“We Germans have conquered the world, foreign peoples, the North Sea, and nature - but never the subjunctive.”
This quote from famous comedian Dieter Hildebrandt pretty much sums up how difficult it is to master the conditional tense in German.
Many German learners will cite the Konjunktiv - as the conditional is known in German - as the trickiest grammar aspect of this language. But no one said German was going to be a walk in the park. I mean, you’ve got the various cases, genders, word order… the list of difficult grammar points goes on.
But German isn’t as hard as you think, just as long as you treat its rules with a little respect and patience.
In this guide, you’ll learn a bit about what the conditional tense looks like in German, when to use it, and how to conjugate it.
So, without further ado, let’s get started.
What is the conditional tense?
The conditional tense, also called the Konjunktiv II in German, is used to express anything in this world that’s uncertain: wishes, doubts, fantasies - anything that might, would, should, or could happen in the future.
The Konjunktiv is technically a subjunctive mood, rather than a tense, but many grammar books and courses will still call it the conditional tense.
It doesn’t really matter what you call it, you just need to know when to use it.
In English, the conditional tense is formed with specific words that act as triggers. The verbs “would”, “could”, and “should” are prime examples of these triggers.
Consider the following examples:
“The event should happen, if everything goes according to plan.”
“If I invited them to the party, I would have to buy more food.”
“I could be moving to Germany next year.”
You can also note the conditional tense through words like “if”, which appears in a lot of hypothetical phrases. What’s more, the conditional can be expressed with a variety of tenses (e.g., “I would have bought…”) which is why it’s called a mood rather than a tense.
So, how do you form this complicated mood-tense-thing in German?
Check out the various ways you can do this below.
How do you form the conditional tense in German?
There are a number of ways you can form the Konjunktiv II in German.
Some are more complicated than others, but luckily it seems that the more complex forms are dying out (thank you, Germans!).
Regardless, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the various ways to express the conditional tense in German, simply because you never know when you might need it!
Continue reading to find all the various ways of articulating the conditional tense.
Using “werden” to form the simple conditional tense
We’ll start with the simplest, most common form of Konjunktiv II in German.
Luckily, it’s not much different than the future tense and the conjugations aren’t overly complicated.
Like the future tense, you’ll use the verb werden with an infinitive to express something you “would” do.
And in keeping with German word order, the verb usually goes to the end of the sentence.
Let’s take a look at some example sentences with their English translations.
Ich würde ein großes Haus kaufen.
Du würdest nie einen Fuchs schniefen.
Sie würden heute Nacht ausgehen.
As we can see, you simply conjugate the verb werden according to the subject, then send the following verb’s infinitive to the end of the sentence.
All you need to know is how to conjugate werden.
How to conjugate werden for the conditional tense
Using werden with an infinitive is the easiest way to express the conditional tense in German.
Refer to the table below if you want to know how to conjugate werden in the conditional.
And that’s all you really need to know for the simplest way of forming the conditional tense in German!
Thankfully, too, it’s the most common way of expressing hypotheticals in everyday life.
Keep reading to discover more, err… advanced ways of articulating the conditional.
Using modal verbs to express the conditional
In German, you can also conjugate modal verbs to communicate the conditional tense.
These mimic the conditional in English, using verbs like können and sollen as equivalents to “could” and “should”.
These two verbs are a really common way to express hypotheticals in German, and you can find how to conjugate them in the tables below, alongside other modal verbs:
Modal verbs are used frequently in regular speech, so it’s a good idea to set aside a bit of time to learn them.
As you can see, they conjugate pretty regularly once you have their stems figured out.
Let’s take a look at some example sentences:
Ich sollte nicht rauchen.
Du könntest zu Fuß zur Schule gehen.
Wir könnten zu Hause bleiben.
Möchtet ihr tanzen?
Wir wollten etwas Kleineres, bitte.
Modal verbs like sollen and können are great for use in everyday conversational German, and will crop up more often than you think.
The second-person conjugation, möchtest, is also a great word to keep handy, because it’s a nice way of asking someone to do something.
There are other more ways to form the Konjunktiv II in German, and this is where it gets a little more complicated.
Read on to find out why.
Conjugating other verbs in the Konjunktiv II
The two most common ways of expressing the conditional tense with the Konjunktiv II in German are to use werden or a modal verb.
However, all verbs can actually be conjugated in this way, for use without a modal verb, as a way of expressing wishes, doubts, and general uncertainty.
But this is becoming less and less frequent in everyday life, and most verbs are almost never conjugated in this way.
If today was 20 or 30 years in the future, this section may not even be needed!
To conjugate a verb in the Konjunktiv II, all you need to do is take a verb’s stem and add the corresponding inflection.
This will depend on the subject, so there is a table below to help.
Seems familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because the Konjunktiv II looks exactly the same as the präteritum (simple past tense).
And this is a big factor into why it’s not widely used anymore.
Only irregular verbs look different when conjugated in the Konjunktiv II.
These irregular verbs are predominantly conjugated in a similar way to their präteritum conjugations, but with an added umlaut and slightly different inflections.
Only a handful of these verbs are still used in everyday life, including the two auxiliary verbs haben and sein.
You can find the most common irregular Konjunktiv II verbs in the table below:
These verbs are often used alongside another Konjunktiv II structure.
Let’s take a look at when you could use them in a sentence.
Wenn ich viel Geld hätte, würde ich ein großes Haus kaufen.
Wenn wir gehen würden, gäbe es Beschwerden.
Ich käme gern zur Party.
Luckily, though, these verb conjugations don’t crop up too often. And even if they do, you can still express them in a conditional manner by using werden and their infinitives.
Take a look at the following sentences:
Ich würde es cool finden.
Ich fände es cool.
Both mean the same thing - “I would find it cool” - but each one uses a different form of the Konjunktiv II to express it.
German is mad, isn’t it? There’s never a dull moment with this language!
How do you form the conditional past in German?
Don’t settle down just yet - there’s more conditional to come!
You’re now familiar with how to express the conditional in the present tense, but what happens if you want to communicate a regret, for instance?
If you want to express something you “would have done”, or another impossible scenario that would need a time machine to change, you need the conditional past.
Luckily, it’s not very difficult to grasp.
In fact, it’s very similar to the perfect tense in German.
The conditional past is formed using an auxiliary verb - either haben or sein- plus a past participle to express regret, longing, or justifications.
But, as with all German tenses, we need to pay attention to the conjugations.
Read on to find out how to conjugate the auxiliary verbs to form the conditional past.
How do you conjugate sein and haben in the conditional past?
The auxiliary verbs sein and haben crop up everywhere, so it’s particularly important that you know how to conjugate them.
The table below shows you how to conjugate haben and sein:
Now, all you need is to attach a past participle to the end of the sentence and you’re good to go!
Check out some of these examples for a better understanding of when to use the conditional past.
Ich hätte dich geliebt.
Allein hättest du das nie geschafft.
Ich hätte ihm geholfen, auch wenn ich keine Zeit gehabt hätte.
Wir wären spät gekommen, wenn es kein Autobus gewesen wäre.
What about the conditional future tense?
Last but not least, you can use the conditional to express future uncertainties.
The conditional future tense is a bit like a combination of the present and past Konjunktiv II moods.
The English translation of this appears no different to the conditional past, but in German the verb conjugations you use will depend on the tense you’re talking in.
For instance, the English “I would have bought this house” can either be translated into German as one of the following two sentences:
Ich hätte dieses Haus gekauft.
Ich würde dieses Haus gekauft haben.
The first sentence is being expressed in the conditional past, the second in the conditional future.
It’s important in German to determine whether you are talking about the deep, impossible past, or the relatively near, slightly more possible past, because the correct conditional tense depends on it.
Forming the conditional future is relatively easy.
You just take the Konjunktiv II form of werden, add a past participle and to finish off the sentence, an auxiliary verb infinitive.
With the conditional future you can express desires that are more theoretically possible than others.
By contrast, use the conditional past to express impossible desires or wants that you used to have but don’t anymore.
Conquer the Konjunktiv with regular practice!
German can be a tricky language, and the conditional tense doesn’t do much in the way of alleviating this.
However, it’s vital that you learn the grammar for it. You’ll be surprised how often it comes up!
Everyone learns differently, which means there are plenty of resources out there to help you learn the conditional tense in the way that suits you most.
There are plenty of good grammar books out there, but they’re not for everyone. If podcasts are more your thing, for instance, make sure to check out our top 10 recommended German podcasts to enhance your listening skills as well as your grammar!
If you put the practice in, you’ll master the German conditional tense in no time.