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As far as I know the word could is the subjunctive of "can/to be able to" which translates to "können". However I'm not sure about the subjunctive of "können", and how it affects German sentence structure. Could someone help me out with an explanation and show me how the sentences below translate?

We could have fun.
That could work out.
It was a shame no one could do it.

against

I would if I could.

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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Hmm let's see:

  • We could have fun: Das könnte uns Spaß machen (some action was proposed and you comment on it) / Wir könnten Spaß haben (no particular action was proposed, you are just looking forward to possibly having a good time together)
  • That could work out: Das könnte funktionieren. or: das wird eventuell/möglicherweise funktionieren. You don't need "können" to express a possibility.
  • It was a shame no one could do it: Schade (or: Es war eine Schande), dass das niemand tun konnte (e.g. somebody needed help, but no one was there or willing (!) to help out). Also depending on context I'd prefer (e.g. when refering to breaking a record in a competetion): Schade, dass keiner es geschafft hat/schaffen konnte.
  • I would if I could: ich würde (es tun), wenn ich könnte.

As you can see it's quite a difference whether you are talking about things which potentially may happen (first two examples and fourth one) or about things for which it is known they not have happened. The last example, for this reason, is more like the first two examples.

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So would I be right in assuming that könnten just conjugated as a weak verb will translate for could. and then use it like a normal Modal verb? –  mikeyP Dec 17 '11 at 16:24
    
It's "können", not "könnten". It can be translated both as 'can' and 'could', but in the latter case it is conjugated differently, and yes, it's a modal verb in that case, as you can see by looking up 'können' at www.leo.org. I'd prefer to leave a more detailed answer to this to the German grammar experts though, I'm nothing but a native speaker. This makes me rather confident as far as the translations of your examples are concerned. Native speakers often have no sound knowledge of their own grammar though, which, I have to sadly admit, is true for me, too :-) –  Thomas Dec 17 '11 at 16:59
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