The Internet Handbook of German Grammar


General With corrections by H.V., 03.31.98, marked red

The conditional is used to show the dependency of one action or (set of) event(s) on another. In English, it is often shown by the construction "If..., (then)...", e.g.:
in German only when there is something real, doable, or a feasible condition

  1. If I am ill tomorrow, (then) I will not go to school.
  2. If I were you, (then) I would not buy that shirt.
  3. If you were older, (then) you would be able to see this film.

In both English and German, there are two basic types of conditional. The first is the so-called 'open' conditional - used where there is a real possibility of the conditions being met. In English, this is the type of conditional without "would", like example (1) above. In German, this is formed simply by using the indicative, exactly as in English, e.g.:

Wenn ich morgen krank bin, gehe ich nicht in die Schule.
If I am ill tomorrow, I will not go to school.

Wenn du vor acht ankommst, können wir ins Kino gehen.
If you arrive before eight, we can go to the cinema.

Wenn wir Zeit haben, müssen wir nach Köln fahren.
If we have time, we must go to Cologne.

The second - and more common - type of conditional is used in sentences which express an unreal or hypothetical situation, i.e. where there is little or no possibility of the conditions being met. In English, this type of conditional is formed using "would", like examples (2) and (3) above. In German, it is formed using the Konjunktiv II [SEE HERE FOR DETAILS ON FORMING THIS], e.g.:

Wenn ich Zeit hätte, käme ich gern mit. (or würde ich gern mitkommen)
If I had time, I would like to come with you.

Wenn du älter wärest, könntest du diesen Film sehen.
If you were older, you would be able to see this film.

Wenn ich einen Hund hätte, ginge ich jeden Tag mit ihm spazieren. (or würde ich jeden Tag mit ihm spazieren gehen)
If I had a dog, I would take it for a walk every day.

Hence the Konjunktiv II is used here to show the meaning "would":

ich käme
I would come
du könntest
you would be able to
ich ginge
I would go

So, the first rule of the conditional in German is as follows:

Golden Rule No. 1

(loosely stated - see my opening definition, above!)
If English uses "would" in the conditional, German uses the Konjunktiv II.
If English does not use "would" in the conditional, German uses the indicative.

N.B. Although English only has a "would" in one half of the sentence (we do not use a "would" in the "if..." part of the sentence), German uses a Konjunktiv II in both halves of the sentence. So:

Golden Rule No. 2

German uses a Konjunktiv II in BOTH HALVES of a conditional sentence,
despite the fact that English only uses "would" in one of them.

The Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit

As well as the simple form of the Konjunktiv II (e.g. wäre, hätte, stünde, ginge), there is also a compound form, formed using the Konjunktiv II of werden (e.g. würde) plus the infinitive of the main verb. Hence this compound form of the Konjunktiv II looks very similar to the English conditional:

sie würden arbeiten
they would work
ich würde beginnen
I would begin
ihr würdet bringen
you would bring

Whether we use the simple form or the compound form of the Konjunktiv II to form the conditional depends on the verb in question. Although the simple form is widely used in indirect speech, it is commonly used in the conditional only for a small number of verbs. These are:

  1. sein (wäre), haben (hätte) and werden (würde)
  2. the modal verbs:
    wollen (wollte), sollen (sollte), dürfen (dürfte), müssen (müßte), können (könnte), mögen (möchte)

    -------------------------------False, delete all below this line---------------
    N.B. There is no compound form for sein, haben, werden or the modal verbs - these verbs always use the simple form:

    Wenn ich du wäre, wäre ich nicht so sicher.
    Wenn ich du sein würde, würde ich nicht so sicher sein.
    If I were you, I wouldn't be so sure.
    Wenn wir nur mehr Geld hätten, könnten wir ein neues Hi-Fi kaufen.
    Wenn wir nur mehr Geld haben würden, würden wir ein neues Hi-Fi kaufen können.
    If only we had more money, we would be able to buy a new hi-fi.

    ------------------All above this line deleted!----------------------------

  3. The following strong verbs also have commonly-used simple forms, ( although these) which are interchangeable with the compound forms:

    finden - fände / würde finden geben - gäbe / würde geben
    gehen - ginge / würde gehen halten - hielte / würde halten
    heißen - hieße / würde heißen kommen - käme / würde kommen
    lassen - ließe / würde lassen stehen - stünde / würde stehen
    tun - täte / würde tun wissen - wüßte / würde wissen

( For all other verbs, t)The compound form of the Konjunktiv II ( is ) may be used to form the conditional, e.g.:

Wenn ich 500 000 Mark im Lotto gewinnen würde, würde ich nie wieder arbeiten!
If I won 500 000 marks in the lottery, I would never work again!

Wenn ich den Dieb sehen würde (sähe) , würde ich ihn sofort erkennen.
If I saw the thief again, I would recognize him straight away.

Die Europäer wären erleichtert, wenn England wieder austreten würde.
The Europeans would be relieved if England withdrew again.

The conditional forms outlined above correspond to the English usage of "would" in conditional sentences, e.g.:

Wenn du ein Fahrrad hättest, könntest du mitkommen. (würdest du mitkommen können)
If you had a bike you would be able to come with us.


This usage - in both English and German - expresses an unreal condition relating to the present moment or the immediate future. However, both English and German can also express a hypothetical possibility in the past, using the past conditional. In English, this is achieved by using the construction "would have" plus a past participle, e.g.:

If you had been there, you would have seen her.
If they had been more careful, they would have avoided the accident.
If he hadn't been so slow, he would not have been caught.

In German, the past conditional is expressed by the Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit, formed using the Konjunktiv II of sein or haben (i.e. wäre / hätte) plus the past participle of the main verb, e.g.:

ich hätte gespielt
I would have played
sie wäre gekommen
she would have come
ihr wäret gewesen
you would have been

This formation pattern applies to all verbs - there are no exceptions. Again, although English does not use "would have" in the "if..." part of the sentence, German uses the Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit in both halves of the sentence:

Wenn wir auf der Autobahn gefahren wären, hätten wir die Fähre rechtzeitig erreicht.
If we had gone on the motorway, we would have reached the ferry in time.

Wenn sie den Zug verpaßt hätte, hätte sie uns sicher angerufen.
If she had missed the train, she would surely have called us.

Wenn er nicht unter dem Bett gesucht hätte, hätte er das Geld nie gefunden!
If he hadn't looked under the bed, he would never have found the money!

The Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit form of the modal verbs

The Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit of the modal verbs is formed in exactly the same way , only when standing alone, however :

sie hätte gewollt
she would have wanted to
er hätte nicht gekonnt
he wouldn't have been able to
wir hätten gemußt
wir would have had to
ihr hättet gemocht
you would have liked to

( However) Normally , modal phrases usually involve another verb (e.g. Er kann es nicht machen). When another verb is involved in a phrase in the Konjunktiv II der Vergangenheit, the past participle of the modal verb changes to resemble the infinitive:

Sie hätten das Auto reparieren können.
They would have been able to mend the car.

Ich hätte ihm viel mehr bezahlen müssen.
I would have had to pay him a lot more.

Wir hätten hier nicht schwimmen dürfen.
We wouldn't have been allowed to swim here.

Sie hätte dich sehen wollen.
She would have wanted to see you.

Of course, these forms are also used in full conditional sentences:

Wenn er mehr gelernt hätte, hätte er die Prüfung bestehen können.
If he had studied more, he could have passed the exam.

Wenn ich da gewesen wäre, hätte ich sie ansprechen mögen.
If I had been there, I would have liked to speak to her.

Wenn wir da geblieben wären, hätten wir mitmachen müssen.
If we had stayed there, we would have had to join in.

Don't Forget

As soon as another verb is added to a modal verb in the Konjunktiv II der
, the modal past participle changes to resemble the infinitive, e.g.

gemußt müssen
gekonnt können


Finally, two points to remember about the conditional:

  1. The only form of the subjunctive used to express the conditional is the Konjunktiv II. The conditional is never expressed by the Konjunktiv I
  2. There are three usages in German which correspond to English "would" - you must avoid confusing them. They are:
    1. The conditional (= German würde)
      If I were rich, I would buy a new car.
      Wenn ich reich wäre, würde ich ein neues Auto kaufen.
    2. The past tense of will (= German wurde)
      No! would be = future I subjunctive. Therefore, because wußte expresses a certainty, the main clause must be stated in indicative form
      I knew it would be alright.
      (= Past tense of werden - past tense of "I know it will be alright.")
      = Ich wußte, daß es in Ordnung sein wurde. False!
      As stated in this markup, and taking into account Zeitenfolge (i.e. tense sequence rules), the following two alternatives result:
        Ich wußte, daß es in Ordnung ist.
        Ich wußte, daß es in Ordnung sein wird.

      Which of these two forms applies, is an uncertainty in the English phrase. That is the question whether the main clause is present or future with respect to the Subject's, Ich, speech. Sorry - ambiguous English.

    3. Will in indirect speech (= German werde)
      He said he would speak to me tomorrow.
      (= Indirect speech version of "He said, 'I will speak to you tomorrow.'")
      = Er sagte, er werde morgen mit mir sprechen.

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