If the word itself makes you recoil in fear, don’t worry.
You’re not alone.
It seems to be no coincidence that the subjunctive is a way to indicate uncertainty.
After all, no one seems quite certain how to use it.
As a learner, it can be mind-boggling.
It might seem like a game with rules you can’t quite grasp.
But the reason for this is pretty simple.
Unlike most of the things you’ve learned about the Spanish language so far, the subjunctive doesn’t really seem to have an English equivalent.
You’ve probably never had to consider whether or not your phrase indicated uncertainty or doubt when speaking in English, which makes the concept extra hard to wrap your brain around as an English speaker.
Even if you can quickly memorize how to conjugate the subjunctive, knowing exactly when and how to use those conjugations gets more complicated.
For example, while often used to discuss events that haven’t yet happened, the subjunctive should not be confused with a Spanish future tense. There are just as many ways to use the subjunctive in discussing uncertainty in the past and in the present.
The subjunctive is most certainly a challenge, but as when it comes to any part of Spanish, a little practice goes a long way in reaching a place where you can feel natural and confident using it while speaking and writing.
So let’s get you on the path to conquering this more difficult aspect of Spanish grammar.
Below, you can review the different forms of the subjunctive and test yourself along the way!
Present Subjunctive: I Hope That We Win the War!
First up is the present subjunctive. This is probably the tense that you think of when the subjunctive is brought up: If the first part of your sentence expresses any sort of doubt, uncertainty or even subjectivity about something occurring, the verb should conjugated in the subjunctive.
One of the most important distinctions between the present subjunctive and present indicative (a non-subjunctive conjugation) is the use of the word que (that, which). Using que in a sentence implies a change of subject from the first to the second clause, which is most often where our uncertainty comes from.
For an example, a soldier in battle may say “Espero ganar la guerra” (I hope to win the war). In this case, with no change of subject, there is no uncertainty. The truth of the sentence is that the soldier wants to win the war. There is no uncertainty that this is what they want, and therefore “I hope” is left as indicative.
But what if the soldier wants to express hope for the rest of the army? When the speaker introduces que, uncertainty is brought into the sentence. While the desire is true, the individual soldier has no control over whether or not the army can win, and the verb is therefore put into the subjunctive:
Espero que ganemos la guerra. (I hope that we win the war.)
Going forward, we can examine all tenses of the subjunctive in this scenario. In the present subjunctive, the war is currently going on, and the desire to win is taking place in the present, but we do not yet know the outcome.
Present Subjunctive Practice
Translate the following sentences, selecting when to use the present subjunctive. The correct answers are listed below.
- I don’t doubt that he will have fun.
- I hope that she visits me this weekend.
- I don’t know that they will want to come to my party.
- It’s impossible to eat this much food.
- I doubt that we have enough time.
1. No dudo que se divertirá. (Indicative: The speaker expresses certainty about the outcome.)
2. Espero que ella me visite este fin de semana. (Subjunctive: Uncertainty exists about whether she will visit or not.)
3. No sé que quieran venir a mi fiesta. (Subjunctive: Uncertainty exists about whether or not they will want to come.)
4. No es posible comer tanta comida. (Indicative: We know for certain it’s not possible.)
5. Dudo que tengamos tiempo suficiente. (Subjunctive: There is doubt as to whether or not there is enough time.)
Present Perfect Subjunctive: I Hope That We Have Won the War!
The present perfect subjunctive indicates something that would have occurred in the recent past. As is usual with the subjunctive, this involves doubting whether or not that something actually occurred.
In this case, the auxiliary verb haber (to have done) will always be the verb in the subjunctive form, because doubt rests in whether or not the action was recently done, and not the action itself. It may go without saying, then, that this tense is used when an event has already occurred, but you are unaware of its results.
For example, you may be discussing your roommate’s lack of cleanliness. In the present perfect subjunctive, you would say “Dudo que haya limpiado la casa” (I doubt that he has cleaned the house). In this case, you don’t know the results for sure, but you have made an assumption about what has or hasn’t already occurred in the past. In this case, the verb haber is in the subjunctive rather than limpiar (to clean) because you doubt not that he will clean, but that he has not already cleaned.
Let’s think about war again: In the present perfect, the phrase would have to come from someone outside of the war—say, a civilian back at home—because they remain unaware about the outcome of an event.
Espero que hayamos ganado la guerra. (I hope that we have won the war.)
This suggests that the war is recently over, but the speaker does not yet know how it ended.
Present Perfect Subjunctive Practice
Translate the following sentences, selecting when to use the present perfect subjunctive. The correct answers are below.
- It’s doubtful that you have finished all of your homework.
- I hope to have a good time this weekend.
- I have not been to the dentist in a while.
- It’s good that they have gotten married.
- It’s unlikely that they have visited Mexico.
1. Es dudoso que hayas terminado toda tu tarea. (Subjunctive: There is doubt about whether or not the homework has been finished.)
2. Espero pasarlo bien este fin de semana. (Indicative: The desire is true and in the present tense; there is no uncertainty.)
3. No he ido al dentista en mucho tiempo. (Indicative: There isn’t any doubt; it’s just a statement of fact.)
4. Es bueno que se hayan casado. (Subjunctive: The statement expresses subjectivity about what others have done.)
5. Es poco probable que hayan visitado a Mexico. (Subjunctive: There is uncertainty about whether they have been to Mexico or not.)
Imperfect Subjunctive: I Hoped That We Might Win the War!
One easy way to consider the subjunctive is to ask yourself two questions: First, when did the doubt occur? Second, what is it about?
For present subjunctive, the answers are: In the present. Something that hasn’t happened yet.
For the present perfect subjunctive, the answers are: In the present. Something that recently happened.
As we begin to discuss the imperfect subjunctive, we deal with something completely new: Both the doubt and the event it references have already happened. The subjunctive is utilized in this case to indicate that uncertainty was experienced in the past. And in fact, whether or not we now know the outcome doesn’t even matter.
For example, the phrase “Cuando nos conocimos, ya esperaba que nos casáramos” (When we first met, I already hoped we’d get married) expresses a time in the past when there was uncertainty, as the speaker did not know whether or not they would end up married. Because the hope was expressed in the past tense, whether or not they actually got married is irrelevant.
Going back to our war scenario, here’s the imperfect subjunctive in action:
Esperaba que ganáramos la guerra. (I hoped that we might win the war.)
This would suggest that the war is either over or it’s not looking too great for the heroes. The wishing for a victory was done in the past, which means we probably know the war’s outcome by now. This tense is often accompanied with an explanation for why our hope is now past. For example:
Antes de que atacaron el campamento, esperaba que ganáramos la guerra. (Before they attacked our camp, I hoped we might win the war.)
This phrase explains why even though our speaker is no longer hopeful, they were at one time in the past.
Imperfect Subjunctive Practice
Translate the following sentences, selecting when to use the imperfect subjunctive. The correct answers are below.
- I hoped that she would live with me.
- It was unlikely that you would win the competition.
- I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young.
- I didn’t believe that she would write her own novel.
- I didn’t doubt that she could cook a perfect dinner.
1. Esperaba que ella viviera conmigo. (Subjunctive: There was once doubt regarding whether or not she would move in.)
2. Era improbable que ganaras la competición. (Subjunctive: There was uncertainty in the past about whether or not you would win.)
3. Quería ser astronauta cuando era joven. (Indicative: There is no uncertainty about the speaker’s desire to be an astronaut.)
4. No creía que escribiera su propia novela. (Subjunctive: There was doubt in the past about her ability to write a novel.)
5. No dudé que podría cocinar una cena perfecta. (Indicative: There is no uncertainty expressed.)
Pluperfect Subjunctive: I Had Hoped That We Would Have Won the War
Unlike the imperfect subjunctive, in which the outcome of one’s uncertainty is irrelevant, the pluperfect subjunctive is used when we not only know the outcome, but wish things might have been different.
In this case, we use the auxiliary haber (to have done) again, but this time conjugated in the imperfect subjunctive tense. This conjugation of haber suggests that there was once uncertainty about whether or not something “might have happened.”
For example, you might discuss your latest job interview by saying “Ojalá que hubiera conseguido ese trabajo” (I wish I would have gotten that job). There was uncertainty in the past about whether or not you would get the job, and though you now know for sure that you did not, you still wish things could have been different.
And what about war? In our scenario, here’s the pluperfect subjunctive:
Esperaba que hubiéramos ganado la guerra. (I had hoped that we would have won the war.)
This suggests that we know exactly how the war ended, and it didn’t go too well for our speaker. In this case, the war is definitely over, they definitely did not win and they are definitely upset about it. Even though this may seem like a lot of certainty for a subjunctive clause, there was still uncertainty about the events at one time in the past.
Using the subjunctive conjugation of haber is similar to saying “we might have” in English. This is also why the tense is commonly seen in conditional phrases beginning with “If…” (“If this had/hadn’t happened, we might have ___.)
Pluperfect Subjunctive Practice
Translate the following sentences, selecting when to use the pluperfect subjunctive. The correct answers are below.
- It’s true that I lived in France for a year.
- I thought that I might have learned to play piano.
- I have been studying Spanish since I was born.
- If I hadn’t met you, it’s unlikely that I would have moved to the city.
- I wish we would have eaten less before dinner.
1. Es cierto que viví en Francía por un año. (Indicative: There is no uncertainty about what occurred in the past.)
2. Pensé que hubiera aprendido tocar el piano. (Subjunctive: There was once doubt about whether or not I would learn piano. Now we know I did not.)
3. He estado estudiando español desde que nací. (Indicative: There is no doubt about what occurred in the past.)
4. Si no nos hubiéramos conocido, es improbable que yo me hubiera mudado a la ciudad. (Subjunctive: There was uncertainty in the past about whether or not I would move to the city.)
5. Ojalá que hubiéramos comido menos antes de la cena. (Subjunctive: There was uncertainty in the past about how much would be eaten.)
Hope for the Future
You may have noticed one important tense we haven’t touched yet: the future. After all, isn’t all future uncertain? How can there be a future tense that is different from the subjunctive?
Unlike the subjunctive, the Spanish future tense states with utmost certainty that something will occur. Of course, things go wrong and change even when you’re 100% certain about an outcome. Just because you use the future tense doesn’t mean you have any more control over a situation than usual: It simply means you feel confident in predicting the outcome.
In discussing war, our speaker may say “Ganaremos la guerra” (We will win the war) because they have just stolen all of their enemy’s weapons. While their use of the future tense doesn’t rule out a sudden ambush from occurring, they can still feel confident in its use: Things are looking pretty good for them right now.
In this final practice, you will translate the following sentences, selecting whether or not the phrase is present or future indicative, or any of the subjunctive tenses reviewed by this post. The correct answers are below.
- I hope to write my own novel someday.
- I hoped we would have arrived earlier.
- I will feel better after sleeping.
- I didn’t think you would know the answer.
- I doubt he will be helpful.
- It’s possible that they have already left.
1. Espero escribir mi propia novela algún día. (present indicative)
2. Esperaba que hubiéramos llegado antes. (pluperfect subjunctive)
3. Me sentiré mejor después de dormir. (future indicative)
4. No creí que supieras la respuesta. (imperfect subjunctive)
5. Dudo que sea útil. (present subjunctive)
6. Es posible que ya hayan salido. (present perfect subjunctive)
Getting More Spanish Subjunctive Practice
Remember, if this post has left your head spinning, you’re not alone. Mastering the subjunctive is a complicated process and may take a while. Even native speakers can’t quite explain when and why they are using it!
Try your best, and know that every person you speak with—from a Spanish beginner to native speaker—understands just how complicated it can be.
One of the best ways to continue your subjunctive practice is through watching Spanish movies and TV, or finding any way to listen to native speakers have a conversation. When you notice a subjunctive conjugation used, take a moment to consider how it’s being used, and why the subjunctive was chosen over the indicative in that situation.
Just like language in general, the subjunctive is a muscle that must be developed in the brain. The more opportunities you have to flex and exercise the muscle, the more easily your brain will begin to make connections on its own. Eventually, you will catch yourself using it correctly without even trying!
There is certainly no uncertainty about how worthwhile it is to learn a new language.
Even when it feels like an uphill battle, ganarás la guerra (you will win the war)!
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