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What is the difference between würden + infinitive and a verb in subjunctive II?

For example, are the following sentences identical, or do they have different meanings?

Wir würden lieber zu Hause bleiben.

Wir blieben lieber zu Hause.

Another example:

Er käme mit, aber er muss das Haus aufräumen.

Er würde mitkommen, aber er muss das Haus aufräumen.

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If used to express the irrealis of the present tense (such as in your examples), the subjunctive II and the respective würde construct can be used instead of each other without a change of meaning. Note however that würde constructs are unusual with the most common verbs (sein, haben, …) and not considered correct in highest-level language unless the subjunctive-II form is identical to a past form. On the other hand, for all but the most common verbs, the subjunctive–II forms are very rarely used in spoken language.

The same applies in indirect speech, if the subjunctive I is identical to the present and replaced with the subjunctive II for that reason.

However, a würde construct also is the irrealis of the future and in this function it cannot be replaced by the subjunctive II. However, since we mostly use the present to talk about the future, this hardly ever actually matters. In fact, I cannot even come up with an example right now (though I remember having seen some once).

If used in some phrases of politeness, the subjunctive II cannot be substituted with a würde construct. For example, to order ten kilos of butter, you can say:

Ich hätte gerne zehn Kilo Butter.

while using the würde form does not work in this case:

*Ich würde gerne zehn Kilo Butter haben.

(For native speakers, this is a good test to find out whether a subjunctive II is an irrealis or due to politeness. If it can be replaced by a würde construct, it must be the latter. However, the reverse does not hold: For some subjunctives of politeness, you can use a würde construct.)

  • That is a very thorough answer for my question, thank you! – Magicbeanbuyer Jul 27 '16 at 15:57
  • Isn't there a subtle difference in these two sentences: "Was würdest du tun wenn du eine Millon hättest" and "Was tätest du wenn du eine Millon hättest?" In the first sentence there seems to be a small but real possibility to get the million, but not really in the second sentence. – Beta Jul 29 '16 at 9:15
  • @Beta: Isn't there a subtle difference – Neither in my book nor my grammar book. First of all, the event in question is (eine Million haben) is described identically in both cases. One could argue that “Was würdest du tun, wenn du eine Million haben würdest.” is more likely to be interpreted as future than “Was tätest du, wenn du eine Million hättest.” (in particular since haben is one of those verbs that is common in subjunctive II even in spoken language), and that it’s the nature of the future to be more uncertain than the present. – Wrzlprmft Jul 29 '16 at 10:09
  • @Wrz...I don't expect to find such differences in grammar books or dictionairies, this could only be answered by native speakers and their sence of the language. Note that I din't write "haben würdest" in the first sentence, but "hättest". What about "Wenn es zu einem Unfall käme" vs "Wenn es zu einem Unfall kommen würde" – Beta Jul 29 '16 at 10:39
  • this could only be answered by native speakers and their sence of the language – hence in my book.What about "Wenn es zu einem Unfall käme" vs "Wenn es zu einem Unfall kommen würde" – No difference to me. If I actually want to consider the possibility of an accident, I would say “Wenn es zu einem Unfall kommt, …”. – Wrzlprmft Jul 29 '16 at 19:11

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