Then, what are conditional sentences?
Technically, most grammarians think the conditional reflects the subjunctive mood, not a tense. The subjunctive mood refers to wishes or unreal situations. A sentence like Ich bin eine Frau (I am a woman), on the other hand, is in the indicative mood, which covers statements of fact.
Both English and German use the subjunctive in similar ways, as we’ll see in a second. But it can be a teeny bit confusing in that the German name for this is konjunktiv, not subjunktiv as you might expect. German, in fact, has two konjunktiv forms, creatively named Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II. We’re only going to worry about Konjunktiv II in this post.
Let’s look at some examples.
You can usually build the Konjunktiv II in two ways. The first form involves figuring out the preterit stem, adding umlauts for strong verbs and then putting the appropriate conjugation at the end, like so:
finden (to find): fand-
ich fände wir fänden
du fändest ihr fändet
er fände sie fänden
sein (to be): war-
ich wäre wir wären
du wär(e)st ihr wär(e)t
er wäre sie wären
haben (to have): hatt-
ich hätte wir hätten
du hättest ihr hättet
er hätte sie hätten
That might still seem overwhelming, but there’s good news: This form is dying out for most verbs anyway, and the second form is way easier. This involves leaving the verb completely alone, not touching a thing, and using a form of würden for support instead.
Just think of the Konjunktiv II with würden as the equivalent of using “would” in English for the same situation.
denken (to think)
ich würde denken (I would think)
du würdest denken (You would think)
er würde denken (He would think)
wir würden denken (We would think)
ihr würdet denken (You would think)
sie würden denken (They would think)
sagen (to say)
ich würde sagen (I would say)
du würdest sagen (You would say)
er würde sagen (He would say)
wir würden sagen (We would say)
ihr würdet sagen (You would say)
sie würden sagen (They would say)
So don’t panic! Yes, this form is longer, but look closely: It is just like English in its structure. No crazy new umlauts or cross-checking preterits required. If you can remember the forms of würden, then you already know a Konjunktiv II form of literally every German verb, because you just slap it on there.
1. German Conditional I: Strong Possibilities
Wenn + present tense + future or present tense
Wenn es morgen regnet, bleiben wir zuhause. (If it rains tomorrow, we will stay home.)
Okay, so after all that talk about Konjunktiv II, where is it? Well… not in Conditional I. Remember how the subjunctive applies to unreal situations and wishes? Conditional I doesn’t cover that. It covers statements of strong intention and facts. We don’t know if it will rain tomorrow, but we do know that if it does, we’ll stay home. That much is a fact.
What’s important here is that you start with wenn for “if” and that you pay attention to your verb movement. German verbs can move around in ways that English verbs don’t, and getting it right takes practice. Think of this as a comma sandwich: you’ll always have a verb, then a comma in the middle, then another verb. This is the same no matter which kind of conditional sentence you’re building.
2. German Conditional II: Weak Possibilities to Impossible Situations
Wenn + Konjunktiv II + Konjunktiv II
Wenn ich eine Million Dollar hätte, würde ich dir ein Haus kaufen.
(If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you a house.)
Wenn ich Angela Merkel wäre, würde ich das Gesetz ändern.
(If I were Angela Merkel, I’d change the law.)
Now we’re seeing the Konjunktiv! The above example assumes that you do not have a million dollars. But if you did have a million dollars, then you could buy a house! It’s not likely, but you can dream. Furthermore, I will never become Angela Merkel, but if I somehow could, I’d do things differently. This is where Conditional II is appropriate.
Again, we start with wenn for “if” before adding another comma sandwich: Konjunktiv II, then a comma, then another Konjunktiv II verb. If you do this with würden plus another verb, then würden goes in the sandwich and the main verb goes at the very end.
3. German Conditional III: The Impossible Past
Wenn + participle + Konjunktiv II + Konjunktiv II + participle
Wenn du mich eingeladen hättest, wäre ich zur Party gekommen.
(If you had invited me, I would have come to the party.)
This is as tough as it gets. We’re referring to two different impossible situations in the past, one of which would have caused the other if it had occurred. These are the time machine cases: They’re so impossible that we would literally need to change history to make them happen.
This sentence implies that you did not invite me to the party. Rude, but I can’t change the past. Just like you can’t change the fact I didn’t go to your party. (You missed out, buddy!) But now we have two past situations that we cannot change, so we’re going to have to let it go.
Hopefully the sentence structure is becoming familiar. The sentence starts with wenn again. But then we have a participle in there, which is usually the form with ge- at the beginning. Then we have the Konjunktiv-comma sandwich we’ve already seen, and then at the very end we have another participle.