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Mastering Conditional Sentences in German: Real and Unreal Scenarios

Updated: Apr 29

Conditional sentences in German play a crucial role in expressing hypothetical situations and their potential outcomes. Whether it's discussing real-life possibilities or imagining unreal scenarios, understanding the grammar behind these constructions is essential for effective communication. In this blog post, I‘ll delve into the intricacies of conditional sentences in German, exploring both real and unreal situations with examples and their English translations.


Conditional clauses in German explained
Conditional clauses in German explained

Conditional clauses in German explained


Conditional sentences in German typically consist of two clauses: the conditional clause (the "if" clause) and the main clause (the result clause). The conditional clause sets the condition or circumstance under which the action in the main clause would occur.


Real Conditional Sentences (Present/Future):

In real conditional sentences, the condition described in the conditional clause is feasible and likely to happen. These sentences use the present tense in both clauses when referring to present or future situations. The word "wenn" (if) often introduces the conditional clause and is a typical subordinate clause conjunction in German word order that sends the conjugated verb to the end of the clause.


Example: Wenn es regnet, nehme ich meinen Regenschirm mit. (If it rains, I'll take my umbrella.)


Unreal Conditional Sentences (Present):

Unreal conditional sentences, also known as subjunctive or hypothetical sentences, describe situations that are contrary to reality or unlikely to occur. These sentences use the subjunctive mood (Konjunktiv II in German) in both the conditional and the main clause.


Examples:

  • Wenn ich mehr Zeit hätte, würde ich ein Buch lesen. (If I had more time, I would read a book.)

  • Wenn ich reich wäre, würde ich um die Welt reisen. (If I were rich, I would travel around the world.)

  • Wenn ich Flügel hätte, könnte ich fliegen. (If I had wings, I could fly.)

  • Wenn sie mehr Zeit hätte, würde sie ein Buch schreiben. (If she had more time, she would write a book.

  • Wenn er nicht so schüchtern wäre, könnte er neue Freunde finden. (If he weren't so shy, he could make new friends.)

  • Wenn es nicht regnen würde, könnten wir picknicken gehen. (If it weren't raining, we could go for a picnic.)


Instead of using “wenn”, one can also start with the conditional form of the verb. The meaning of the sentence is not affected.


Hätte ich mehr Zeit, würde ich ein Buch lesen.


Unreal Conditional Sentences (Past):

Like the present and the past perfect tense, unreal conditional sentences in the past. use a form of sein (i.e. wären) and haben (hätten) to form the past tense. The rule is the same, that is, wären is used for change of state or location verbs, hätten for the rest.


Examples:

  • Wenn ich genug Geld gehabt hätte, hätte ich eine Weltreise gemacht (If I had had enough money, I would have taken a trip around the world.)

  • Wenn er früher aufgestanden wäre, hätte er den Zug nicht verpasst. (If he had gotten up earlier, he wouldn't have missed the train.)

  • Wenn wir die Prüfung bestanden hätten, wären wir heute nicht hier. (If we had passed the exam, we wouldn't be here today.)

  • Wenn sie ihn gefragt hätte, hätte er ihr geholfen. (If she had asked him, he would have helped her.)

  • Wenn ich sie rechtzeitig angerufen hätte, hätte sie mir geholfen. (If I had called her in time, she would have helped me.)


Unreal Wishes (Present and Past):

Unreal wishes in German express desires or wishes that are contrary to reality, either in the present or the past. These wishes are typically introduced by "wenn" (if) and use the subjunctive mood. In the present tense, unreal wishes are formed using the Konjunktiv II (subjunctive II) of the verb, often accompanied by modal particles such as "bloß," "doch," "nur," or "doch nur" to add emphasis or emotional nuance to the wish.


Here are five examples of unreal wishes in the present tense with explanations of the modal particles:


  • Wenn ich doch nur reich wäre! (If only I were rich!)

Explanation: "Doch nur" intensifies the wish, emphasising the desire for wealth.

  • Wenn er bloß nicht so laut wäre! (If only he weren't so loud!)

"Bloß" expresses a sense of urgency or desperation in the wish.

  • Wenn sie nur nicht immer so viel arbeiten müsste! (If only she didn't have to work so much)

"Nur" adds emphasis to the wish, highlighting the desire for less work.

  • Wenn wir doch nur mehr Zeit hätten! (If only we had more time!)

"Doch nur" emphasises the longing for additional time.

  • Wenn ich doch nur besser Deutsch sprechen könnte! (If only I could speak German better)

"Doch nur" intensifies the wish, expressing a strong desire for improvement.


In the past tense, unreal wishes are formed using the Konjunktiv II of the auxiliary verb "haben" or "sein" combined with the past participle of the main verb. Modal particles can also be used to add emphasis or emotional nuance to the wish. Examples of unreal wishes in the past tense with modal particles:


  • Wenn ich doch nur früher aufgestanden wäre! (If only I had gotten up earlier!) "Doch nur" emphasises the regret for not waking up earlier.

  • Wenn sie bloß nicht das Flugzeug verpasst hätten! (If only they hadn't missed the plane!)

"Bloß" conveys a sense of urgency or frustration about missing the plane.

  • Wenn er nur nicht so viel gegessen hätte! (If only he hadn't eaten so much!) "Nur" emphasises the wish for less consumption.

  • Wenn sie doch nur nicht zu spät gekommen wären! (If only they hadn't arrived late!)

"Doch nur" intensifies the regret for their tardiness.

  • Wenn ich doch nur die Prüfung bestanden hätte! (If only I had passed the exam!) "Doch nur" emphasises the longing for success in the exam.


Mixed Conditional Sentences:

Mixed conditional sentences combine elements of both real and unreal conditions, often used to express hypothetical past situations with present or future consequences.


Example: Wenn ich im Lotto gewonnen hätte, würde ich jetzt in den Urlaub fahren. (If I had won the lottery, I would be going on vacation now.)


Mastering conditional sentences in German opens up a world of possibilities for expressing hypothetical situations and their outcomes. Whether discussing real-life scenarios or imagining unreal possibilities, understanding the grammar and nuances of these constructions is essential. Practice using different types of conditional sentences to enhance your German language skills and communicate effectively in various contexts.


On my German language blog, you’ll find over 300 posts on all aspects of the language, such as an explanation of the passive voice in German and the difference between Partizip I and II in German, how to express fear in German, the 30 most common attributes to characterise people in German, and the answer to the question how many words does the German language have. So check out our blog. And if you found this post helpful, please me a like or a comment so that other German learners may find it. Thank you!

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