Conditional in German 2- The Real Conditional

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of our look at what we  all love on hot summer days:

Air Conditional

Badum tish.
#worstpunever
Conditional is that could, should, would-stuff that’s officially called Konjunktiv II or Subjunctive, but we’re using a different name because YOLO!
In part one, we learned that the core function of Conditional  is to shift a statement away from reality and that the different uses are a result of that. Then, we got like a little overview over Conditional in German and then we learned how to build what we called würde-conditional; one of the two versions of the non-past conditional.
If you haven’t read it you really should start with that because it’s the foundation and you’d be a little confused without it. So here’s the link

Conditional in German – 1 – The beginning

Today, we’ll take a detailed look at the other version of the non-past conditional:

The Real Conditional

So let’s jump right in.

The würde-conditional uses a helper verb (werden) to express the “conditional-ness”. The real conditional on the other hand is made by making certain modifications to the verb itself modifications.
Let me walk you through it:

We start with the written past form, and sometimes we don’t have to do anything because the two forms are identical.
But a fair number of times we have to add like and umlaut or something. It depends. Oh and then, the conjugation is a little bit different. Kinda like a mix of present and past endings or something.

And that’s it. Let’s look at a few examples. I’ll give you the written past so you can compare:

  • kochen:
    Du kochtest. (You cooked)  – Du kochtest. (you’d cook)
  • schlafen: 
    Ich schlief.     (I slept)            – Ich schliefe.  (I’d sleep)
  • lesen:
    Sie las.    (She read.)                 – Sie läse.  (she would read.)

Now you’re probably screaming “Emanuel, this is super complicated and your explanation is AWFUL.”
And you’re right. It is awful.
But the thing… we don’t really need to deal with a complicated general “How to build it”-guide for the real conditional because we won’t be building the form for many verbs.
Take a look at the first example again –  kochen. The real conditional is EXACTLY the same as the written past. The difference between I cooked and I would cook is pretty big, though.  And we all know that the German likes precision, so it’s kind of natural that for all the verbs where the forms are identical, we use the würde-conditional.
But even if the real conditional is unique – either because of conjugation (see schlafen) or umlaut (see lesen) – even then that STILL doesn’t mean that they’re actually idiomatic in every day spoken German. On the contrary. Using the real conditional for schlafen and lesen sounds like a theater play.

There’s  only a really small group of verbs that use the real conditional in daily talk. Little more than a dozen.
And the best thing is… we already know them.
Because it’s the same group tends to use the written past in spoken German – helper verbs, modal verbs and the most basic, common every day verbs. I’ll give you a little overview with the full conjugation at the end, but let’s go over them together now.
because there are lots of little bits to say and they’re not all 100% real conditional. For some, both versions sound okay and for some, the choice actually depends on the context. Or the phrasing. Or the weather. Or what you’re having for lunch.
I think I’ll have pasta with Anchovies and fresh onions and olive oil. Yummy.
Anyway… uh… let’s start with the two classics haben and sein.

haben and sein

The written past stem for those is war and hatte and the real conditional just gets an umlaut – wäre and hätte.
Just to make sure though… technically, they do have a würde-conditional  and at least for haben, you might hear it.
It’s not the most elegant thing under the sun but hey, neither are sandals with socks and still people rock it from time to time.

These examples are also a great reminder that we shouldn’t compare. You see, English has two versions of the “conditional” as well (would be vs were and would have vs had). But the usage is different.
Cool.
Next up, we have the modal verbs and we’ll start with können and müssen.

können and müssen

Just like haben and sein, the two form their real conditional by adding a nice, sexy umlaut to their past form – so konnte becomes könnte and musste becomes müsste.
And especially for those two, you really really need to make extra effort with the pronunciation. To your ear, konnte and könnte probably don’t sound all that different. And objectively, they’re not. Like… if you were to look at a sound spectra of them, they’d look similar.
But the meanings are SUPER different, and so to the brain of a native speaker there is no “in between”. The brain will always make a decision and commit. And if the brain came to the conclusion it heard konnte, the notion that it could have been könnte is quite far away and that might lead to misunderstandings. So yeah…  if you find that people look at you with a blank face after you tried using könnte, you probably have to tweak your ö.
Anyway… examples. Again, I’ll keep giving you the würde-versions as well, so you can nerd out over the structure and compare but you won’t need it.

Apparently, the würde-conditional is especially unidiomatic for können, but there’s one exception. Of course :).
When you talk about that you’d like to be able to do something and you do that by using gern, then it’s the real-conditional that actually sounds wrong.

Cool. Next up, we ha… oh, hold on there’s a call…. erm… James from New Zealand, welcome to the show.
“Hey mate, may I ask a question real quick?”
Sure, go ahead.
“So this structure in the last sentence…. a modal verb, with a normal verb and würde… those confuse the hell out of me. Could you tell us how to build those?”
Oh, sure. Let me just put in a little headline real quick…

Structure interlude

So, I know that these structures are giving lots of people a hard time but they’re actually really simple. The basic system is you take the “old” verb and replace it with the “new” one and move the old one to the end – either in ge-form for spoken past and passive or in dictionary form for modals and conditional. Watch…

  • Ich spiele sehr gut Klavier.
  • Ich kann sehr gut Klavier spielen.
  • Ich würde sehr gut Klavier spielen können.

“Oh wow, that’s… quite clear actually.”
Yeah, the reason many learners are struggling with this is that they kind of panic. Like… they don’t use a system but instead just move verbs all over the place.
“Haha… yeah, that sounds like me. Hey, but how is it for these verb-at-the-end-sentences?”
Well, it’s the same idea… you just take whatever verb there is in position number two and move it to the end. Come on, give it a try…
“Nah man, you do it. I can’t do it with the colors.”
Okay…

  • Ich habe gesagt, dass ich [ —-  ] sehr gut Klavier spielen können würde.

“Well wow… that is so logical now that I see it. Is it always like  that?”
Well, no… it’s a bit different for the past conditional but we’ll talk about that in detail next time.
“Cool, cheers mate. Bye.”
Cool. So now let’s get back to the verbs and the next pair is wollen and sollen.

sollen and wollen

And these two actually do NOT use an umlaut, so their written past and real conditional forms are actually identical – wollte is wanted and would want and sollte is was supposed to and should.  Now you might think like “Oh, okay so I guess we’re using würde-conditional here because German likes precision.”
But German also likes being a dick to learners and so sollen pretty much only uses the real conditional while the würde-version sounds so incredibly weird and alien, most people would call it wrong.

So for sollen it’s actually all up to Captain Context.
For wollen on the other hand, the question which version is idiomatic actually depends on the phrasing.
Haha… yeah, I felt like I said “the phrasing” just now. That would be absolutely ridiculous tho… oh… oh no… it really does depend on the phrasing.

I know, this must be a bit frustrating to read, but that’s the thing with choices that are based on “idiomatic-ness”.
Things aren’t always coherent.
The reason I am even mentioning all this is not so you get it right for each verb and every context. The goal is to make you aware that you can’t capture all this by a few rules and you just need to build some sprachgefühl over time. So please… don’t stress out about it.
Cool.
Moving on to the last couple of modals. And those are a bit particular, as well.

dürfen and mögen

The forms are the classic – past stem with  umlaut. So durfte becomes dürfte and mochte becomes möchte.
What makes them special is that they modify their meaning a bit in the Conditional.
Dürfen itself means to have permission and every now and then you might find that sense used in conditional… the real conditional usually.


Anyway, what’s noteworthy about dürfen is that you’ll see its 
real conditionaldürfte, in contexts of making assumptions about reality…. where English would use should.

But we’ve actually talked about dürfen in detail in a separate article, so I’ll add the link below.
Now, dürfen apparently takes a bit of liberty with its meaning in conditional, but it doesn’t go as far as möchten.
Because that one has kind of become a verb of its own.
Technically, yes… möchten means would like. But it’s only used to express actual wanting, only in a more polite way and in fact, it doesn’t really feel like a conditional to a native speaker anymore.

And it does NOT have the same meaning as the würde-version, which is about would like in a more literal sense…. you don’t like it now, but you would if it were different.

And here, möchten would sound absolutely weird.
Cool.
Now I’d really like to have a good transition to the next part… but I don’t.
So… moving on.

All the rest

Besides the modal verbs and the helper verbs, there’s a bunch of basic everyday verbs that also tend to use their real conditional form in spoken German. It’s the same ones that tend to use their written past form in spoken German… wissen, gehen, sehen, geben, nehmen, kommen, liegen and finden and a few others… it depends a bit on  the speaker. 
Actually,  most of them use both versions in daily and there is a general trend:

For  literal sense of the verb, the würde-conditional is probably the more idiomatic choice.
The real conditional is usually used with figurative, metaphorical meanings of the verb.
(And that actually also hold for the prefix versions of the verbs, to an extend. )

Let’s take finden as an example…

The first one uses finden in an abstract sense of opinion and here, the real conditional sounds better, in the second one it’s the literal finden and the würde-version is the better choice. But it’s not super strict, so the other versions sounds okay, as well. In fact, in a question both sound equally fine.

And for the verb wissen it really doesn’t matter… both versions sound okay and people use either one.

It really depends on the verb. So now we could go over them one by one and see for each one when and how idiomatic which version is.
Or we could just look at a few examples and then chill.
And we’ll do the latter :). Because let’s be honest… no one is going to remember that anyway. Yes, you might take notes, yes, you might even try to study it, but it won’t work. These idiomatic things will come over time. Just know about the general trend I told you, be aware that it’s really just that – a TREND – not a rule. And then lean back and let it learn you, instead of learning it.
Wow, that made no sense :).
But yeah… here are some examples for the verbs in action. I’ll put the more idiomatic version first.

And this is where we’ll stop. Yes, right now.
I know this is anti climactic, I know you might feel a bit dissatisfied, a bit left hanging but trust me… that’s on purpose ;).
Seriously. It’s gonna make you wonder, ask questions, pay attention. And next time, when we’ll do a HUUUUUGE exercise about what we’ve learned so far, you’ll be surprised how well you do and how “at home” you feel in the Conditional.
As promised, here’s a little overview over all the verbs …

Real Conditional Verbs – Overview (pdf)

And as always, if you have any questions about any of this so far, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

Further reading: