Unit 14: Subjunctive I
In German, whenever someone else’s statements are reported or their feelings or opinions are expressed, the subjunctive I mood is used, and that mood is signaled by distinctive forms of the conjugated verbs. Contrast these examples:
In the English sentence, “They say that she is going to Germany,” the verbs “say” and “is going” are in the indicative mood.
In the German equivalent, Man sagt, daß sie nach Deutschland reise, the verb “sagt” is in the indicative mood, but the verb “reise” is in the subjunctive mood, because it is reported speech (indirect discourse).
The meaning of the mood change is that the author of the sentence does not necessarily vouch for the truth of the statement; the reader must understand that some other source made this claim, not this writer. Note that if the statement is given as a direct quotation, then the indicative mood of the original statement remains: Er sagte: “Sie reist nach Deutschland.”
The forms of the verb in the subjunctive are as follows (using the weak verb reisen (to travel) as our example):
Note: This only differs from the indicative mood in the second person singular and plural (-est and –et instead of –st and –t) and the third person singular (-e instead of –t). Compare the chart of indicative endings in Unit 2.
All verbs in German except for the verb sein follow this conjugation in the present tense subjunctive mood. Thus even the irregular (strong) verb wissen (to know a fact) follows the same pattern:
The only exception is, however, very important: sein (to be)
Note that sein takes no ending in the first and third person singular. These forms are important because they correspond to English “be” and “let be,” dependent on context (explained in the last section of this unit). Compare the equivalent indicative chart for sein in Unit 1.
The verb forms in the past tense subjunctive are likewise very simple. They are constructed with the present tense, subjunctive I forms of haben and sein plus the past participle of the verb in question. So recognizing the present-tense subjunctive I forms of verbs is always your key to detecting the subjunctive I mood. Then comes the verb-tense question:
Man sagt, daß sie nach Deutschland gereist sei.
They say that she went (has gone) to Germany.
Man sagt, daß er fleißig gearbeitet habe.
They say that he (has) worked diligently.
Es wurde berichtet, daß sie nach Deutschland gereist seien.
It was reported that they had travelled to Germany.
Es wurde berichtet, daß sie das Examen bestanden habe.
It was reported that she had passed the examination.
You can see that we translate the subjunctive past tense according to how the reported statement is introduced. Generally speaking, if the context is in the future tense or present tense (man sagt) then we translate the reported statement in simple past or present perfect; if the context is already in past tense (es wurde berichtet) then the reported statement is best translated in the past perfect tense.
Just as in the indicative mood, we can recognize future tense by the use of werden with an infinitive. The conjugated verb, werden, appears in its subjunctive I form:
Man sagt, daß sie nach Deutschland reisen werde.
They say that she will travel to Germany.
Es wurde berichtet, daß sie nach Deutschland reisen werde.
It was reported that she would travel to Germany.
Note: The subjunctive forms of werden can optionally be translated as “would.”