I was recently speaking with a friend who is a native German speaker, currently attending university in Germany and studying German language. I had said to her, "Ich dachte, du hattest eine lange Pause." She politely corrected me, saying it should be "hättest" not "hattest." As a native English speaker, I typically understand "hätten" in the Konjunktiv II to mean "would have." This would mean, my sentence would translate as "I thought you would have a long break," which sounds slightly odd to me, because I would tend to express the sentiment I was trying to convey as "I thought that you had a long break." I've been racking my brain to figure out which sounds more correct in English now for a while, "had" vs "would have," but "had" just seems to sound more correct to me in this context. Is it correct that to say "I thought you had sth." in German you would say "Ich dachte du hättest etw.. . ." or is my own English incorrect here to begin with and the sentence should in fact be "I thought you would have sth.. . .?"

For clarification of the context, the friend had told me her semester would resume in the very near future (a day or two), whereas I believed up until that point that it would not resume until the slightly more distant future (serveral weeks), which is the reason for the confusion/ disbelief at this fact that I was attempting to convey to her.

Please note, I did not attend college or university for linguistics or German language, so please be patient with me; this is not my bailiwick.


Is the break in the past or ongoing? Either way:

[present] Du hast (zur­zeit) eine lange Pause.
[past] Du hattest (letztes Jahr) eine lange Pause. (or) Du hast eine lange Pause gehabt.

In informal spoken German, these sentences can be embedded without the need to shift the mood to subjunctive. So both of the following are entirely normal:

Ich dachte,
[present] du hast (zur­zeit) eine lange Pause.
[past] du hattest (letztes Jahr) eine lange Pause. (or) du hast eine lange Pause gehabt.

If you put these into the subjunctive (Konjunktiv II; let's ignore Konjunktiv I), you get:

[present] Ich dachte, du hättest (zur­zeit) eine lange Pause.

But wait a second! If hättest is used to refer to the present, how do you refer to the past? You use the perfect with the auxiliary in the Konjunktiv II.

[past] Ich dachte, du hättest (letztes Jahr) eine lange Pause gehabt.

  • This answers provides a more detailed explanation of the contexts in which one would use each respective form.
    – wjjd225
    Jan 2 '19 at 21:33

I'm afraid that you're not aware of the fact that English has one word only for two aspects - in the meaning of time - tense - aspect -, namely had.

I had a car is indicative, thus: Ich hatte

If I had a car is subjunctive, thus: Wenn ich ... hätte

Get clear about that, and future blunders won't happen. Which will extend your bailiwick ;-)


The crucial part is the introduction Ich dachte, which introduces a counterfact. And counterfacts need the Konjunktiv.

Ich dachte, du hättest eine lange Pause.

Incidentally, many German native English second language speakers assume had to be a subjunctive form and correctly say:

I thought you had a long break.

The similar sound had — hätte plays a role in this, I think.

  • This makes a lot of sense. It also seems to explain how my friend knew immediately that the correct form should be "hättest," but was unable to explain why. I guess I was incorrectly taking "had" in the context of my sentence to be the simple past of "have," when in fact I was using it as a subjunctive without realizing.
    – wjjd225
    Jan 2 '19 at 21:06

Use of subjunctive and would/würde are similar in English and German, but there are differences. For example, the English sentence:

If I had money, I would not have any problems.

translates to German as:

Wenn ich Geld hätte, hätte ich keine Probleme.


Wenn ich Geld hätte, würde ich keine Probleme haben.

So in German the subjunctive II can be used for both parts of the sentence, whereas in English one uses different forms.

So I think you are right when you feel that "I thought you would have a long break" is not quite the same as "I thought you had a long break". In German subjunctive II and würde are pretty much (although IMHO not completely) interchangeable whereas had and would have in English aren't.

As a side note, with weak verbs, würde is often preferred over subjunctive II because in this case subjunctive II looks the same as the preterite.

  • "Wenn" ist würdelos.
    – ths
    Jan 8 '19 at 12:45

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