Being polite and dreaming in German — Konjunktiv II

Screen Shot 2012 07 16 At 11 22 44 Pm

Being polite and dreaming in German — Konjunktiv II

Learning a second language is hard, especially for adults. Why? Because it’s like you’re a child again. In your native language and any other language you’ve mastered, you can express yourself clearly and eloquently. In your new language you want to talk about complex things like a news story, something that happened to you, what you would do in a certain incident etc. But there you are with a limited vocabulary and only a few grammatical structures to help you do all that. Fret not! As I’ve written in past posts, with a little you can say a great deal. In fact, you might be expressing yourself clearer than you would be in your native language. So take time to stop and think: what can I say, what structures do I have and how can I best use them? You’ll be surprised just how much you can.

For this post though, I want to give you a new grammatical form that will allow you to tackle those hypothetical situations and also allow you to be polite: Konjunktiv II (the subjunctive). I’ve touched on this before, but never really gone into details. So here we go:

If you speak even the slightest bit of German, you’ve probably been using Konjuntiv II. Remember: “Ich hätte gern einen Kaffee.” and “Möchten Sie etwas trinken?” Yes, simple sentences use Konjuntiv II. (Read about hätten gern and möchten)

All verbs have a Konjuntiv II form, which you can look up on sites like Canoo or in books like 501 German Verbs: Fully Conjugated in All the Tenses (ISBN: 0812044339). That said, they are not all useful, as some are the same as the Präteritum (Simple Past) from of the verb and others are just hard to remember. The way you build the verb is to put the verb in its Präteritum form and add an umlaut (¨) to the stem vowel if it’s an a, o or u. The more important verbs are:

InfinitivPräteritumKonj. IIich er / sie / esduwir Sie / sieihr

The modals are also very good to know, as it will save you from having to use three verbs in a sentence. Note here that wollen and sollen do not take an umlaut in the Konjuntiv II form.

InfinitivPräteritumKonj. IIich / er/sie/esduwir / Sie/sieihr
sollen* sollten*solltensolltesolltestsolltensolltet
wollen* wollten*wolltenwolltewolltestwolltenwolltet

For other verbs we generally use the würde + Infinitiv construction, which is essentially the “would + infinitive form” in English. Here are the conjugations of würden again:

er / sie / eswürdeSie / siewürden

Important to remember is that we do not use the würde construction with haben and sein

würde + haben = hätte

würde + sein = wäre

Let’s see how we can use these verbs in Konjuntiv II.


If you’re already recieving e-mails from German colleagues, you might think that they are rather direct. When I say German, I really mean from Germany Germans. Austrians and Swiss tend to be a little less direct, which causes a bit of a culture conflict between German speakers from the alps and those from up north. Directness for Germans isn’t impolite, it’s just business. Swiss and Austrians are a little more English and will write things with the Konjunktiv II and make requests sound more polite.


  • Rufen Sie mich bitte um elf Uhr an.(Imperativ)
    • Please call me at 11 o’clock.


  • Könnten Sie mich bitte um Uhr anrufen.(Konjunktiv II)
    • Could you please call me at 11 o’clock.


  • Ich bekomme einen Kaffee und Croissant, dank.
    • I get a coffee and croissant. (Literally) Better: Give me a coffee and croissant.


  • Ich hätte gern einen Kaffee und ein Croissant, bitte.
    • I would like a coffee and a croissant, please.

I the second variation is indirect, because it is a request in the form of a question or wish, but you know that it will be fulfilled. You know you’re getting a coffee when you order one at a café, just like you are almost 100% certain the person you ask to call you at 11 will do so.

*Note: The direct “Ich bekomme + what you’re ordering” is a frowned upon form in Switzerland and Austria. Some Germans, especially in the South, may also have issues with it.

Hypothetical cases or the Second Conditional in German:

I had a professor at the University of British Columbia and he told me in a seminar on teaching German as a foreign language that he loves Konjuntiv II because it allows students to be creative and describe the impossible, improbable, as well as hope and aspirations, which forces them to increase their vocabulary with words that are important to them.

Because oral offers and agreements are binding in German-speaking countries, many business people will use the Konjuntiv II to make hypothetical offers or ask for information, but indicate that no formal agreement has been reached. The Konjunctiv II form of the verbs are then purposefully stressed, so that everyone is clear that it is hypothetical.

The easiest way to use the Konjuntiv II then is the German “if-clause” (Wenn-Sätze). In English the verb tenses tend to be different on each side of the comma separating the dependent and independent clauses in conditional sentences. This is not the case in German — Konjunktiv II on both sides. You’ll also hear this when German speakers build conditionals in English. They will say things like: “If I would be rich, I would buy me a Ferrari.”**

Just to make this 100% clear again: conditional sentences using Konjunktiv II imply something that is not real — contradictory to reality. Please, please, please remember this!

The basic German structure is thus:

WennSubjektMittelfeldVerb2 Verb1,Verb1SubjektMittelfeldVerb2
Wennichmehr Zeithätte,würdeichweiterlaufen.
If I had more time,I would run further
WennMarkeine Lohnerhöhungbekommen würde,würdeerkeinen neuen Jobsuchen.
If Mark got a pay raise,he wouldn’t look for a new job
Wennwirreichwären,würdenwirin einem Schlosswohnen.
If we were rich,we would live in a castle
Wennwirnichtarbeiten müssten,würdenwireuchbesuchen.
If we didn’t have to work,we would visit you

German conditionals can also be inverted, in which case the “wenn-clause” comes in the second position. The first clause is then a Hauptsatz and follows regular word order. See belowNote that if you are using the Konjuntiv II form of a verb and not the würde construction, then you might only have one verb in the clause.

Ichwürdeweiterlaufen,wennichmehr Zeithätte.
I would run furtherif I had more time
Markwürdekeinen neuen Jobsuchen,wennereine Lohnerhöhungbekommen würde.
Mark wouldn’t look for a new jobif he got a pay raise
Wirwürdenin einem Schlosswohnen,wennwirreichwären.
We would live in a castleif we were rich
Wirwürdeneuchbesuchen,wennwirnichtarbeiten müssten.
We would visit youif we didn’t have to work

If you keep these structures in mind, you’ll be able to write and say conditional sentences correctly and with ease — it just takes a little practice. Try the exercises below.

Millionär von den Prinzen

Here’s a song by the German group Die Prinzen entitled “Millionär”. They use the Konjunktiv II (Ich wär’ so genre Millionär…). I’ve also put the literal translation below.

Please enter the url to a YouTube video.

Millionär in English. Translation by: Hyde Flippo

I’d really like to be a millionaire
Then my account would never be empty
I’d really like to be a millionaire
Worth millions
I’d really like to be a millionaire

(Money, money, money…)

I have no money, have no clue, but I do have a big mouth
I’m neither a doctor nor a professor, but I’m terribly lazy
I have no rich girl friend and no rich male friend
Unfortunately, up to now I’ve only dreamed of having dough

What should I do, what should I try? I’m half sick with worry
A few times before I thought: Perhaps you could rob a bank
But unfortunately that’s very dangerous; I’d get caught for sure
And besides I’m actually honest and I don’t want to go to jail

I’d really like to be a millionaire…

There are so many rich widows who want me badly
They’re hot for my body, but I won’t give it to them
I don’t think I could handle that for any price in the world
That’s why I’d rather become a pop star and swim in my money

I’d really like to be a millionaire…


Combine these sentences into conditional sentences using Konjuntiv II.

  1. Martin ist sehr faul. Er kann die schwere mündliche Prüfung nicht bestehen.
  2. Ich werde befördert. Ich suche mir keinen neuen Job.
  3. Der Schiedsrichter pfeift nicht. Es gibt keinen Elfmeter.
  4. Heute regnet es. Ich gehe nicht spazieren.
  5. Der Zug ist mal wieder unpünklich. Herr Leuenberger kommt wieder zu spät ins Büro.
  6. Die Autofahrerin fährt zu schnell. Er muss eine Geldstrafe zahlen.
  7. Frau Hess sieht Herrn Müller nicht. Sie grüsst ihn nicht.
  8. Max ist noch sehr klein. Er kann nicht über den Zaun klettern.
  9. John macht seine Hausaufgaben nicht. Deshalb darf er heute nicht ins Kino gehen.
  10. Es regnet seit Wochen. Es gibt Überschwemmungen.

**I made the sentence reflexive on purpose. Read more here.

  1. Edvin Rami?Edvin Rami?06-07-2013

    Hallo Christian,
    noch ein super Post. Man kann deutlich sehen, dass du extrem viel mühe gibst für jeder Post. Kudos dafür.
    Eine Frage für Konjunktiv 2: Warum ist es ”Wenn Mark eine Lohnerhöhung bekommen WÜRDE” und nicht ”Wenn Mark eine Lohnerhöhung bekommen HÄTTE”?
    Danke für die Antwort und alles Gute.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: