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I wanted to say, “I would like to sleep soon” in German, so I plugged it into Google Translate. It came up with this:

Ich würde gerne bald schlafen.

This surprised me a bit. I would have expected the subjunctive I instead of the subjunctive II. Could anyone explain why würde (subjunctive II) is used instead of werde (subjunctive I)?

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    Can you please elaborate why you would expect the subjunctive I? – Wrzlprmft Sep 13 '17 at 7:08
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You can't just take some sentence out of context and translate it literally. The English subjunctive and the German Konjunktiv are used differently, and you need the context to decide how something should be translated.

Konjunktiv I is used for indirect speech: "Er sagte, er werde gerne bald schlafen".

Konjunktiv II is used for counterfactual hypotheses, wishes, and also for polite phrasings. So "Ich würde gerne bald schlafen" (or more naturally, "Ich würde jetzt gerne schlafen (gehen)") expresses a (polite) wish, and that corresponds to what you express in English with "I would like to sleep soon".

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As a preliminary remark, the subjunctive I is rarely used in spoken German. Usually you will only find it in written German where it is primarily used for indirect speech.

The subjunctive I also has the problem that with most verbs in the first person there is no difference between the subjunctive I and the indicative. In these cases it is usually replaced by the subjunctive II.

If you use "Ich werde" the subjunctive I is indistinguishable from the indicative. So what you actually get is the future tense ("I will sleep") which is not a good choice if you want to express a wish.

"Ich würde gerne" is a common phrase when one wants to express a wish. Today "würde" is often used instead of the subjunctive II:

Ich schliefe, wenn es nicht so laut wäre

Possible, but rather old-fashioned. What you would hear today is:

Ich würde schlafen, wenn es nicht so laut wäre.

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  • Another great answer. Thanks so much. I have just one question. What do you mean when you say würde is used instead of the subjunctive II? I thought that würde is the subjunctive II. – ktm5124 Sep 13 '17 at 11:29
  • It means that the subjunctive II of a verb is replaced by "würde" (or "würdest", "würden" etc.) + the infinitive of that verb. In my example "würde schlafen" instead of "schliefe". – RHa Sep 13 '17 at 11:36
  • Ich verstehe. Danke! – ktm5124 Sep 13 '17 at 11:38

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