I am just wondering about the usage of the Konjunktiv II form vs the würde-form with sollen and wollen, and also with weak verbs in als ob clauses.

I have heard that the modal auxiliaries are generally used with the simple Konjunktiv II form, but with sollen and wollen their simple Konjunktiv II forms are the same as with the indicative preterite. So would they still generally be used with the Konjunktiv II form?

For example:

Wenn ich ihm das Auto zeigte, würde er es wollen/wollte er es

[If I showed him the car, he would want it]

Wenn er das Auto wollen würde/wollte, würde ich es ihm geben

[If he wanted the car, I would give it to him]

Wenn er älter wäre, würde er einen Beruf finden sollen/sollte er einen Beruf finden

[If he was older, I don't even know how I would say that last bit in English. Sorry if that does not sound natural but I could not think of a better example with sollen.

So could somebody please tell me which option would generally be taken in written and in spoken standard German? I really am not sure which one would be used, because the würde form would be clearer, but I have not read about any exemptions to the rule of thumb that modals use the simple form

Also with this sentence:

Er sah aus, als ob er weinte/als ob er weinen würde

[He looked like he was crying]

Which form would be used in spoken and written German? My assumption would be the würde form in spoken German because it is a weak verb and the simple form (weinte) in written German because the subjunctive nature of the sentence is already clear because 'als ob' clauses are generally in the subjunctive.

2 Answers 2


In spoken language, the use of the "real" Konjunktiv ("wollte"/"sollte"/"weinte" in your examples) is relatively rare and commonly noted as elevated. It is normaly replaced with a form of "würden" ("Ersatzkonjunktiv"). This is different in written language where Konjunktiv tends to be more common. Note this is in normally in no way influenced by the identity of Konjunktiv II and preterite forms (As long as the context of the rest of the sentence makes it clear we're in irrealis, which is the case in all of your examples)

Note the two alternatives in your last example actually differ in meaning because of the ambiguous notion of "sollen" (very similar to English):

Wenn er etwas älter wäre, sollte er eine Stelle finden

Commonly means to say If he were older, he'd very probably find a job, while

Wenn er etwas älter wäre, würde er eine Stelle finden sollen [or "müssen"]

would mean If he were a bit older, he would be obliged to find a job

  • In terms of it being clear that we are in irrealis, could the first example I gave not be ambiguous if wollte was used? Could it not also be interpreted as 'whenever I showed him the car, he wanted it'? Sep 20, 2022 at 20:33
  • Note that "wenn" is (normally) not translated as "when" (or whenever), but rather as "if" - which makes it clear we're in irrealis.
    – tofro
    Sep 21, 2022 at 16:07
  • At risk of straying from the point a little, how would 'whenever' referring to the past generally be translated? My understanding was that wenn would be used. Is there another word or would an entirely different structure be used? Sep 21, 2022 at 19:40
  • That would be "immer, wenn" rather than "wenn" alone.
    – tofro
    Sep 21, 2022 at 19:46
  • So does that mean that something like 'Wenn er seine Hausaufgaben machten, kaufte ich ihm einen Ball' (with the intent being for both clauses to be in Konjunktiv II) would also not be ambiguous, and therefore could be used in writing? Sep 22, 2022 at 14:30

When i went to school the proverb:

Wenn-Sätze sind würdelos.

was hammered into our brains. It is a pun, meaning that within sentences starting with "wenn" (Konditionalsätze) you use the Konjunktiv built without "würde".

Notice, though, that there is a rather big difference between written (formal) language and spoken (informal) language. It is a similar situation as with the Präteritum and the Perfekt: formally correct is the former to relate what happened in the past, but in spoken language one uses commonly the latter. Correct would be "Gestern fuhr ich mit dem Auto." (Yesterday i went by car.), but in spoken language you will usually hear "Gestern bin ich mit dem Auto gefahren."(Yesterday i have gone by car.) In a similar way most English speaker would answer "who is it" with "it's me" - instead of the grammatically correct "it's I". And the ones who do sound rather snobbish albeit just being correct.

In your first two examples the second option is correct, but in spoken language the first variant is quite common and the second would sound rather (overly) formal:

Wenn ich ihm das Auto zeigte, würde er es wollen/ wollte er es.
Wenn er das Auto wollen würde/ wollte, würde ich es ihm geben gäbe ich es ihm.

In your third example, there is IMHO less wiggle room as the first variant sounds rather strange:

Wenn er älter wäre, würde er einen Beruf finden sollen/ sollte er einen Beruf finden.

There indeed is some ambiguity, although @tofro got it not quite correct in his answer: sollte einen Beruf finden could mean either that in the opinion of the speaker he has what it takes to get a job (save for the age), or that he is obliged to find a job (later, when he gets older). This ambiguous construct is still the correct one and würde er einen Beruf finden sollen sounds rather strange. Language is sometimes like that and often one relies on context.

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