When and How to Use the "Past" Subjunctive
Introduction - Konjunktiv II
Most of the time, teachers and textbooks manage to make the subjunctive mood (der Konjunktiv) more complicated than it needs to be. The subjunctive can be confusing, but it doesn't have to be.
Early on, every beginning student of German learns this common Subjunctive II verb form: möchte (would like), as in "Ich möchte einen Kaffee." ("I'd like a [cup of] coffee.") This is an illustration of a subjunctive verb form learned as vocabulary. No complicated rules to learn, just an easily memorized vocabulary phrase. Much of the subjunctive can be handled this way... without worrying about complex rules or formulas!
Konjunktiv II - Past Subjunctive
Why is it, if you ask a native-speaker of German to explain the use of the subjunctive, he or she will most likely (a) not know what the subjunctive is, and/or (b) not be able to explain it to you? This, despite the fact that this same German (or Austrian or Swiss) can and does use the subjunctive all the time! Well, if you had grown up speaking German, you could, too. (That was an English sentence in the Konjunktiv!) But for those of you who didn't, here's some help.
What is the Subjunctive II?
The past subjunctive is a verb "mood" used to express uncertainty, doubt, or a contrary-to-reality condition. It is also frequently utilized to reflect politeness and good mannersan excellent reason to know the subjunctive! The subjunctive is not a verb tense; it is a "mood" that can be used in various tenses. The "past subjunctive" (another name for the Subjunctive II) gets its name from the fact that its forms are based on the past tense. The Subjunctive I is called the "present subjunctive" because it is based on the present tense. But don't let those terms confuse you: the subjunctive is not a verb tense.
The "opposite" of the subjunctive is the indicative. Most sentences that we utterin English or German"indicate" a statement of fact, something that is real, as in: "Ich habe kein Geld." (Something that is all too real for most of us!) The subjunctive does the opposite. It tells the listener that something is contrary to reality or conditional, as in: "Hätte ich das Geld, würde ich nach Europa fahren." ("Had I the money, I would travel to Europe.") The implication is clearly, "I don't have the money and I'm not going to Europe." (indicative).
One problem for English-speakers trying to learn the Konjunktiv is that in English the subjunctive has practically died out. Only a few vestiges remain. We still say, "If I were you, I wouldn't do that." (But I'm not you.) It sounds substandard or "uneducated" to say, "If I was you..." A statement such as "if I had the money" (I don't expect to have it) is different from "when I have the money" (it's likely I will have it). Both "were" and "had" (past tense) are English subjunctive forms in the two examples above.
But in German, despite some setbacks, the subjunctive is very much alive and well. Its use is important for conveying the idea of conditional or uncertain situations. This is usually expressed in German by what is known as the Subjunctive II (Konjunktiv II), sometimes called the past or imperfect subjunctivebecause it is based on the imperfect tense forms of verbs.
OK, let's get down to business. What follows is not an attempt to cover all aspects of the Konjunktiv II but rather a review of the more important aspects.
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