Level B1

Subjunctive

In Icelandic, verbs take on a different form when they express something that is hypothetical or uncertain. The form is known as the subjunctive (“viðtengingarháttur”). It appears in the following scenarios:
  • When expressing something hypothetical (“If I were president...”)
  • When being extra polite (“Could you bring me some coffee?”)
  • When expressing your wishes (“I would like to become an actor”)
  • In certain types of sentences that are joined to a main sentence (“My mom says that I am a good cook”)
The last one is the most common situation where you will encounter the subjunctive. When the subjunctive appears due to being in a secondary sentence it does not have to indicate that something is a hypothetical situation (in the sentence “My mom says that I am a good cook” there is no doubt that she did indeed say that), the only reason it appears is due to grammatical rules.

Examples

Regular verb formHypothetical verb formWhy does the verb form change?
Ég er duglegur, ég get lært íslensku.Ef ég væri duglegur þá gæti ég lært íslensku.Hypothetical
Það er gaman. Þið komið með.Það væri gaman ef þið kæmuð með.Hypothetical
Get ég fengið hamborgara?Gæti ég fengið hamborgara?Politeness
Hann er rithöfundur.Ég held að hann rithöfundur.Secondary sentence (connected with )
Ég er sætur.Mamma segir að ég sætur.Secondary sentence (connected with )
Ég get komið til Íslands.Ég vona að ég geti komað til ÍslandsSecondary sentence (connected with )
Ég kem.Viltu að ég komi?Secondary sentence (connected with )
Þú ert með hita.Amma spyr hvort þú sért með hita.Secondary sentence

When to study this form

Viðtengingarháttur is a fairly advanced topic usually introduced around level B1. Learners often just use the regular verb form instead or try to avoid sentences where viðtengingarháttur is necessary, but since it is so common it is necessary to be aware of it. Although you will be understood if you don’t use viðtengingarháttur, it sounds incorrect and amateurish to natives.

Words that cause the hypothetical form

The following words are the most common things that cause the hypothetical form:
  • Ég held að ...
  • Ég segi að ...
  • Ég vil að ...
  • ... nema ...
  • ... svo að ...
  • ... til þess að ...
  • Þó að ...
  • Þótt ...
All of the above are examples of main sentences being joined to another secondary sentence (in the case of “þótt” the main sentence comes after the secondary sentence).
Note that the hypothetical form does not appear if sentences are connected with the following words:
  • ef
  • og
  • en
  • þegar

Politeness

The subjunctive is used when you want to be extra polite. You have to use the past tense, just like in the English “Could I get some coffee?”:
  • Gæti ég fengið kaffi?
  • Værir þú til í að hætta þessu?

Conjugation

When learning the conjugation tables of the viðtengingarháttur, you add “I think that ...” and “I thought that ...” before the verb. This is how native speakers conjugate, because they have a feel for what should happen to a verb if it is preceded by “I think”. This will also train your feel for the language.
Present tense:
IcelandicEnglish
ég held að ég séI think I am
ég held að þú sértI think you are
ég held að hann séI think he is
ég held að við séumI think we are
ég held að þið séuðI think you guys are
ég held að þau séuI think they are
Past tense:
IcelandicEnglish
ég hélt að ég væriI thought I was
ég hélt að þú værirI thought you were
ég hélt að hann væriI thought he was
ég hélt að við værumI thought we were
ég hélt að þið væruðI thought you guys were
ég hélt að þau væruI thought they were

Miscallenous

  • The viðtengingarháttur is slowly disappearing – many younger speakers (born after 1995) have a much weaker sense of this verb mood and will for some types of sentences use the regular verb mood in cases where older speakers (born before 1985) would have used viðtengingarháttur. Young people still use it when describing hypothetical situations, but are less likely to use it in secondary sentences. For example, standard Icelandic is „Hann spurði mig hvað ég væri að læra“ but many people born after 1995 would say „Hann spurði mig hvað ég er að læra“.

Similarity to other languages

  • The viðtengingarháttur is the same as the German Konjunktiv and is used almost the same.
  • The viðtengingarháttur is similar to being a mix of the Spanish condicional and subjunctivo, but subjunctivo is not used in exactly the same situations.

Exercises