spanish subjunctive

Complete Guide to the Spanish Subjunctive: Conjugation and Beyond

For a long time, I couldn’t figure out the Spanish subjunctive.

I was comfortable talking in the present tense but still floundered whenever I tried to remember subjunctive conjugation.

And sometimes I couldn’t even remember whether or not I was even supposed to use the subjunctive in a given situation.

But the Spanish subjunctive isn’t as tricky as I thought. I’ll walk you through it so you too can master it.

Contents

What Is the Subjunctive Mood?

The subjunctive mood is used when expressing wishes, desires, doubts and guesses. You use it when talking about emotions and possibilities, and sometimes also about obligations or necessities.

The subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. In fact, the subjunctive mood includes several tenses.

But what is the difference between a tense and a mood?

A tense tells us when the action takes place. This place in time can be the past, the present or the future.

Here are examples of a sentence conjugated in different tenses:

  • Present Tense: Vamos a la playa. (We go to the beach).
  • 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 tenses and conjugation follow certain patterns, so the main thing you need to remember is which tense to use for different timeframes.

The verb mood, on the other hand, does not place the action at any moment in time. Instead, it tells about how we feel about the action.

In the previous example, Vamos a la playa, the indicative mood is used because it simply makes a statement of fact. All the example sentences above for the other tenses use the indicative mood as well.

Now look at this:

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

This expresses a wish or 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).

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

How to Conjugate a Spanish Verb in the Subjunctive

Subjunctive conjugations are actually pretty straightforward, assuming you’ve already got your present indicative and imperative conjugations locked down.

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 any “e” or “i” in the –er and –ir verbs become “a”. (this includes the “o” in the first person forms).

The table in the next section 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

Irregular “yo” verb forms (such as hacer hago, decir → digo and venir (to come) → vengo) 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” ending: encuentre, encuentres, encuentre, encontréis, encontremos, encuentren.

Likewise, because hacer is an –er verb, it takes on the “a” ending: 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?

A clause is a group of words that contain a subject and a conjugated verb.

So a subjunctive clause is a sentence with a subject and a verb conjugated 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, 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).

Subjunctive vs. Imperative Moods

The subjunctive mood is used when we embed an emotion into a sentence, and the imperative mood is used for commands, orders and instructions. Here are some examples of the imperative in action:

¡Dame la pelota! (Give me the ball!)

Aparca aquí. (Park here).

¡No te comas eso! (Don’t eat that!)

Now, to understand the difference between the subjunctive and the imperative, let’s keep in mind a couple of 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 because, technically, 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.

Perhaps you want to give an order or command but the person the message is for is not in front of you and you need a messenger.

In this case, Spanish 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 need the indicative, not the subjunctive, after an imperative.

This happens in cases where 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).

You’ll learn when to use the subjunctive and the indicative as you interact with the language in context. Listen to native Spanish speakers use the subjunctive to get a better sense of what it sounds like and when it’s necessary.

If you don’t have a Spanish speaker on hand, there are many resources out there that focus on teaching through real native content, like the language learning program FluentU.

With FluentU, you can watch engaging and authentic Spanish-language videos with expert-vetted captions.

If you come across a subjunctive verb (or any unfamiliar grammar or vocab) in a video, you can hover over any word or phrase to get an in-context translation and example sentences.

If you add a word to your flashcards, you can even see other videos where the word is used in a similar context.

You can access the program via either the website, or the iOS and Android apps.

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. Yet 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.

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 mood.

1. The Trigger Method

You can 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 two 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 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, like when you say “Have a safe trip” or “Have a nice day.”

In English this is technically 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.

These are the two most common ways you will encounter the subjunctive in everyday conversation, so they are worth understanding.

2. The WEIRDO Method

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.

Here are 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

If you have two clauses in a sentence and each of them has a different subject, 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

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 with the Subjunctive

I have been teaching Spanish for 20 years now and I’ve found 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.

Below 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 now forget about the indicative mood.

It is true that there are countless situations (see the Trigger Method, for example) where 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. Difference between “Creo que no” and “No creo que”

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” can be used in subjunctive or indicative

Aunque (even if/even though) can be followed by both the indicative and the subjunctive depending on the message we want to convey.

When using the word aunque, remember that fact = indicative and 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

Chances are if you are having difficulties deciding whether you have to use the subjunctive of not, you do not have to.

Granted, this is better advice if you’re having a conversation with friends than if you’re taking 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.

 

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! Even if you are not correct, you will probably be understood.

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