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I've seen "sei" a fair bit lately and it seems to indicate something that has happened in the past. Example:

Die Ärztin hatte meiner Mutter gesagt, dass meine Leber kurz vor der Zirrhose sei.

I've seen "war" a lot more. What is the difference between the two?

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2  
Did you mean "war" or was it "wäre"? –  Takkat May 22 '13 at 11:21
    
I meant "war". Is "wäre" closer in similarity to "sei"? –  oadams May 22 '13 at 11:47
    
It is, both are subjunctive - that's why I was asking ;) –  Takkat May 22 '13 at 12:07
    
war would mean has been, is not furthermore`. sei und wäre would state that it probably will come to a cirrhosis. –  bummi May 22 '13 at 16:36

2 Answers 2

"sei" is a subjunctive mood, specifically the Konjunktiv I of "sein".

So if you use it in indirect speech, you express that you neither confirm nor refute what was being said.

If your example used the indicative form instead and said "Die Ärztin hatte meiner Mutter gesagt, dass meine Leber kurz vor der Zirrhose ist." the sentence would mean that the writer is sure that his liver is close to a cirrhosis. (If you used war, this would be the same indicative form, but in past tense.)

If the writer of the sentence used Konjunktiv II and said "Die Ärztin hatte meiner Mutter gesagt, dass meine Leber kurz vor der Zirrhose wäre." he would express that he does not believe that the doctor said the truth. (That is why Takkat asked whether you meant wäre instead of war.)

In other words, by using indicative form or Konjunktiv I or II you implicitly also express whether you believe what was being said or not (or that you take a neutral position on the subject). This can be tricky and one must be careful not to communicate an unintended position - particularly when talking about sensitive topics.

Also note that in some cases the Konjunktiv I looks identical to the indicative - in that case the Konjunktiv II is used in place of the Konjunktiv I.

See the wikipedia for some more information on the German subjunctive mood. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive#German

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A good Answer but I am a bit uncomfortable with wäre to "... express that he does not believe that the doctor said the truth". It is true that many if not most speakers do use Konjunktiv II that way but -- putting on my prescriptivist hat -- I consider it poor style, preferring to use the irrealis only to describe something that could or would happen if a condition is met, not to cast doubt on an utterance I am relating. Thus I would prefer to say something like "... dass meine Leber kurz vor der Zirrhose sei, was ich aber nicht glaube" to express doubt, –  Eugene Seidel May 22 '13 at 12:46
    
@EugeneSeidel Funktioniert auch nicht immer: "A: Es ist so. Mich hat gestern ein Igel angegriffen, auch wenn du es mir nicht glaubst. - B: A sagte, ein Igel hätte sie angegriffen, auch wenn ich es ihr nicht glaube." (Mixtur beabsichtigt) –  Em1 May 22 '13 at 14:33
    
@Em1 Was funktioniert nicht immer? "A sagte, ein Igel habe sie angegriffen, ob ich es ihr nun glaubte oder nicht." Funktioniert :) –  Eugene Seidel May 22 '13 at 15:07

"er war" is the past form (Präteritum) of the verb "sein" ("er ist") whereas "er sei" is Konjunktiv 1 of "sein".

Konjunktiv is used in the indirect speech and in conditionals.

In the example you give, you have to use Konjunktiv 1.

Konjunktiv 1:
ich sei, du seist, er sei, wir seien, ihr seit, sie seien

Konjunktiv 2 :
ich wäre, du wärst, er wäre, wir wären, ihr wärt, sie wären

Konjunktiv 1 is used in indirect speech but if it's form is equal to an other form of the verb use Konjunktiv 2 instead (so don't use "ihr seit" as konjunktiv form but "ihr wärt"). This Konjunktiv 2 has then exactly the same meaning as Konjunktiv 1. In other context it can bring some unreality or doubt into the sentence.

In spoken language Konjunktiv 1 is often totally replaced by Konjunktiv 2 or even Indikativ. But the the sentence could then mean something different.

if you use "war" in your example and continue maybe with "aber":

Die Ärztin hatte meiner Mutter gesagt, dass meine Leber kurz vor der Zirrhose war aber jetzt wieder gut sei.

you totally changes the meaning of the sentence. With "sei" it said that at the time the Doctor said it, he mend it. With "war ..." it says the the doctor said that it had been like this but is now, at the time he says it, different. (Not that it would be better to use "gewesen sei" to achieve this meaning. Since ending the sentence directly after "war" could be interpreted as if you used "sei").

Compare:

Ich sage, dass ich hier bin.

I say that I'm here.

Ich sage, dass ich hier war.

I said that I was here.

Ich sagte, dass ich hier sei.

I said that I was here

Ich sagte, dass ich hier wäre.

I said that I was here. This sentence could be interpreted as if you continued with "but I wasn't", but is often (in spoken language) used instead of the sentence with "sei".

Ich sagte, dass ich hier war.

I said that I was here or I said that I had been here, depending on the context.

Ich sagte, dass ich hier gewesen sei/wäre.

I said that I had been here (before). with "wäre", it by be interpreted like the sentence with "wäre" above (but in past perfect of course).

(Note that there are more possibilities to say these things. For simplicity I always used "dass", which is bad style if you only use it.)

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I don’t agree that Konjunktiv II and Konjunktiv I have “exactly the same meaning”, nor with your interpretation of the sentence with “war” … –  chirlu May 22 '13 at 13:16
    
Edited to clarify the scope of the interpertation –  gamag May 22 '13 at 18:04

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