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How can you tell when you are using the indicative form of 'wenn' and when you are using the subjunctive form?

For example:

Wenn du das nicht verstehst, nur frag!

Is this counterfactual/subjunctive or indicative?

Similarly, what is the difference between:

Wenn ich müde bin, geh ohne mich!

and

Wenn ich müde wäre, geh ohne mich!

I want to say:'If I'm tired, go without me' - but I can't work out whether 'If I'm tired' requires the subjunctive?

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    In the first example, it should be frag' nur , i e reverse order of the two words. Sep 10 '15 at 11:11
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In daily speech, you almost always use the indicative form of the verb. You can only derive from context whether the temporal or conditional meaning of "wenn" is used.

Wenn du das nicht verstehst, (dann) frag(e) einfach!

Wenn ich müde bin, (dann) geh(e) ohne mich!

Both examples can be either temporal or conditional. You refer to an event that is supposed to trigger another event, whether you are sure about it or not. In order to point the conditional meaning, you can use "sollen" in subjunctive mode:

Wenn du das nicht verstehen solltest, (dann) frag(e) einfach!

Wenn ich müde sein sollte, (dann) geh(e) ohne mich!

You can also point out the conditional meaning unambigiously by disposing "wenn" altogether and using "falls" instead:

Falls du das nicht verstehst, (dann) frag(e) einfach!

Falls ich müde bin, (dann) geh(e) ohne mich!

Falls du das nicht verstehen solltest, (dann) frag(e) einfach!

Falls ich müde sein sollte, (dann) geh(e) ohne mich!

Last but not least, you can use wenn to describe unreal hypothetical ongoings:

Wenn du das nicht verstehen würdest, dann könntest du fragen.

Wenn ich müde wäre/sein würde, dann würdet ihr besser ohne mich gehen.

In that case, both clauses are in conditional mood. No imperative possible!

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  • Thanks! That helped a lot. However, would the rule about using the indicative normally also apply to strong verbs like habe/hätte? For example, if I wanted to say in speech: "If I had a desire to...etc." would I say: "Wenn ich die Lust habe..." or "Wenn ich die Lust hätte..."?
    – Matthew
    Sep 9 '15 at 21:45
  • I do not see how daily speech is substantially different from the written language here. The first three boxes never use Konjunktiv, the last one always uses Konjunktiv II. The only difference that I see is that the Konjunktiv II is more often replaced by würde in daily speech.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 10 '15 at 5:01

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