Icelandic Language Blog

Subjunctive mood; it can be easy to use! Posted by on Apr 8, 2013 in Icelandic grammar

Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a way of telling when to use this form of verbs in Icelandic? Something that would always, or almost always work for you, and that the exceptions would be easy to tell apart? Here’s the good news – there are such rules! Here’s the bad news – it means learning certain verbs by heart. Don’t feel let down though, the list is not long and the exceptions are logical.

The basics of subjunctive mood, or viðtengingarháttur, were explained in this post. Now I’m going to get on a bit deeper level, to the situation when you almost always use viðtengingarháttur vs. the situations when you almost always use framsöguháttur (= indicative mood).


In að-sentences certain verbs will have strong preferences towards one or the other of these forms. But what is an að-sentence? In short, any sentence that has two or more sentences tied together with as a conjunction is one. ( can also be used as a preposition, in which case it often translates as “to” or “towards”, “as”, “at”, “for” or “from”, all depending on the context.) It’s function is to explain the sentence that happened before:

Ég veit þú heitir John. (= I know that your name is John.) The first sentence tells you that I know something, the second one defines that what I know is that your name is John. 

Ég held það sé hægt að fara þangað…

(= I think that it might be possible to go over there…)

Viðtengingarháttur -verbs

As this mood always shows some kind of uncertainty – wishes, hopes, assumptions, estimations, possibilities etc. – the verbs that lean strongly towards it tend to mean something related:

Vona (= to wish); Ég vona að þetta rétt. (= I wish that that is correct.)

Vilja* (= to want, to will); Ég vil að hann komi hingað. (= I want that he would come here.)

Telja (= to count, to consider, to think); Hann telur að hún lesi það sem er skrifað um hana. (= He thinks that she reads what is written about her.)

Halda (= to hold, to believe, to assume); Ég held að mjólkin sé búin. (= I think that we’re out of milk/milk is finished.)

Álíta (= to consider, to believe, to think); Hann álítur að hún eigi að kaupa hesta. (= He believes that she should buy horses.)

Óska (= to wish, to hope); Ég óska að þú baki köku handa mér. (= I wish you would bake me a cake.)

Æskja (= to strongly wish, to desire); Þau æskja að þú bíðir eftir þeim. (= They want that you would wait for them.)

Segja* (= to say); Hann segir að þetta rétt en ég er ósammála. (= He says that it would be correct but I disagree.)

Other verbs that belong in this group are skipa (= to order, to command), þurfa* (= to need to, to have to), efast um (= to doubt), búast við (= to expect, anticipate), óttast (= to be afraid of), finnast (= to find/think, to seem), gruna (= to suspect), virðast (= to appear to be) and heyrast (= to be “heard”, something has been said to be so). Every verb marked with an asterisk means that although they are most commonly used for subjunctive mood they can be used for indicative mood as well if the topic is certain.

Hann segir að Jón veikur. (= He says that Jón might be ill.)

Hann segir að Jón er veikur. (= He says that Jón is ill.)

Difference between these two is that the first one strongly hints that it’s not at all certain if Jón actually is ill, he might just as well be calling in sick to skip work. The second one notes a certainty: yes, he is ill, he caught the stomach bug that’s been going around.


Við vissum að Alf var hér.

(= We know that Alf was here.)

Framsöguháttur -verbs

Skilja (= to understand); Hann skilur að þetta er rétt. (= He knows/understands that it’s correct.)

Sjá (= to see); Hún sér að hann tekur bókina. (= She sees that he takes the book.)

Heyra (= to hear); Ég heyri að hann hrýtur. (= I hear that he’s snoring.)

Vita* (= to know); Jón veit að þú veist. (= Jón knows that you know.)

Muna (= to remember); Ég man að kennarinn er veikur. (= I remember that the teacher is ill.)

Many verbs are made by combining the verb vera with them, such as sannað er (= it’s proven) etc. These verbs can be used both ways, but they are likelier to take indicative mood.

If a sentence uses viðtengingarháttur (VH) both verbs have to be in the same tense. With framsöguháttur (FH) that’s not always necessary.

Ég held að hann heima. (= I think that he’s home.) (VH)

Ég hélt að hann væri heima. (= I thought that he was home.) (VH)

Ég veit að hann er heima. (= I know that he’s home.) (FH)

Ég veit að hann var heima. (= I know that he was home.) (FH)

Ég vissi að hann var heima. (= I knew that he was home.) (FH)

It really is quite simple to use viðtengingarháttur in its basic forms once you get the hang of it; the main challenge you’ll face is learning all the verb forms by heart, but once that’s done it’s all smooth sailing! Remember BIN, it’s the best friend of every Icelandic learner.

Next time we’ll be looking at negation and question sentences – see you in part 3!  🙂

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!


  1. Corin:

    Great post hulda, thanks. I have been distracted from grammar of late(having not ventured out of the indicative mood),as I’ve been attempting translation of some childrens books. I kept coming across “sé” in certain sentences. I have been using UWDC Icelanic online and it kept directing me automaticallty to “sjá”. Curious idiom?, i thought. I became quickly confused….

    Plus regonising the above að construction now will help me immensley in deciding infinitive marker vs. prep. vs. conj. You totally rule.

    • hulda:

      @Corin Thank you for the nice comment, I’m always happy if I can be of any help! 🙂

      It’s a little odd that it would only direct you to the verb ‘sjá’ – I understand why it would since ‘sé’ is the 1st person present tense of the verb ‘sjá’, but ‘sé’ used in subjunctive mood is really common! Might be worth notifying for, that’s quite a serious fault in a dictionary.

      Perhaps the page that would be more useful when translating is BIN:
      Just write the word in the search field and check the little box below it. It’s especially handy when you have to define the nominative form of a word with an unusual declension. 🙂