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Es kommt mir vor, als sei heute Sonntag.

Es kommt mir vor, als wäre heute Sonntag.

Most of the time, I see wäre used in an als construction like this, but I come across sei once in a while. How can I determine when to use one or the other?

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On the one hand, the grammatical functions of the two subjunctive moods are briefly as follows:

  • The subjunctive I indicates indirect speech and similar.
  • The subjunctive II indicates that something is not true (irrealis).

Going by this, only wäre (subjunctive II) is correct as the subordinate clause is describing an irreal situation; actually it’s not Sunday. There is no productive grammatical function of the subjunctive I that applies here and which would call for sei (subjunctive I).

Here is some prescriptivist sharing this point of view.

On the other hand, using the subjunctive I in such constructions (irreal comparisons) is so common that one could consider it correct by usage. After all, languages evolve and are shaped by their speakers. If enough people make a mistake, it is not a mistake anymore. I am not aware of any difference in meaning between the two subjunctive moods in this case.

Here is a descriptivist observation by the Duden supporting this point of view.

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  • Interestingly, that "sei" sentence comes from an example sentence in a dictionary, and I hadn't imagined it to be a mistake, strictly speaking. Thank you. By the way, it may well be a typo, but I fail to see what you mean by the word "briefly" in your 1st sentence. – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Mar 15 '17 at 7:50
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    Well, the dictionary is observing how people use the language, as good dictionaries should do. — The word briefly here means shortly or in a nutshell. I use it to indicate that what follows is not a complete account of the functions of the subjunctive, as this would be beyond the scope of this answer and digress from the point. For example, I do not mention the subjunctive II of politeness as it is not relevant for this case at all. – Wrzlprmft Mar 15 '17 at 7:53
  • Oh, I get it now, thanks. "... is briefly (as follows):" – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Mar 15 '17 at 7:55

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