Conditional sentences in German can look intimidating at first sight, but they’re not so difficult. As an English speaker, you may already know that conditional clauses help to express what might happen under different sets of circumstances. This knowledge will help you understand how to use the five different types of conditional sentences in German.
The main challenge with conditional forms in German is that two of them require the Konjunktiv II (subjunctive II). If you haven’t learned this form yet, it’s time to repeat that lesson. Another source of confusion is how to translate the English “when,” which in German can be either wenn or als. The good news is that there is a simple test to decide which one to use.
- The different types of conditional sentences in German
- How to form conditional sentences in German
- When to use conditional sentences in German
The different types of conditional sentences in German
There are five different types of conditional sentences in German:
- the real condition
- the unreal condition in the present
- the unreal condition in the past
- scientific or empirical realities
Word order in conditional sentences
Conditional sentences are subordinate clauses formed with wenn. They can come before or after the main clause in a sentence:
- Before the main clause: “Wenn ich die Prüfung nicht bestehe, werde ich mein Stipendium verlieren.” (If I don’t pass the exam, I will lose my scholarship.)
- After the main clause: “Ich werde mein Stipendium verlieren, wenn ich die Prüfung nicht bestehe.” (I will lose my scholarship if I don’t pass the exam.)
Note that, in both of the above examples, the conjugated verb (bestehe) comes at the end of the subordinate clause.
If the subordinate clause precedes the main clause, wenn can also be left out:
- “Bestehe ich die Prüfung nicht, werde ich mein Stipendium verlieren.”
In this case, the word order changes and the conjugated verb takes the first position instead of the last.
How to form conditional sentences in German
Conditional sentences use different times to express the varying grades of probability.
The real condition describes a scenario that can realistically happen in the present or the future.
To express a real condition, you need the present tense and the future tense (Futur 1).
The format is Wenn + Präsens + Futur 1:
- “Wenn ich jetzt losgehe, werde ich in einer Stunde da sein.” (If I leave now, I’ll be there in an hour.)
Unreal condition in the present
The unreal condition in the present describes something that could happen under different and unlikely circumstances.
To express an unreal condition in the present, you need the subjunctive II (Konjunktiv II).
The format is Wenn + Konjunktiv II + Konjunktiv II:
- “Wenn ich ihn jetzt sehen würde, würde ich ihn nicht erkennen.” (If I saw him now, I wouldn’t recognize him.)
Unreal condition in the past
The unreal condition in the past describes what could have happened if the circumstances had been different.
To express an unreal condition in the past, you need the past subjunctive II (Konjunktiv II Plusquamperfekt).
The format is Wenn + Konjunktiv II Plusquamperfekt + Konjunktiv II Plusquamperfekt:
- “Wenn ich mehr gelernt hätte, hätte ich die Prüfung bestanden.” (If I had studied more, I would have passed the exam.)
The order expresses what a person should do under certain circumstances.
For orders, you need the imperative (Imperativ) for the main clause and the present tense (Präsens) for the subordinate clause.
The format is Imperativ + wenn + Präsens:
- “Komm, wenn du Zeit hast.” (Come, if you find the time.)
Scientific or empirical realities
Scientific or empirical realities are results that are always connected to certain conditions.
For scientific or empirical realities, you will need to use the present tense (Präsens) in both sentence clauses.
The format is Wenn + Präsens + Präsens:
- “Wenn A gleich B und B gleich C ist, dann ist A gleich C.” (If A is equal to B and B is equal to C, then A is equal to C.)
When to use conditional sentences in German
The English word “when” translates to wenn and als in German. The problem is that both German words are used differently.
Als is used to express a point in time:
- “Er war müde, als er nach Hause kam.” (He was tired when he came home.)
Wenn is used in conditional sentences:
- “Wenn er jetzt nach Hause käme, würde er direkt ins Bett gehen.” (If he came home now, he’d go straight to bed.)
Deciding whether to use wenn or als in German is easy: whenever you use “if” in English, you use wenn in German.
There are also other conjunctions for conditional sentences in German that mean roughly the same as wenn, the most important being falls (if).
‘Wenn’ in German
German conditional sentences start with the conjunction wenn. There are five different types of conditional sentences that express varying degrees of probability in the future, present and past.
Wenn can be left out if the conditional sentence precedes the main clause, in which case the word order needs to change. There is a simple test to decide between wenn and als in German: wenn means “if” in German and can be changed to falls.