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I already know that the subjunctive II is used to moderate the tone of questions and requests to sound more polite. Other main functions for this mood is to express unreal, counterfactual, hypothetical, or contradicting conditions and states; However, today I have read in my grammar book that it is also used to moderate the tone of an assertion or a statement, what I could not quite grasp or imagine.

Examples:

Ich wüsste wohl, was zu tun wäre.

Eine Frage hätte ich doch noch.

Diese Sache hätten wir also geregelt.

Da wäre er nun aufgewacht.

What does this usage of subjunctive imply?

How is it different from the indicative?

Is it frequent in German?

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2 Answers 2

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Using Konjunktiv II and/or modal particles is not about politeness but about changing the tone in general. Both methods are used frequently.

Konjunktiv II adds a counterfactual tone: We aren't talking real, okay? This can be polite in some situations. In others, it can be impolite or neutral.

Ich weiß, was zu tun ist.

Either We have to do it this way! or more likely as an irritated answer: Your advice was uncalled-for.

Ich weiß wohl, was zu tun ist.

I know what I'm doing. (Your advice was uncalled-for.)

Ich wüsste, was zu tun wäre.

May I give advice?

Ich wüsste wohl, was zu tun wäre.

Please take my advice.


Eine Frage habe/hätte ich (doch) (noch).

Hätte sounds just a tiny bit more smarmy. Adding doch adds the meaning that's my only question. Adding noch adds the meaning that's another question. Adding both is an excuse you came back to ask another question though you used doch last time already.


Diese Sache haben/hätten wir (also) geregelt.

Both hätten and the particle also express relief about coming to a conclusion.


Da ist/wäre er (nun) aufgewacht.

Both wäre and nun express deadpan notice about the late awakening.


Impolite Konjunktiv II phrase:

Hast du das nicht machen können?

This is just a question about facts.

Hättest du das nicht (mal) machen können?

This is a very rude prompt to be courteous.

The key is the combination of Konjunktiv II and the modal verb können. You could do something, but it's a counterfact. You did not. And I'm angry about it.

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  • What a beautiful answer you just wrote! So grateful! Thank you very much 🌹 That was a step-by-step clearly formed answer that made me understand exactly how the subjunctive can work in statements to moderate the tone.
    – user34137
    Sep 11, 2018 at 20:16
  • This is indeed a good answer. Still I was a bit terrified by it: how could a non-native speaker ever learn these intricacies! So, I feel a need for something like a universal rule or recipe to explain and use it. Here is my first attempt: Using Konjunktiv II adds an aspect of irreality to the proposition. Depending on the core meaning of the proposition, this irreality part bears the emotional load of an unexplicit continuation: "Ich weiß/wüsste, was zu tun ist/wäre": politeness, subtelty: "... if you asked me". "Hast/hättest du das nicht machen können": accusation: "... but you did not!" Sep 12, 2018 at 10:09
  • That's what I mean by counterfact. Indikativ is about telling facts. Konjunktiv is not about telling facts, up to telling counterfacts. (This is even true for Konjunktiv I – indirect speech means you don't know if it's a fact you are telling.)
    – Janka
    Sep 12, 2018 at 10:15
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    @Janka The last piece about impolite subjunctive was really invaluable. If you were not to mention it, I would use such sentences with me thinking that I am being polite and definitely Germans would not like it! Even though I have read a lot about subjunctive from so many sources, but nobody has mentioned that before.
    – user34137
    Sep 12, 2018 at 11:33
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    There's a common German saying Hätte, wäre, könnte! It means Don't babble about counterfacts. Get real! In my opinion, this shows precisely what Konjunktiv II is about.
    – Janka
    Sep 12, 2018 at 11:37
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In your first example, the subjunctive II could be interpreted as a conditional:

Ich wüsste wohl, was zu tun wäre. [Wenn man mich fragen würde, aber man fragt mich ja nicht]

But apart from this, your grammar book is right. Subjunctive II is frequently used in situations where the speaker feels that the use of indicative may be too blunt and direct and wants to sound more polite.

Compare this to English, where "I would like to ..." may sound more polite than "I want ..."

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