Du bist ein Student? Das hätte ich nicht gedacht.

I don't understand why the subjunctive was used here. I only use it in hypothetical situations. If I had been writing the above sentence, I'd have used hatte instead.

This is not the first time where I see subjunctive like that; another sentence was:

Ich wäre fast eingeschlafen.

This was said regarding a boring lecture.

I simply don't get it. According to my book (Menschen B1), subjunctive is only used in hypothetical situations; at least in the examples. I did check the website here for further information and other sites but I couldn’t find an answer. Is there another use to Konjunktiv II other than hypothetical situations?

2 Answers 2


Strictly speaking your book is right about it expressing a hypothesis. What you should notice is that just as in English, the conditional is often implied or even unclear. In this way the subjunctive can be used to convey certain moods. In your example the implied conditional could read as follows:

Das hätte ich nicht gedacht, hättest du es mir nicht gesagt!/I wouldn’t have thought so, hadn’t you told me!

Now, why does the native speaker not say the following?

Das habe ich nicht gedacht/I didn’t think that

The last sentence is grammatically correct, but it simply and dryly says „I didn’t think that“, without any connotation. Such sentence rarely occurs in practice. Normally we tell someone such things, in order to hint at something else.

Das hätte ich nicht gedacht/I wouldn’t have thought so

is often a veiled way to say something else, such as:

I wouldn’t have thought so! You look damn old (young) for a student!/ Das hätte ich nicht gedacht! Für einen Studenten sehen Sie verdammt alt (jung) aus!

I wouldn’t have thought so! I was sure you wouldn’t be admitted to university!/Das hätte ich nicht gedacht! Ich war mir sicher, daß Sie die Zulassung nicht erhalten würden!

I wouldn’t have thought so! You talk more like a truck driver!/Das hätte ich nicht gedacht! Sie sprechen eher wie ein Lastkraftwagenfahrer!

(I apologise for stereotyping. Sometimes stereotypes are memorable and cross culturally self explanatory)

Similarly, the subjunctive can express moods of restraint and politeness, just like in English. For example:

Ich hätte gern einen Tee/I would like a tea

implies something like:

Ich hätte gern einen Tee, wenn es nicht so mühsam für dich wäre, einen zu kochen./I would like a tea, if it weren’t such a trouble for you to make it.

In this way I express politeness, restraint and consideration.


Du bist ein Student? Das hätte ich nicht gedacht.

You are a student? I never thought you were a student.

It did not came to my mind you could be a student. I wasn't wondering about it. My thinking is purely hypothetical.

If you cannot wrap your mind around this, think counterfactual instead of hypothetical.

I did not think about you, though I just told you I had.

That's what the Konjunktiv does. It turns facts into counterfacts.

  • 2
    "Das hätte ich nicht gedacht" would be more correctly translated as "I would not have thought you were a student"
    – PiedPiper
    Aug 12, 2018 at 23:10
  • I was after that never thought because it's the more natural way to express it in English, and it expresses exactly what happens in the German sentence: I never thought.
    – Janka
    Aug 12, 2018 at 23:14
  • 5
    I actually think "I would never have thought you were a student" sounds more natural than "I never thought you were a student" as a translation for the German sentence.
    – Blavius
    Aug 13, 2018 at 2:14
  • "I never thought" is maybe how a native English speaker would express the thought, but translating it like that makes the function of the Konjunktiv a little unclear for German learners -- I would translate this more as "I wouldn't have thought" or "I would never have thought," both of which (imo) express the thought just as well
    – evamvid
    Aug 13, 2018 at 4:12
  • "I would never have thought" is probably better. But I think we agree that hätte implies would
    – PiedPiper
    Aug 13, 2018 at 14:02

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