survive spanish subjunctive

How to Survive the Spanish Subjunctive

I suffered from subjunctivitis for a long time.

Long after I had my forms of ser and estar (both meaning “to be”) straight…

Long after I was happily chatting away in the present tense

I was still floundering for five minutes after the words “quieres que nos…” (do you want us…) or “no es necesario que…” (it is not necessary that…) as I hunted around for the subjunctive conjugation, or tried to figure out whether the subjunctive was even appropriate.

My Spanish friends would stand looking concerned, wondering if I was having some kind of attack.

Eventually, they learned to recognize the symptoms of my subjunctivitis.

The subjunctive in Spanish is a mood. It is not a tense because it has nothing to do with time. Rather, it conveys a sense of uncertainty or conditionality. In this post, I am going to teach you how to cure your subjunctivitis.
 


 

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Comparison of the English and Spanish Subjunctive

While English speakers often have a lot of trouble with the subjunctive, English does actually have a subjunctive mood; however, it is far less common than in Spanish, and more associated with formal speech and writing. Nevertheless, it is similar enough that it should provide a basis for understanding the Spanish subjunctive.

Think about the following pairs of sentences:

“If I were in your position, I would call the police.” “I was in your position, and I called the police.”

“The important thing is that you be here.” “You are here, and that is the important thing.”

“I wish I were a little bit taller.” “I am now a little bit taller.”

The first sentences in each pair are subjunctive. This allows them to communicate doubt or conditionality. In the second sentence of each pair the outcome is already determined, and the subjunctive is not necessary.

While it preserves the same basic moods of doubt etc., the Spanish subjunctive is used for a far wider variety of purposes than the English. The Spanish subjunctive expresses sentiment or wishes, doubt about a future event or conditionality. All verbs require a specific conjugation in the Spanish subjunctive, whereas only a handful require different conjugations in English.

spanish-subjunctive

You can get a better understanding of this concept by hearing it in use. And you can do that over at FluentU! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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Let’s dive into the Spanish subjunctive and cure your subjunctivitis forever!

How to Survive the Spanish Subjunctive

What Is the Subjunctive Mood?

It is high time that we demystified the monster: the Spanish subjunctive is not difficult!

You know the power information has, and getting to know your opponent always gives you an advantage, so let’s learn everything there is to know about the subjunctive and put an end to our nightmares once and for all.

As we said before, the subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. Wait, what?

Yes! The subjunctive is not another tense. In fact, it includes several tenses.

But what is the difference between a tense and a mood, you may ask?

A tense (say, the present simple, the imperfect or the pluscuamperfecto) tells us when the action takes place. This place in time can be the past, the present or the future. If you take the sentence Vamos a la playa (We go to the beach), which is in the present tense, and want to situate it anywhere else in the line of time, you will have to change vamos for another tense.

Preterite:

Fuimos a la playa. (We went to the beach.)

Future simple:

Iremos a la playa. (We will go to the beach.)

Conditional simple:

Iríamos a las playa si… (We would go to the beach if…)

Present perfect:

Hemos ido a la playa. (We have gone to the beach.)

Spanish has a whole lot of tenses to choose from, but so does English—so no problem here.

A mood, on the other hand, does not situate the action at any moment in time. Instead, it tells about how we feel about the action. We are talking feelings here, guys!

If you have a doubt, an emotion, a hypothesis, a wish… you are just feeling something, and you are embedding that feeling into the sentence. Spanish does this through the subjunctive, and it is beautiful.

Let me give you an example. The previous example was Vamos a la playa. This sentence is a fact: we go to the beach. There are no feelings involved. We are using the indicative mood to make a statement. Neat.

Now take a look at this:

Me gustaría que fuéramos a la playa. (I would like for us to go to the beach.)

What do we have? A wish, a desire to go to the beach. We are putting an emotion into the sentence, and because of that, we have to use the subjunctive form fuéramos (for us to go, that we would go).

This is the difference between a tense and a mood. Remembering that the subjunctive is a mood will already save you a lot of time. If there are doubts, emotions, hypotheses or wishes, subjunctive it is!

Subjunctive vs. Imperative Moods

The indicative and the subjunctive are two of the Spanish moods. The third and last one is the imperative.

Simply put, we use the imperative for commands, orders and instructions:

¡Dame la pelota! (Give me the ball!)

Aparca aquí. (Park here.)

¡No te comas eso! (Don’t eat that!)

So, since all three moods are used for very different things (the indicative to make statements and ask questions, the subjunctive when we embed an emotion into a sentence, and the imperative for commands), why should we worry about the difference between the subjunctive and the imperative?

Rather than having to worry about it, we should just bear in mind a couple of easy facts about these two moods:

1. There Is Not an Imperative Form for Every Grammatical Person in Spanish.

You may know already that the imperative negative uses the subjunctive forms (look at the last example above). This is due to the fact that, in actuality, you are using the subjunctive for orders and commands. You can think of this situation as wishing for someone not to do something, and since we have a wish, we use the subjunctive:

¡No llegues tarde! (Don’t be late!)

¡No os comáis todo el pastel! (Don’t eat [plural you] the whole cake!)

¡No mientas! (Don’t lie!)

2. You Can Combine the Imperative and the Subjunctive in a Single Sentence.

If things were not messy enough already, there are plenty of situations when you might want to kill two birds with one stone.

On the one hand, you want to give an order or command but on the other hand, the person the message is for is not in front of you and you need a messenger. What does Spanish do? It uses both the imperative (for the command directed to the listener) and the subjunctive (for the other person or people who is/are possibly not present and will listen to the message through the messenger):

Dile que se vaya. (Tell him to go.)

Diles que vuelvan. (Tell them to come back.)

Asegúrate de que lo tengan todo preparado. (Make sure they have everything ready.)

There are times when you actually need the indicative, not the subjunctive, after an imperative. This happens when, instead of wanting someone to do something, you just want them to get a piece of information (a fact):

Dile que no tengo tiempo. (Tell him I don’t have time. [This is a fact. I don’t have time.])

Diles que no queda pastel. (Tell them there’s no cake left.)

Dile que hace mucho frío. (Tell him it’s very cold.)

Spanish Subjunctive Conjugations

The subjunctive is usually the last of the set of verb conjugations that Spanish learners get the hang of. The conjugations are actually very straightforward. We are going to assume you have already got your present indicative and imperative conjugations locked down. In that case, learning the subjunctive conjugations for regular verbs is not at all difficult.

How to Make a Spanish Subjunctive Conjugation

1. You begin with the stem used for the first person present indicative, for example encuentr- for encontrar (to encounter) and hag– for hacer (to do).

2. Then make the same vowel switch you use for the “usted” imperative tense. So the A in the -AR verbs becomes an E, and the Es and Is in -ER and -IR verbs become As (this includes the “o” in the first person forms). The following table summarizes these rules.

Regular present subjunctive endings

PronounAR verbsIR and ER verbs
yo-e-a
-es-as
Usted, él, ella-e-a
Nosotros-emos-amos
Vosotros-éis-áis
Ustedes, ellos, ellas-en-an

The usual “go” or “yo-go” irregular verbs such as hacer hago, decir (to say) → digo, venir (to come) → vengo, etc. take the same irregular conjugations in the present subjunctive as they do in the present indicative (with the A/E substitution described above).

Going back to our verbs from step one, because encontrar is an -AR verb, it takes on the E endings: encuentre, encuentres, encuentre, encontréis, encontremos, encuentren; likewise, because hacer is an -ER verb, it takes on the A endings: haga, hagas, haga, hagáis, hagamos, hagan.

There are only six verbs that are specifically irregular in the present subjunctive.

Irregular verbs in the present subjunctive

The six irregular verbs in the present subjunctive are:

PronounESTARSABERSERHABERDARIR
yoestésepaseahayavaya
estéssepasseashayasdesvayas
usted, él, ellaestésepaseahayavaya
nosotrosestemossepamosseamoshayamosdemosvayamos
vosotrosestéissepáisseáishayáisdeisvayáis
ustedes, ellos, ellasesténsepanseanhayandenvayan

To put these words into use, you will next need to learn about subjunctive clauses.

What Is a Subjunctive Clause?

In order to understand what a subjunctive clause is, the best thing we can do is have a look at the meaning of “clause” first.

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a clause is “a group of words, consisting of a subject and a finite form of a verb.”

We know a subject is the person or thing performing the action of a verb, so in the following examples, the parts in bold are subjects:

María necesita un bolígrafo. (María needs a pen.)

El perro de mi hermana es blanco. (My sister’s dog is white.)

Siempre bebo mucho. (I always drink a lot. [elliptic subject yo])

On the other hand, a finite form of a verb is simply a fancy way of saying a conjugated verb or, if you will, a verb that shows tense. In the examples above, necesita, es and bebo are finite verbs showing present simple tense.

Put this information together and you may have already guessed what a subjunctive clause is: It is a sentence with a subject and a finite verb in the subjunctive mood. Here you have some examples (subjunctive clauses in bold):

No quiero que Ana venga. (I don’t want Ana to come.)

Espero que digas la verdad. (I hope you tell the truth.)

Quieren que sus vecinos se muden. (They want their neighbors to move.)

Remember the Spanish subjunctive includes different tenses (not only the present subjunctive, but also others like the imperfect subjunctive or the present perfect subjunctive). Since they are all conjugated and conjugated verb forms are, by definition, finite, you can obviously use them in subjunctive clauses as well:

No quería que Ana viniera. (I didn’t want Ana to come.)

Esperaba que dijeras la verdad. (I hoped you would tell the truth.)

Siempre habían querido que sus vecinos se mudaran. (They had always wanted their neighbors to move.)

The WEIRDO Method and Other Methods for Learning the Subjunctive

I have given you a ton of information and theory about the subjunctive already, but I am sure all you want is to cut to the chase and learn when and how to use the Spanish subjunctive.

In this section, you will get to know the main methods for learning this amazing (and easy) mood.

Let’s go!

1. The Trigger Method

It is nice to keep this idea of uncertainty, doubt or desire in mind but, if you are like most people, you will learn to use the subjunctive by learning certain “triggers” that tell you your sentence is about to be shot headfirst into the subjunctive. The subjunctive mood often occurs in subordinate clauses that begin with que. For example:

“Es probable que salgamos tarde.” (It’s likely we’ll leave late.)

“Es bueno que tengas tiempo libre.” (It’s good that you have free time.)

In the first sentence, the subjunctive verb expresses a probable, but indefinite, outcome. In the second, it expresses a subjective opinion about whether it is good or bad to have free time.

With the sense of uncertainty or desire removed, these sentences would be:

“Salimos tarde.” (We left late.)

“Tienes tiempo libre.” (You have free time.)

Note also the beginnings of the sentences: “es probable” and “es bueno.” These are classic subjunctive triggers. A complete list of these triggers would be rather long. So here is a short one.

Spanish Subjunctive Triggers

es importante que… (it’s important that…)

dudar que… (to doubt that…)

es bueno que… (it’s good that…)

es malo que… (it’s bad that…)

esperar que… (to hope/wish that…)

es mejor que… (it’s better that…)

es raro que… (it’s strange that…)

es posible que… (it’s possible that…)

es probable que… (it’s likely that…)

es necesario que… (it’s necessary that…)

hasta que… (until…)

ojalá que… (hopefully…)

no es cierto que… (it’s not certain that…)

mientras que… (meanwhile/while…)

sin que… (without…)

The 2 Most Common Subjunctive Triggers in Spanish

There are a couple of subjunctive triggers that deserve their own separate explanation.

The first trigger is a change in person. This happens with a number of verbs. Take querer (to want). If the verb following querer agrees with the subject of querer, you do not have a subjunctive sentence. If the verb following querer is different from the subject of querer, you’ve got yourself a subjunctive sentence.

For example:

“Yo quiero ir a la piscina.” (I want to go to the swimming pool.)

This is not subjunctive. This, however, is:

“Yo quiero que vayas a la piscina.” (I want you to go to the swimming pool.)

The same change happens with the verb esperar (to hope):

“Yo espero llegar pronto.” (I hope to arrive soon.)

The above example is not subjunctive. The following one is:

“Yo espero que él llegue pronto.” (I hope he arrives soon.)

The second trigger is the idea of wishing a certain experience on someone. That is a weirdly complex way to express the general rule, but it is basically the equivalent of when you say “Have a safe trip,” or “Have a nice day.” In English this is obviously an imperative sentence. You are telling someone to have a nice day whether they want to or not. In Spanish the phrase is “Que tengas un buen dia.” Or “Que te vaya bien.” These are subjunctive statements.

Together, these are the two most common ways you will encounter the subjunctive in everyday conversation. So they are worth understanding.

2. The WEIRDO Method

WEIRDO, you say? WEIRDO, I say!

The WEIRDO Method is actually a very cool way of remembering six situations when the subjunctive is used in Spanish.

WEIRDO stands for Wishes, Emotions, Impersonal expressions, Recommendations, Doubt/Denial and Ojalá (Hopefully). You just need to remember the word WEIRDO and you will already know six of the most important situations when the subjunctive is used.

Have a look at some examples.

Wish:

Espero que se enamore de mí. (I hope she falls in love with me.)

Emotion:

Me encanta que me llames. (I love it when you call me.)

Impersonal expression:

Es importante que vengas. (It is important that you come.)

Recommendation:

Te recomiendo que no bebas alcohol. (I recommend that you don’t drink alcohol.)

Doubt:

Dudo que tenga 30 años. (I doubt she is 30.)

Denial:

No creo que valga la pena. (I don’t think it’s worth it.)

Ojalá:

Ojalá me toque la lotería. (I wish I won the lottery.)

3. The 2 Different Subjects Method

The Spanish subjunctive loves it when we have two clauses in a sentence and each of them has a different subject. If you ever happen to be in this situation, use the indicative (or imperative, as appropriate) for the main clause and the subjunctive for the subordinate one:

Quiero (yo) que digas (tú) la verdad. (I want you to tell the truth.)

Dile (tú) que no vuelva (él). (Tell him not to come back.)

Necesitamos (nosotros) que Ana nos ayude. (We need Ana to help us.)

4. The Future Method

Weird as it may sound, Spanish also uses the subjunctive in order to express future probability, intention and speculation.

Apart from some of the expressions included in the Trigger Method that can be used for future purposes (like Es posible que mañana llueva — It may rain tomorrow), there are two important situations when Spanish uses the subjunctive:

With Cuando (When) + a Future Action.

English learners are taught not to use when and will in the same clause. Think of this as the Spanish equivalent! Instead of using the future tense, use the subjunctive after cuando for future actions:

Te llamaré cuando vuelva. (I’ll call you when I’m back.)

Cuando lleguemos a casa, haremos las maletas. (When we arrive home, we will pack.)

In Second Conditionals.

We use the second conditional for conditions and situations that are difficult or even impossible at the moment of speaking. English uses the formula “if + past simple, would.” Spanish, on the other hand, uses “if + imperfect subjunctive, simple conditional”:

Si fuera rico, compraría una casa. (If I were rich, I would buy a house.)

Si estudiaras más, aprobarías el examen. (If you studied more, you would pass the exam.)

Common Mistakes Learners Make with the Subjunctive

It would be impossible to make a comprehensive list of all the situations when a Spanish learner makes a mistake or has trouble with the subjunctive.

I have been teaching Spanish for 20 years now, and what I know for sure is that 99% of my students make the same mistakes, have the same problems and are equally lost when studying the Spanish subjunctive.

If you stick to the rules and follow all the information included in this post, you will not have any problem with this mood. Believe me, the subjunctive is only as difficult as you make it to be. However, it is always easier said than done…

These are the common problems my students have with the subjunctive. If you are able to avoid them, you will succeed:

1. Not Every Que Triggers the Subjunctive.

You need to remember that learning the subjunctive does not mean you can forget about the indicative mood now.

It is true that there are countless situations (see the Trigger Method, for example) when que is followed by the subjunctive, but this is only true if we have a subjunctive trigger or have to apply any of the methods described above. Many times, though, que is just a “normal” que, and it will be followed by whatever it needs, not necessarily the subjunctive:

El niño que vive allí es alto. (The boy who lives there is tall.)

Tengo que comprar agua. (I need to buy some water.)

2. Creo Que No and No Creo Que Are Not the Same.

They look indeed very similar and they include the same words in a different order, but while creo que no needs the indicative, no creo que needs the subjunctive:

Creo que no me amas. (I think you don’t love me.)

No creo que me ames. (I don’t think you love me.)

3. Aunque (Even if/Even Though) Can Be Tricky.

Aunque can be followed by both the indicative and the subjunctive depending on the message we want to convey. When using the word aunque, follow the rule fact = indicative, doubt/condition = subjunctive:

Aunque llueve, iremos al parque. (Even though it is raining, we will go to the park.)

Aunque llueva, iremos al parque. (Even if it rains, we will go to the park.)

4. When in Doubt, Use the Indicative.

I know this may sound crazy, but chances are if you are having difficulties deciding whether you have to use the subjunctive of not, you do not have to.

Granted, this piece of advice is valid when you are having a conversation with friends rather than during a DELE exam, but still, if you have already decided to toss a coin, choose the indicative. Your friends will not mind and will probably correct you. Your teacher will do the same, and the DELE examiners… Well, they are a whole different story altogether.

 

As mentioned above, it is worth remembering that, as in English, most subjunctive Spanish sentences still make sense without the subjunctive conjugation of the verb. Spanish speakers will understand what you are trying to say. So do not stress out if you skip over a subjunctive.

Nor should you be afraid to throw a subjunctive conjugation in if it springs to mind. Chances are you are right, and even if you are not, you will probably be understood.
 

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