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In the mood: El subjuntivo

Updated: May 15

trying to understand the subjunctive in spanish
Man studying the subjunctive

This time I´m going to write a very basic and brief explanation of the subjunctive, a subject that most students learning Spanish are afraid of.

The subjunctive is a grammatical mood that expresses a wish, hope, obligation, opinion, uncertainty, or an action that has not yet occurred. The subjunctive exists in English too, but it doesn’t have many distinct verb forms (we see it in phrases like, “If I were young...”). Since it doesn’t stand out, many native speakers aren’t aware that they use it.

In Spanish it’s much more prominent, and even if you have excellent pronunciation and fluency, not using the subjunctive can make you look like a total beginner. In fact, sometimes we see people who have a fairlyadvanced level of Spanish and enough fluency to speak Spanish at a business level, but who still make zero use of the subjunctive.

I hope this article gives you a general idea, so you can start thinking about the subjunctive when you speak Spanish. I will try to explain it in a very simple and practical way. I’ll provide the basic tools to understand the main use of subjunctive and perceive some of its nuances.

Verbs that introduce the subjunctive

The easiest and most frequent cases where we use the subjunctive come after the following verbs: querer, desear, esperar, prohibir, pedir, dudar, etc.

All of these are followed by que, and they all express a wish, a hope, a doubt, an order, a request, and so on. This changes the mood of the verb that follows to the subjective.

For example:

· Quiero que vengas a mi casa

· Espero que Ana entienda

· Dudo que pueda salir temprano de la oficina.

Exception: creer doesn’t introduce the subjunctive, whereas no creer does.

· Creo que el mercado de valores va a caer.

· No creo que el mercado de valores caiga.

You use the indicative to express something you believe: it’s a fact that you believe in something. However, when the negative introduces doubt or uncertainty, you need to use subjunctive.

The future is uncertain

Whatever happens in the future is, inherently, not certain: so this frequently requires use of the subjunctive. When using adverbs of time like cuando, despues, or antes to express a future action, you will use the subjunctive.

Let’s compare three examples using cuando. Just one requires the subjunctive:

· Cuando trabajo en casa, no uso zapatos. [When I work from home, I don’t wear shoes. This is a general, current situation, so you use the indicative for both verbs.]

· Cuando trabajé en casa no usé zapatos. [This is a past event, so you again use the indicative, in the past tense.]

· Cuando trabaje en casa, no usaré zapatos. [Here the work situation is a possible future event; hence the use of subjunctive. But there’s not the same uncertainty about going barefoot if that situation occurs, so that verb for that remains indicative, in the future tense.]

Definite vs. indefinite

We sometimes refer to things or people in general terms (not definite) rather than specific ones (definite). Depending on which sense you’re using, you should choose between the subjunctive and the indicative.

For example:

Busco una casa que tiene una puerta roja. [You use indicative here because you are looking for a particular house: for instance, when you’re trying to find a friend’s house.]

Busco una casa que tenga una puerta roja. [In this case, you use subjunctive, because you are not looking for a specific house. Instead, you are looking for any house that has a red door: maybe you’re asking a realtor to help you find one.]

I like to say that anywhere English would use a word ending in “-ever,” it signals a general rather than a specific context. So, for Spanish speakers, it will trigger use of the subjunctive.

Some examples:

Vamos a donde quieras ir. [Subjunctive: Let´s go wherever you want to go.]

Vamos a donde quieres ir. [Indicative: Let’s go to the (specific) place you want to go.]

Hoy comeremos lo que desees. [Subjunctive: Today we will eat whatever you wish.]

Hoy comeremos lo que deseas. [Indicative: Today we will eat the (specific) food you want.]

Dime lo que sepas. [Subjunctive: Tell me whatever you know.]

Dime lo que sabes. [Indicative: Tell me that thing you know.]

Invita a quien quieras invitar. [Subjunctive: Invite whoever you want to invite.]

Invita a quien quieres invitar. [Indicative: Invite that person you want to invite.]

Now that we have talked about the basics of the present subjunctive, next time we will move on to the imperfect subjunctive for similar cases in the past. There are also other structures with conditional and with perfect tenses that we’ll tackle in future blogs.

This blog aims to give a general idea of the basics for those learning Spanish at an intermediate to advanced level. To cover everything, we would need an entire course.

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