situation is a “strong” or “weak” possibility? How can we choose between Conditional I and II? Sometimes we can use both.

For example:

Wenn ich weniger esse, werde ich abnehmen. (If I eat less, I will lose weight.)

Wenn ich weniger essen würde, würde ich abnehmen. (If I ate less, I would lose weight.)

Both of these sentences refer to the same situation, and both are literally true. So what makes the second sentence acceptable, even though it’s not a “weak possibility” at all? Intention.

Sentence 1 is like what you’d say on January 1, when you’re super pumped to start your New Year’s nutrition plan and get healthy. You are choosing to make the possibility sound strong, as strong as a true fact. Sentence 2 is what you’d say on a hopeless day in August over a pint of ice cream, the New Year’s resolution long gone. You know it’s true that if you ate less, you’d lose weight. You’re just not going to. Therefore, you are choosing to make the possibility sound weak.

We can also mix Conditional III and II in some cases where an impossible past event doesn’t just lead to another impossible past event, but to a hypothetical present situation. We take the first half of Conditional III and connect it to the second half of Conditional II for this reason.

Wenn du in Korea aufgewachsen wärst, hättest du Koreanisch gelernt.
(If you had grown up in Korea, you would have learned Korean.)

Wenn du in Korea aufgewachsen wärst, würdest du heute Koreanisch sprechen.
(If you had grown up in Korea, you would speak Korean today.)

Why am I torturing you with this? It’s to show you that Conditionals I, II and III are not set in stone. Many grammar books don’t even teach Konjunktiv this way. If this approach works for you, use it! If it doesn’t, there are many other resources to help you learn in different ways.

Try these enough, and I promise they’ll become second nature. Here’s one last conditional phrase to inspire you:

If you practice this, you will succeed! Wenn du das übst, wirst du es schaffen!

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