Verb Moods: Indicative vs. Subjunctive

Verb Moods: Indicative vs. Subjunctive

Indicative Subjunctive II
Subjunctive I


In addition to the various tenses, verbs can exist in three moods:

  • indicative–for stating facts
  • subjunctive–for stating possibilities, conjectures, “what if,” what someone else said, thought or believed
    • Subjunctive II expresses hypothetical and “counterfactual” statements (“what if,” “I wish,” “I would,” “I could” etc.). Normally, if someone speaks about “the subjunctive,” they mean Subjunctive II.
    • Subjunctive I is used to report indirect speech, i.e. what someone else said (and, by extension, what s/he thought, believed, etc.)
  • imperative–for stating commands

Whereas we expect you to learn five tenses of the indicative (Present, Perfect [two-word past tense], Narrative Past [one-word past tense], Past Perfect [what had happened before something else in the past] and Future, you only need to distinguish between two tenses of Subjunctive II: Present subjunctive [what someone would do] and past subjunctive [what someone would have done].

We will not concern ourselves here with the imperative, but it is important that you understand the difference between the indicative and subjunctive moods. You will not be tested (in German 221/231 or below) on Subjunctive I, but a brief description is given here to help you recognize it.

1. Indicative: what is happening, what happened, what will happen. Gives the facts.

Exists in all the basic tenses:

Present [a.k.a. Präsens]: what happens, what is happening

Ich gehe: I go, I am going

Narrative Past [a.k.a. Imperfect, Präteritum, Simple Past…]: what happened (formal)

One word: Ich ging: I went, I was going [formal]

Perfect [a.k.a. Present Perfect; Conversational Past]: what happened (informal)

Haben/Sein + past participle: Ich bin gegangen: I went, I was going [inform.]

Past Perfect [a.k.a. Plusquamperfekt]: what had happened before something else in the past happened: only rarely used; especially with bevor and nachdem!

Hatte/War + past participle: Ich war gegangen: I had gone [before I did some other thing]

Future: what will happen [definitely, not hypothetically; use werde/wirst/wird… not würde, würdest…]

Werden [conjugated] + infinitive: Ich werde gehen: I will go

2a. Subjunctive II

What would happen, what would have happened, what you wish would happen , what you wish would have happened–the “counterfactual” mood. Gives wishes and hypotheticals, not the facts.

If someone just says “subjunctive,” they usually mean Subjunctive II, not Subjunctive I

Important note for those of you who have learned Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, or Rumanian: In these languages, you will have learned about the Conditional and the Subjunctive moods. German Subjunctive II corresponds much more closely to the Conditional mood in these languages (used for saying what you would do or would have done) than to the Subjunctive mood, which is used in these languages primarily in conjunction with certain verbs expressing beliefs, desires and uncertainties (and corresponds to some extent to the Subjunctive I in German in this respect).

Subjunctive II exists in only two tenses: present and past, but there are two ways to form the present subjunctive, one formal (one-word form based on simple past of the verb), one informal (würde + infinitive). ==> Whereas you are used to having just one option for the present tense and two options for the past tense (formal–narrative past [one word]; informal–perfect [two words]) in the indicative, in the subjunctive you have two options for the present tense (one-word form, or würde + infinitive) and only one option for the past (based on perfect tense ==> hätte/wäre + past participle)

Present Subjunctive II: what would happen; what you would do; what you wish would happen now or in the future

One word [formal]: Ich ginge: I would go; Ich sagte: I would say

Note 1: The one-word subjunctive is based on the simple past indicative, so the one-word subjunctive and the simple past indicative verb forms will generally look very similar. For irregular (strong) verbs, the subjunctive differs from the simple past in its endings (-e, -est, -e etc.) and in having an umlaut if possible. For weak verbs, the subjunctive and simple past are identical. For mixed verbs (irregular weak verbs like kennen, brennen, rennen, nennen etc.), the subjunctive is usually formed with würde + infinitive [exceptions: hätte, wüßte]

Note 2: For the modals, the one-word subjunctive has an umlaut if the infinitive has one: könnte, dürfte, möchte and müßte, but sollte and wollte.

Würde + infinitive [informal ==> more common]: Ich würde gehen: I would go; Ich würde sagen: I would say

Note: It is usually entirely up to you whether you choose the one-word form or the würde + infinitive form.

But for haben, sein and the modal verbs, use the one-word form: ich hätte ich würde haben (I would have); ich wäre ich würde sein (I would be); ich könnte ich würde können (I would be able to) etc.

Past Subjunctive II: what would have happened, what you would have done, what you wish had happened [for hypothetical statements about things that are now over]

Note: “I wish I were a dog” sounds like past tense [I were], but it’s not: you’re wishing you were a dog now! This happens because the English subjunctive is formed on the basis of the past tense [or alternatively as would + infinitive] just like the German subjunctive is formed on the basis of the simple past! So the German for this would be “Ich wünschte, ich wäre ein Hund” using present subjunctive.

Hätte/Wäre + past participle: Ich wäre gegangen: I would have gone; Ich hätte gesagt: I would have said

[Compare the indicative forms: Ich bin gegangen; Ich habe gesagt–just change sein to wäre and haben to hätte.]

Since there is only one past subjunctive, the subjunctive form corresponding to indicative simple past will still be the same: ich ging and ich bin gegangen [I went] ==> ich wäre gegangen [I would have gone]; ich sagte and ich habe gesagt [I said] ==> ich hätte gesagt.

Click here for a more detailed explanation of Subjunctive II

2b. Subjunctive I

Subjunctive I is used to state what someone else says/has said or thinks/thought. Like Subjunctive II, Subjunctive I only has one past tense (but there is a future). All verb forms are based very closely on the infinitive ==> there’s no exceptions to memorize when you learn Subjunctive I! Subjunctive I often looks very similar to the present or perfect indicative–the difference is only really obvious in the third person singular, where Subjunctive I has a characteristic -e ending instead of the -t you would expect from present indicative. This is how you can tell that someone is being quoted, even if there is no “Sie/Er sagt…”

Present: Sie sagt, sie gehe: she says she goes [reporting “Ich gehe”]

Past: Sie sagt, sie sei gegangen: she says she went [reporting “Ich ging” or “Ich bin gegangen”]

Future: Sie sagt, sie werde gehen: she says she will go [reporting “Ich werde gehen”]

Reporting Imperatives: Sie sagt, ich solle gehen: she says I should go [reporting “Geh!” or “Gehen Sie!”]

Remember we are not requiring you to know Subjunctive I for tests in 221/231!

Click here for a more detailed explanation of Subjunctive I