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The (past) subjunctive II is usually used to express imagined results in the past that are the opposite to the reality.

Wenn mich jemand gewarnt hätte, hätte ich den Fehler nicht gemacht.

"If someone had warned me, I would not have made the mistake." As it is, I did make the mistake. (Imagined result = Not making the mistake. Reality = Making the mistake.)

The subjunctive II can be used with a modal verb.

Ich hätte den Fehler machen können.

"I could have made the mistake." As it is, I did not make the mistake. (Imagined result = Making the mistake. Reality = Not making the mistake.)

Now, in the sentence in this thread

Ich habe den Fehler fast gemacht.

"I almost made the mistake (but did not)." That is the reality.

chirlu suggested that it should be

Ich hätte den Fehler fast gemacht.

Why would subjunctive II be needed here? There is no imagined result contrary to the reality.

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

It took me a bit to understand your problem. It seems that for you the “fast” is a negation and hence you want to treat the sentence like

Ich habe den Fehler nicht gemacht.

And you are right that for this sentence Indikativ is right, because it describes exactly what happened. However, that is not the way “fast” works, to the grammatical ear of a native speaker the sentence

Ich habe den Fehler fast gemacht.

remains affirmative even though it states that the mistake was not made, and the Konjunktiv serves to correct this mismatch.

I have looked at the entry of “fast” in Wahrig's Wörterbuch, and one example is

Fast hätte ich den Fehler übersehen.

Other examples use “fast” differently and do not need a Konjunktiv, for example

Wir hatten die Hoffnung fast aufgegeben.

This means that they indeed lost hope, but not entirely, some hope was still left. On the other one could argue (my example, not Wahrig's) that

Wir hätten die Hoffnung fast aufgegeben.

would have meant that they almost would have lost hope, but did not, so that they possibly were still full of hope. Similarly,

Ich habe den Fehler fast gemacht.

can be understood in such a way that you are making the mistake right now, but have not yet finished making it, as in

Ich bin fast fertig.

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A minor mistake: "I habe den Fehler nicht gemacht." should be "Ich habe den Fehler nicht gemacht". I couldn't edit it directly because of the 3 characters limit. – Zhenglei Jan 13 at 14:48
@Zhenglei, thanks. I had to read your comment several times to spot the difference between the two sentences:) – Carsten S Jan 14 at 0:19
Bestimmt da denn das Wort "beinahe" schon nicht, dass etwas nicht passiert ist? Uns das Wort "fast", dass das in ausgedehntem Maße schon? Ich habe fast einen Eimer Kartoffeln geschält. Ich habe den Fehler beinahe gemacht. - Ist das korrekt? – Deni Jan 18 at 13:26

The subjunctive II is used to express unreality or potentiality of actions or conditions. And in the sentence »I almost made the mistake,« it's the unreality of 'having made the mistake' that's in the focus of the statement. Using the indicative mood wouldn't be wrong grammatically, but less idiomatic in a conversational situation.

It would be different in a written narrative when simple past (indicative mood) is used to give a precise account of what's happening, e.g. 'Übermüdet fuhr ich die enge Straße entlang und machte fast den Fehler, nicht auf den Gegenverkehr zu achten.'

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Though this is often claimed, even in German schools, the subjunctive Ⅱ does not express potentiality or possibility in German. Also, your example sentence is lacking a subject. – Wrzlprmft Oct 4 '13 at 8:55
@Wrzlprmft Bold statement. Care to explain? – TehMacDawg Oct 4 '13 at 9:04
Look, e.g., at this list of applications of the subjunctive Ⅱ. Only those headlined with Vermutungen and Zweifel contain the aspect of potentiality/possibility. But in those cases the aspect is lost without können, sollen, etc. or the question mark, respectively. There are plainly no examples where the subjunctive Ⅱ expresses potentiality (except maybe for some old fixed figures of speech). – Wrzlprmft Oct 4 '13 at 9:21
The source you cite does list the above case under the section "Der Konjunktiv II wird auch verwendet:"… I also quote the Grammatik-Duden: »Der Konjunktiv II dient als Zeichen dafür, daß der Sprecher/Schreiber seine Aussage nicht als Aussage über Wirkliches, über tatsächlich Existierendes verstanden wissen will, sondern als eine gedankliche Konstruktion, als eine Aussage über etwas nur Vorgestelltes, nur möglicherweise Existierendes. In diesem Sinne ist der Konjunktiv II ein Modus der Irrealität und Potentialität; man spricht auch vom Coniunctivus irrealis bzw. Coniunctivus potentialis. (…)« – TehMacDawg Oct 4 '13 at 9:54
I see, your objection is basically about the 'common' understanding versus the exact linguistic definition and usage of the term 'Potentialität' in the German subjunctive mood, which has been put into question by the author of the Belles Lettres blog. I believe, when I change the word 'potentiality' to 'unreality' in my answer, it should avoid the issue and can still be backed up by my source. Nevertheless, I'm not buying into the assertion that the subjunctive II doesn't express something that can be called potentiality at all. – TehMacDawg Oct 4 '13 at 13:19

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