Konjunktiv 1 vs Konjunktiv 2: Battle of the Subjunctives

Hallo, Deutschlerner. Have you encountered words like “hätte”, “würde” or “könnte”? Maybe “sei”? Have you ever seen a sentence in a newspaper that was conjugated like it should be the “ich” form of a verb, but was actually the “er, sie, es” form? 

Those are all Konjunktiv, but there are two different Konjunktiv forms to worry about. They are aptly named Konjunktiv 1 and Konjunktiv 2. Today we’ll talk about when you would use each of them and what they generally look like. In future lessons in this series I will show you in-depth how to form both the Konjunktiv 1 and Konjunktiv 2. 

Konjunktiv 1 vs. Konjunktiv 2: Your Complete German Guide

What is Konjunktiv?

First, what is “Konjunktiv” in English? We usually translate it as “subjunctive”. Konjunktiv 1 is what we call the “special subjunctive” in English, which of course made Konjunktiv 2 mad when they were growing up. All parents have a favorite, but naming one of your children “special subjunctive” when the other one is just “subjunctive” is just rude. 

The Konjunktiv 2 is often called the conditional, which helps to explain what it does. Since his parents chose to call his brother “special” and not him, he made up for it by being more useful than his older brother. 

When to Use Konjunktiv 1

The Konjunktiv 1 is used to express indirect discourse. In other words, when your siblings are arguing and you have to relay messages between them as some sort of awkward intermediary. 

Bob: Tell Fred that he is being a jerk. 
James: Bob says you are being a jerk. 
Fred: Well, you tell Bob that it takes one to know one. 
James: Fred says that you are a jerk too. 

This is most commonly done when relaying messages between people in German or when reporting the news and you don’t directly quote someone. 

Example of the Konjunktiv 1 with Indirect Speech

Der Verdächtige sagte, er sei nicht in der Nähe gewesen, als die Bank ausgeraubt wurde. Er behauptete, dass er einen Film mit seiner Freundin im Kino gesehen habe. –
The suspect said he wasn’t nearby when the bank was robbed. He claims he was watching a film with his girlfriend in the movie theater. 

How to Form the Konjunktiv 1

Notice the use of “sei” and “habe” here. These two are being used as helping verbs to form the past tense of the Konjunktiv 1. “Sei” is a form of the verb “sein”, which gets a unique conjugation for the Konjunktiv 1. 

seinto be
ich seiI am
du seistyou are
er, sie, es seihe, she, it is
wir seienwe are
ihr seietyou are
sie, Sie seienthey, you are
Konjunktiv 1 Forms of “sein”

Verbs Beyond “sein” in the Konjunktiv 1

For verbs other than “sein” we use a modified version of the present tense conjugation to create the present forms of the Konjunktiv 1. For example: 

machento do, make
ich macheI do, make
du machestyou do, make
er, sie, es machehe, she, it does, makes
wir machenwe do, make
ihr machetyou do, make
sie, Sie machenthey, you do, make
Konjunktiv 1 Forms of “machen”
gehento go
ich geheI go
du gehestyou go
er, sie, es gehehe, she, it goes
wir gehenwe go
ihr gehetyou go
sie, Sie gehenthey, you go
Konjunktiv 1 Forms of “gehen”

As you can see, there are a few forms that are identical to the regular present tense conjugated forms of these verbs. For this reason most verbs only use the 3rd person singular in the Konjunktiv 1. Otherwise it would be indistinguishable from the indicative (normal present tense). If there is a need to quote a plural then you need to resort to Konjunktiv 2 unless you are using the verb “sein”.

Examples of Konjunktiv 1 in Context

Meine Mutter sagt, mein Bruder mache nichts. –
My mother says my brother does nothing. 

Fred behauptet, die Familie gehe morgen früh los. –
Fred claims the family is leaving early tomorrow. 

Examples of Konjunktiv 1 in the News

As I said before, most of the time these forms are used when reporting the news. Here are a few lines I pulled from a Deutsche Welle article about the war in Ukraine. 

Die Drohnen seien alle von der Luftabwehr zerstört worden, so das ukrainische Militär. –
The drones were all destroyed by the air defense, according to the Ukrainian Military. 

Zudem habe Russland vier Raketen auf die Ukraine abgefeuert. –
Russia also launched four rockets into Ukraine. 

Both of these examples use the past tense version of Konjunktiv 1. They used Konjunktiv 1, because this is based on reports from each of the parties involved and are not direct quotes. That is the use of the Konjunktiv 1. 

If you want to learn all of the ins and outs of the Konjunktiv 1 and how to form it in all of the tenses in which it can be formed, I am uploading a lesson about that next week.

What is Konjunktiv 2?

Konjunktiv 2 is a completely different beast. It is the more popular of the two Konjunktivs, but it is also the more complicated one to learn. The cool part is that if you have already learned the Präteritum forms of irregular verbs in German, you are pretty close to making the Konjunktiv 2 forms. Just sprinkle some umlauts and E’s in there and your forms will be complete. 

Ich wäre reicher, wenn ich mehr Geld hätte. –
I would be richer, if I had more money. 

Wenn ich an deiner Stelle wäre, würde ich nicht mehr hier stehen. –
If I were in your position, I wouldn’t stand here any more. 

As these two silly examples show, you use the Konjunktiv 2 when expressing something that is contrary to reality. In the first example, I am not rich and I don’t have more money, so when I say “I would be richer” I am saying “I’m not richer.” Similarly in the second half of that sentence, I said “ich hätte mehr Geld”, because I don’t have more money, “I would have (had) more money.” 

When NOT to Use Konjunktiv 2

People often get it twisted that the Konjunktiv 2 is used for dreams, hopes, wishes and the like. This is more of a byproduct of what the Konjunktiv 2 does. It expresses things that are contrary to reality. Dreams are usually not reality. Neither are hopes or wishes. Therefore, you can usually express them using the Konjunktiv 2, but none of those things require the Konjunktiv 2 in order to express them. 

Ich habe gestern Nacht geträumt, dass ich in einer Schule war. –
I dreamed last night that I was in a school. 

There is no contrary to reality part here. I did really dream that and in that dream I really was in a school. Just because there is a dream involved doesn’t mean it uses the Konjunktiv 2. 

Ich träume von einer besseren Welt, in der ich nicht mehr arbeiten muss. –
I dream of a better world in which I do not have to work. 

Again, there is no Konjunktiv 2, because there is no expression of something contrary to reality. We are simply stating an illustration of the world I envision. 

So when do we use Konjunktiv 2?

Only when there is an expression of something contrary to reality.

Er wäre noch am Leben, wenn er nicht so viel geraucht hätte. –
He would still be alive, if he wouldn’t have smoked so much. 

He isn’t alive and he did smoke too much. Both of those are expressing something contrary to reality, so we use the Konjunktiv 2. 

How to Form the Konjunktiv 2

I mentioned that you form the Konjunktiv 2 by adding umlauts and E’s to the Präteritum tense, but that is a sweeping generalization and isn’t always accurate.

The three main verbs you need to know are “sein”, “haben” and “werden”. These three will allow you to talk about everything in the past and present with the Konjunktiv 2.

If you learn other verbs beyond that, start with the modal verbs and then add other ones as icing on the cake. Let’s at least see the conjugation of the top 3. 

seinto be
ich wäreI were
du wärestyou were
er, sie, es wärehe, she, it were
wir wärenwe were
ihr wäretyou were
sie, Sie wärenthey, you were
Konjunktiv 2 Forms of “sein”
habento have
ich hätteI had
du hättestyou had
er, sie, es hättehe, she, it had
wir hättenwe had
ihr hättetyou had
sie, Sie hättenthey, you had
Konjunktiv 2 Forms of “haben”
werdenwould
ich würdeI would
du würdestyou would
er, sie, es würdehe, she, it would
wir würdenwe would
ihr würdetyou would
sie, Sie würdenthey, you would
Konjunktiv 2 Forms of “haben”

As you can see, these verb forms just look like the Präteritum forms “war”, “hatte” and “wurde” with some extra umlauts and E’s. 

Konjunktiv 1 & Konjunktiv 2

For more about the Konjunktiv 1 or Konjunktiv 2, check out these articles.

Das ist alles für heute. Danke fürs Zuschauen. Bis zum nächsten Mal. Tschüss. 

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