The Internet Handbook of German Grammar


General With corrections by H.V., 31.03.98, marked red

Indirect or reported speech is a way of showing what somebody says without quoting them directly (i.e. without using speech marks). The distinction between direct and indirect speech is made in English as well as in German. Examples of direct and indirect speech in English are as follows:

She said, "I will arrive at 9 o' clock." (direct speech)
She said (that) she would arrive at 9 o' clock. (indirect speech)

In German, the verbs within the indirect speech are put into the subjunctive. This is in order to "distance" the speaker from what is being said, in the same way as we put the reported verb into the past tense in English. For example:

Er sagte: „Ich spiele Klavier." (He said, "I play the piano.")
Er sagte, er spiele Klavier. (He said he played the piano.)

The use of the Konjunktiv I [SEE HERE FOR DETAILS ON FORMING THIS] indicates that the speaker/writer is not making a statement of fact which he/she knows to be true, but is simply reporting something which they have been told. Consider the following example:

Bundeskanzler Kohl sagte: „Ich werde die nächste Wahl gewinnen."
Bundeskanzler Kohl sagte, er werde die nächste Wahl gewinnen.

The use of the Konjunktiv I in the second example (i.e. in the indirect speech version) shows that the reporter is not saying that Kohl will win the next election, but is merely reporting that Kohl made such a claim. Whether or not the reporter agrees with this view is not expressed.

In summary, then, the subjunctive is used in German indirect speech to convert what was originally stated as a fact or an opinion (in direct speech) into a simple report of what has been said, neither agreeing with nor disagreeing with the original utterance.

As a result of this, only those verbs in the original utterance which do express a fact or opinion are put into the subjunctive in indirect speech. (This is where the rules start to get a bit more fuzzy around the edges!) This generally tends to mean that verbs in subordinate clauses within the indirect speech remain in the indicative (i.e. are not put into the subjunctive), although this does not hold true in all cases. Consider the following example:

Der Lehrer sagte: „Schüler, die Englisch lernen können, sind sehr glücklich."
(The teacher said, "Pupils who can learn English are very happy.")

Der Lehrer sagte, Schüler, die Englisch lernen können, seien sehr glücklich.
(The teacher said (that) pupils who can learn English are very lucky.)

While the verb in the main clause is put into the subjunctive (sind becomes seien), the verb in the subordinate clause (können) remains in the indicative. This can be explained by viewing the sentence thus: sind in the original utterance expresses the opinion of the teacher (and hence is put into the subjunctive in indirect speech), whilst können is not used by the teacher either to express his opinion, or to impart a fact or piece of information, but is instead used to describe the pupils: "pupils who can learn English". In the following example, however, the verb in the subordinate clause is put into the subjunctive:

Die Frau sagte zum Polizisten: „Ich konnte die Haare des Einbrechers nicht sehen, da er einen Hut trug."
(The woman told the policeman, "I couldn't see the burglar's hair, as he was wearing a hat.")

Die Frau sagte zum Polizisten, sie habe die Haare des Einbrechers nicht sehen können, da er einen Hut getragen habe.
(The woman told the policeman (that) she hadn't been able to see the burglar's hair, as he had been wearing a hat.)

In this case, the subordinate clause forms part of the woman's description of the burglar - in other words, it is part of the information (or facts) she is giving to the police - and so in this case the verb in the subordinate clause is also put into the subjunctive.

Although the above distinction between what parts of the original utterance are and are not "fact" or "opinion" may seem confusing at first, it soon becomes clearer with practice. As the indirect speech is used extensively in German by reporters, newspapers and magazines are an excellent place to start to familiarise yourself with the usage of the subjunctive.

Finally, just as in English, use of the reported speech often means that not only the verb, but also other parts of the utterance have to be altered in the transition from direct to indirect speech. The most common example of this are phrases indicating time. For example, look at the following examples in English:

He said last week, "I'll be there tomorrow."
He said last week (that) he'd be there the next day.

As we would expect, exactly the same applies in German:

Er sagte letzte Woche: „Ich werde morgen da sein."
Er sagte letzte Woche, er werde am nächsten Tag da sein.

The reason for this is simple: the "tomorrow" of the original utterance is no longer "tomorrow" to the speaker of the second sentence. Wherever this is the case (and only where this is the case!), the expression of time must be altered accordingly:

Sie sagte am Montag: „Ich habe Klaus heute gesehen."
Sie sagte am Montag, sie habe Klaus an (diesem)dem Tag/am gleichen Tag gesehen. ( *****diesem compares with jenem. Jenem undefined, use dem.)

Er sagte heute: „Ich werde dich morgen besuchen."
Er sagte heute, er werde mich morgen besuchen.

In the final example, the "tomorrow" of the original utterance is still "tomorrow" to the speaker of the indirect speech version, and consequently there is no need to alter the time phrase.

Two main principles dictate the form of the subjunctive to be used in indirect speech. The first is the tense of the original utterance, the second is the substitution rule.

Tense of the original utterance

The tense of the original utterance (i.e. the tense of the verb in the direct speech) determines which form of the Konjunktiv I should be used:

********Generally correct from this point to the end, *********
********yet, complicated and incomplete.**********

See our Subjunctive and Indirect Speech page

Tense of original utterance Form of Konjunktiv I to be used
present Konjunktiv I der Gegenwart
Konjunktiv I der Vergangenheit
future (with werden)
future (with present verb)
Konjunktiv I der Zukunft

This can be demonstrated with the following examples:

Er sagte: „Ich kann das einfach nicht!"

Although the indirect speech version of this sentence in English would read He said he just couldn't do it, with a verb in the past tense (couldn't), don't be misled into forming your German indirect speech in the same way (this is a very common mistake amongst English learners of German). In German, the tense of the original utterance determines the tense of the subjunctive to be used in indirect speech. As the original utterance in this case contains a present verb (kann), we have to use the Konjunktiv I der Gegenwart in indirect speech:

Er sagte, er könne das einfach nicht. (könnte)

And so on. Another possible snag lies in the various past tenses in German, which are all replaced by the Konjunktiv I der Vergangenheit in indirect speech. This seems fairly straightforward when the original utterance is in the perfect tense:

Sie sagte: „Ich habe ein neues Auto gekauft."
Sie sagte, sie habe ein neues Auto gekauft. (hätte !!!)

But when the verb of the original utterance is in the preterite tense, it is tempting to use the similar-looking Konjunktiv II in indirect speech. Don't! The preterite tense, just like the perfect tense, is always rendered with the Konjunktiv I der Vergangenheit in indirect speech:

Sie sagte: „Sie kamen um elf Uhr an."
Sie sagte, sie seien um elf Uhr angekommen. (wären)
(NOT: Sie sagte, sie kämen um elf Uhr an.)

Similarly, the pluperfect in direct speech is always put into the Konjunktiv I der Vergangenheit in indirect speech:

Sie sagten: „Er hatte uns angeschossen!"
Sie sagten, er habe sie angeschossen. (hätte)

The substitution rule

The substitution rule states that in every case where (and only where) the appropriate form of the Konjunktiv I looks identical to the indicative form, the Konjunktiv II is used in indirect speech. This generally tends to apply to plural verb forms, as these resemble the indicative for every verb except sein.

For example, consider the following example:

Sie sagten: „Wir können euch helfen."

The indirect speech version of this, using the Konjunktiv I der Gegenwart, as dictated by the "tense of the original utterance" rule, would therefore be:

Sie sagten, sie können uns helfen.

However, as the indirect speech phrase ("sie können uns helfen") looks identical to an indicative phrase, the verb has to be replaced by the appropriate Konjunktiv II form:

Sie sagten, sie könnten uns helfen.

Hence, in cases where the substitution rule requires a Konjunktiv I der Gegenwart form to be changed, it is a simple case of replacing this with the Konjunktiv II form. However, cases where the "tense of the original utterance" rule would ordinarily require a Konjunktiv I der Vergangenheit or Konjunktiv I der Zukunft form, the replacement is a little bit more complicated. In these cases, only the auxiliary verb (i.e. haben, sein or werden) is converted into the Konjunktiv II, as illustrated in the following examples:

Die Sprecherin berichtete: „Die Überschwemmungen haben ganze Dörfer zerstört."

As the verb in the original utterance is in the perfect tense, the Konjunktiv I der Vergangenheit is required, giving us an indirect speech version as follows:

Die Sprecherin berichtete, die Überschwemmungen haben ganze Dörfer zerstört.

However, as the indirect phrase ("die Überschwemmungen haben ganze Dörfer zerstört") is identical to the corresponding phrase in the indicative, the substitution rule dictates that the verb in the Konjunktiv I (here, haben) must be changed into the Konjunktiv II:

Die Sprecherin berichtete, die Überschwemmungen hätten ganze Dörfer zerstört.

It is vital to note that it is not the main verb which is put into the Konjunktiv II, but only the auxiliary. Changing the main verb into a Konjunktiv II form would produce an incorrect version ("Die Sprecherin berichtete, die Überschwemmungen zerstörten ganze Dörfer.") Similarly, indirect speech in the future tense behaves in the same way:

Unser Chef sagte: „Sie werden bald eine Lohnerhöhung kriegen."
[with Konj. I:] Unser Chef sagte, wir werden bald eine Lohnerhöhung kriegen.
[correct version:] Unser Chef sagte, wir würden bald eine Lohnerhöhung kriegen.

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