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In another question recently asked here, there was an als sentence as a subclause of indirect speech. The question was whether to use subjunctive or preterite and the only answer there stated that the subjunctive is fine. Here are two simplified examples, one with haben and one with sein:

Thomas sagt, dass er, als Maria nach Hause gekommen sei, geschlafen habe.

Maria sagt, dass sie, als Thomas geschlafen habe, den Kühlschrank sauber gemacht habe.

Both these sentences sound rather wrong to me and the subjunctive feels out of place.

I actually think it’s not possible to question a statement while at the same time questioning the timestamp it has. Let me explain. In the first example we have two claims: she came home is A, he slept is B. If we mark both with the subjunctive we’re implying that either one is not verified. So maybe he didn’t sleep and maybe she didn’t come home.

However, both statements are not on the same level. Statement A is a mere timestamp for statement B. So if statement A is wrong, statement B basically doesn’t exist.
And that makes no sense.

My questions are

  • Is a structure like this proper German? Can we really use subjunctive in the als part?
  • Does anyone have real-life printed examples for something like this?
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    I second your impression: it makes no sense to have a conjunctive for both parts. – Burki Jul 1 '15 at 10:23
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    I find the conjunctive the only appropriate solution, if this timestamp subclause is also reported by the narrator (here: Thomas) and is therefore hearsay in repect to the writer of this sentence. The example is somewhat artificial, since typically a question precedes like: "Did you notice/What did you do, when Maria arrived?" and the point of time asked for is clear from the context. I'll try to find some more examples... – guidot Jul 1 '15 at 11:38
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    I might find als die Sonne aufgegangen sei strange, because that the sun rises in the morning is an indisputable fact (except possibly in fantastic stories etc.). But who knows whether Maria really came home or if Thomas actually was sleeping ... – chirlu Jul 1 '15 at 12:55
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    Beide Beispiele klingen ok, wenn auch ein wenig künstlich. Ich würde sie eher in wissenschaftlichen Arbeiten, Verträgen oder Gesetzen als in der Umgangssprache vermuten. – Robert Jul 1 '15 at 16:57
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    "Er sagte , dass er geschlafen habe" ist indirekte Rede im Konjunktiv. Nach dass kann man noch ein Adverb (mittags), ein Adverbiale ( heute mittags) oder einen adverbialen Nebensatz (als Maria heimkam) einschieben. Man kann sogar den Konjunktiv auch im Nebensatz mit als weiterführen. Ich glaube nicht, dass es dafür strenge Regeln gibt. – rogermue Jul 7 '15 at 11:47
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I followed TehMacDawg's suggestion and did some Web search and found these.

Justiz als Schicksal von Karl Peters

Kürzlich wurde an mich ein Fall herangetragen, in dem es um die Frage ging, wer von zwei Männern der Mörder ist. Die Ehefrau des einen wurde tot in ihrem Bett aufgefunden. Der Ehemann behauptete, der andere, ein Freund von ihm habe, als er gekommen sei, schnell seine Wohung verlassen. Es habe dann seine tote Frau im Schlafzimmer im Bett vorgefunden.

Indianermärchen aus Südamerika von Theodor Koch-Grünberg

Am nächsten Morgan war er früh auf und ging wieder in den Wald. Er war sehr erfolgreich und kehrte am Abend, mit Wildbret beladen, zurück. Als er sich der Schutzhütte näherte, sar er zu seiner Überraschung eine Frau in seiner Hängematte liegen and keine Äffin auf dem Bratrost. Er begriff nicht, woher sie gekommen sein konnte, und fragte sie, was sie dort täte. Da sagte sie, weil er so einsam wäre, sei sie gekommen, um ihm Gesellschaft zu leisten und nach dem Fleisch zu sehen. Auf seine Frage versicherte sie ihm, daß kein Affe auf dem Bratrost gelegen hätte, als sie gekommen sei.

So apparently it is done, and yet some German speakers find it "artificial" or even "wrong" while others have no problem with it. Very interesting.

The als sie gekommen sei in the second example follows and echoes a previous sei sie gekommen and fits the case that Emanuel called less "alienating" (in comments).

Another thing I note is that als. . . gekommen sei in each of these examples refers to a completed action while in the original example (in the earlier question) "bringing" was in progress. I wonder if this difference makes gebracht habe there more "artificial" (if ever so slightly) than gekommen sei is in these.

  • Nice findings. They have one thing in common though... the speaker and the subject in the "als"-sentence are the same. That is not the case in my examples and I feel like this makes a difference. I don't have time now but maybe I'lll look for some examples where the "als" subject is another agent on Monday. Curious to see if I find any. – Emanuel Jul 4 '15 at 21:11
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The English term for Konjunktiv is subjunctive mood, not 'conjunctive' which relates to 'conjunctions' (Konjunktionen). Since German has two grammatically different subjunctives, I'll stick to the German terms Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II.

In both sentences Konjunktiv I has been used for all parts of quoted speech, which is grammatically and logically sound.

The question appears to be based on a misconception about the use of Konjunktiv I in reported/indirect speech, that is, the idea that it may indicate unverified or even doubtful information. This is false. Konjunktiv I is used simply to quote someone without using direct speech while signalling (or claiming) an impartial, non-judgemental position of the author.

It is the use of Konjunktiv II that may be the author's way to signal his/her distancing from a statement, or that there is doubt on the validity of the quoted statement, e.g.:

Thomas sagt, dass er, als Maria nach Hause gekommen sei (K. I), geschlafen hätte. (K. II)

(here: possible doubt on Thomas' claim that he was asleep when Maria came home)

What may be debatable is whether the Konjunktiv-I form has to be used strictly for all parts of the quoted statement. It is not necessarily so when the sentence explicitly states the quoted person, e.g. Thomas sagt, … It is largely at the discretion of the author whether to use Konjunktiv I strictly, partly, or not at all. The choice usually depends on the type of text (e.g. academic/scientific, journalistic, fictional) and expected standards, a specific context, or stylistic considerations (e.g. formal versus informal, 'dry' versus engaging).

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    The first pragraph should be an edit to the question and a comment. – Wrzlprmft Jul 4 '15 at 5:47
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    How about the second question (real-life printed example)? It will seem odd to me (just beginning to learn German) if so many people think K.I in this context is fine but cannot produce a single example from all of German literature. – Catomic Jul 4 '15 at 6:49
  • @Catomic I suggest you use phrase search in Google (put the phrase in quotation marks), e.g.: "als sie gekommen sei" – TehMacDawg Jul 4 '15 at 7:18
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Your examples do sound a bit artificial, but more on a level that I wouldn’t use them in colloquial speech. I think they would fit in a court, although the als clause might be moved to the end of the sentence.

In the following im using your first example, but the reasoning is also applicable to the second one.


  1. Yes, you can use subjunctive in the als clause. But you have to be aware of the implications.

The subjunctive in the als clause can mean that either Thomas doesn’t confirm that Maria has been at home in his speech (e.g. they are living together, but she left before he woke up) or that the author just clarifies that Thomas’ statement is referring to Marias proclaimed time of coming home. (The als clause doesn’t have to be a part of Thomas’ speech!)

(The subjunctive in the main sentence of the indirect speech is used to either objectively convey Thomas’ statement or to question it)

  1. I don't have any examples at hand right now, might add some later.
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I do not (unfortunately) have real-life printed examples at hand now. And neither did I look for them nor would I recall seeing one now — it’s just something that usually would go unnoticed.

Both examples do sound artificial, I will agree with that. But both examples are also correct. If I had to place them, I would put them in court where either lawyer questions his opponent’s statement.

Sie behaupten also, dass Sie geschlafen haben, während (als) Maria nach Hause gekommen sei – wir wissen aber immer noch nicht, ob Maria in dieser Nacht überhaupt nach Hause gekommen ist, und Sie wurden am Tatort gesehen!

In the Rotkäppchen case, preterite is the better choice, because Rotkäppchen was seen bringing her grandmother cookies before. But if we didn’t know that, it would be reasonable to use subjunctive, too.

  • Do you have anything to back up your claim that the examples are correct? And where's the example taken from. To me, this sentence is wrong and sounds like someone is trying really hard to speak correctly but misuses conjunctive. In fact, in your example it makes even less sense because the sleeping is not marked even though it is part of the same claim. Why is that? Conjunctive is NOT a means to arbitrarily mark stuff as doubt worthy. – Emanuel Jul 2 '15 at 17:23
  • Turn it around and it work "Sie behaupten, Maria sei nach Hause gekommen, als... " The thing is that the "als"-sentence is IMO not affected by the speech/claim tag since it is just supplementary info. – Emanuel Jul 2 '15 at 17:24
  • @Emanuel A question for both of you. How would you say this: "Es wird auch erzählt, dass Rotkäppchen der alten Großmutter einmal wieder Gebackenes gebracht habe und dass, als es sie wieder Gebackenes brachte / gebracht habe, ein anderer Wolf es angesprochen habe." (It's a speaker who wishes to distance himself from the whole narrative.) I presume Emanuel would have no problem saying "brachte" in the second "dass" clause because it is a mere time stamp (neither asserting nor distancing, as it were). – Catomic Jul 3 '15 at 3:30
  • @Emanuel But I can imaging Jan saying one of two things. 1. We should say "gebracht habe" throughout, because otherwise we'd end up first distancing (first "dass" clause) and then asserting ("als...brachte") the same thing within a single sentence. 2. Once we flag the distancing attitude by means of "gebrachte habe" in the first "dass" clause, then we may safely use "brachte" in the "als" clause. In this case, everyone would understand "brachte" there as a time stamp. – Catomic Jul 3 '15 at 3:31
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    @Catomic...very nice example!!! I would still lean toward a simple "brachte" in the als-part but the conjunctive doesn't alienate me as much. I would credit this to it just being a repetition of a verbal phrase which when first introduced was completely fine. As for the other sentence... also a great one! (though the verb should be at the end in the wenn-part). Here I would NEVER use "sei" and it really makes no sense to me. It's a condition to begin with, so we're not talking about reality at all. – Emanuel Jul 3 '15 at 19:24

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