I have recently read that when subordinate clauses have a 'negative element', the subjunctive can be used to represent this. For example: 'es gibt nichts, was schwieriger wäre, als der Gebrauch des Konjunktivs' This was one of those elements of grammar that took me aback a little. It seems unusual. So, to put it in a very simple context, would I be understood I was to say "ich bin traurig, dass es klein wäre", meaning "I am sad because it is small"? And would it be possible to use the conditional with 'würden' (as I consider this another variant of Konjunktiv II) as an alternative to this type of sentence?

1 Answer 1


Ich bin traurig, dass es klein wäre.

This sentence makes no sense, because dass introduces a new fact here. Facts are contradicting Konjunktiv II.

Ich bin (nicht) traurig, wenn es klein wäre.

Wenn in contrary introduces a condition. That's compatible with Konjunktiv II. English sees this completely the same:

I won't be unhappy if it was small.

Es gibt nichts, was/das schwieriger ist.

Es gibt nichts, was/das schwieriger wäre.

Don't confuse was/das with dass. They are relative pronouns so they don't introduce new facts but explain another thing – nichts. Again, English sees it absolutely the same:

There's nothing that is more difficult.

There's nothing that was more difficult.

  • Thank you for the response. Am I right in thinking, then, that the Konjunktiv II can be used to present a negative element mainly in relative clauses?
    – Jamie
    Apr 10, 2018 at 10:05
  • The Konjunktiv II isn't about negation but about irreal or contrafactual things: Wir haben nicht verloren, was wir ohnehin nie hätten gewinnen können. There's a negation nie in the relative clause, but the important thing is the action gewinnen is declared contrafactual by using the Konjunktiv II hätten. In English, this is just the same: We did not lose what we couldn't win anyway.
    – Janka
    Apr 10, 2018 at 11:43
  • So presented with this sentence: 'es gibt nicht eine einzige Großstadt, die nicht ihr Gesicht in zwei Jahrzehnten gründlich gewandelt hätte' could you please explain why the Konjunktiv II is used here? I think that would address my question more closely.
    – Jamie
    Apr 10, 2018 at 12:45
  • That sentence is also fine with Indikativ. If you use Indikativ, all you tell is facts. If you use Konjunktiv II instead, you expect the reader to have knowledge you want to contradict. E.g.: Ich mag Berlin. Hier ist alles anders als vor 20 Jahren. Ganz anders als in München.Es gibt nicht eine einzige Großstadt, die nicht ihr Gesicht in zwei Jahrzehnten gründlich gewandelt hätte. This hätte instead of hat means Hey, your idea is wrong. Tell me what Munich looked like if it hadn't changed, too.
    – Janka
    Apr 10, 2018 at 13:07
  • I think all the confusion about Konjunktiv English speakers have comes from the fact the English subjunctive/irrealis forms are shared with other tenses so the subjunctive isn't easy to spot in English. But at its grammatical core, German and English are very similar when it comes to the subjunctive mood. It's only well hidden.
    – Janka
    Apr 10, 2018 at 13:23

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