Date posted: August 27, 2013

ice cream

Few parts of Spanish grammar instil such dread in Spanish learners as the subjunctive. Entire books have been devoted to the treatment of the subjunctive, and as English speakers we are constantly baffled by it. However, by bearing a few things in mind we can come to understand the Spanish subjunctive, learn the forms, and use it correctly, naturally, and fluently. Here follows a guide to the Spanish subjunctive!

The Spanish Subjunctive in a nutshell

The first thing to realise about the Spanish subjunctive is that it is not a tense, but rather a “mood”, which has its own tense system (sorry… Another one to learn!). It’s helpful to think of it as a shift to another perspective, one where you are viewing the world through the perspective of human judgment. Using the subjunctive means that you are adding a human, emotional element to what you are saying, rather than simply stating a fact. The subjunctive and the indicative are the two mood systems that make up the Spanish language.

In this article we’ll assume you’re familiar with the form of the subjunctive. If you’re not, it’s certainly a good idea to go out and learn the various conjugations. Learning the forms is the easiest part of the subjunctive – the hard part is knowing how and when to use it.

Using the subjunctive

There are two schools of thought in how best to learn how to use the subjunctive. One way is to learn the verb conjugations where the subjunctive is used, and this is what one Spanish scholar originally did in 1894 (Ramsey, “A Textbook of Modern Spanish”). Ramsey categorised the instances of the use of the Spanish subjunctive into the following classes:

  • Command
  • Demand/request
  • Proposal/suggestion
  • Desire
  • Emotion/feeling
  • Impersonal expression
  • Deinal, doubt
  • Indefinite relative
  • Exception
  • Concession
  • Permission
  • Negative result
  • Supposition
  • Proviso
  • Imperative
  • Exclamatory wishes
  • Conditions of implied negation
  • Approval/preference
  • Prohibition/hindrance

Did you remember all of those? No? That’s the main problem with this approach. There are a large number of taxonomies which have been collated by linguists, and these are very difficult for the learner to memorise, internalise, and then correctly use. Moreover, it raises the question of how these categories were decided in the first place. They certainly weren’t devised by some cruel grammarian to torture Spanish learners. So what is it that binds all of these categories together? The second school of thought looks at the subjunctive as a marker of meaning, rather than a collection of uses.

What does the subjunctive mean?

The subjunctive is used when speakers want to add either a layer of emotion or “unreality” to what they are saying. When we speak, we frequently make assertions – things which we believe to be true about the world. If I say “he’s eating”, I’m making an assertion about someone eating. We can consider this as a “fact”, and this is where the indicative is used. When there is no doubt, just the assertion of a fact, we use the indicative. So, “he’s eating” becomes el come. So far, so simple.

However, as a speaker, I can comment on the assertions I make. I can add a layer of emotion by doubting, denying, judging, and all other subjective actions that humans can make. I could say “it’s terrible that he’s eating”, or “I’m so happy he’s eating”, etc. This, then, is when we use the subjunctive. It’s signifies the layer of subjectivity and emotion which is added to the assertion.

To make a comparison to ice cream, the indicative is plain vanilla: Just the fact, simply stated (or “asserted”). The subjunctive consists of all the toppings of human emotion sprinkled on top, changing the flavour of the ice cream.

So, “it’s terrible he’s eating” becomes es terrible que coma, and “I’m so happy he’s eating” becomes Me alegro mucho que esté comiendo.

Some more uses of the subjunctive

To expand on the idea above, there are a few other common instances when we use the subjunctive, which all still fall under the same “layer of emotion” theme:

Non-reality

When we comment on our assertions, we can express all sorts of beliefs regarding how true we believe the assertion to be. We can doubt, deny, dis-believe, and more. For these “un-real” comments, we also use the subjunctive:

“I don’t believe Liz is coming”:
Yo no creo que Liz venga

“I doubt that Liz is coming”:
Yo dudo que Liz venga

But, when we express belief that something is true (reality), we use the indicative:

“I think Liz is coming”:
Creo que Liz viene

If we’re expressing that something is perhaps true, perhaps false, we also use the subjunctive:

“It’s possible that Liz is coming”:
Es posible que venga Liz

We can extend this idea of “non-reality” to hypothetical situations – to situations which are contrary to fact, or which are not real. This is used in conditional statements:

“I think Liz would come if I asked her” (reality: I haven’t asked her):
Creo que Liz vendría si le invitara

“We would have eaten if there were any food” (reality: There wasn’t any food):
Habríamos comido si hubiera comida

Imposition of will

When you want something to happen, you are also expressing non-reality. If I want Liz to arrive, or I want her to make me a sandwich, I want something which is not true, or does not exist, at the moment. That’s why the subjunctive is used with commands, orders, imperatives, and other types of speech which express the imposition of will:

“I want Liz to come”:
Quiero que venga Liz

“He said that you were to leave”:
Dijo que te fueras

This is also used with negative:

“Don’t tell me anything”:
No me digas nada

Selection is not automatic

One of the biggest problems with many of the classic approaches to teaching the Spanish subjunctive is that it is something that is “triggered” by certain verbs or sequences. While it’s true that the subjunctive might be the most likely choice after certain verbs, this ignores the fact that the subjunctive is used to reflect a speaker’s attitude, rather than being used as a matter of course. Fill in the blank type exercises are a really poor way to practise the subjunctive, as they give you no handle on speaker intent.

Selection of either one of the moods is not controlled by the words that are used, but by you, the speaker. Using the indicative indicates straight-forward information, and the subjunctive expresses “attitude” towards whatever information you’re giving. You can see the difference the use of the subjunctive makes in the following sentences:

Dice que vienen:
“He/she says that they are coming”

Dice que vengan:
“He/she says that they are to come”

An exercise

We’ll finish with an exercise. Look at the phrases below, and decide why the indicative or subjunctive has been used in each case:

El sol sale a las siete

Nos sorprende que se casen

Ojalá que no llueva

Salimos si no llueve

Tememos que se van

Tememos que se vayan

You’ll always find examples of the subjunctive which surprise you. The key is to notice – notice why the subjunctive has been used, and what effect this has on the sentence. That way, you’ll become more fluent and natural in using it yourself, without having to resort to tedious fill-in-the-blank exercises. If nothing else, the subjunctive is not usually a barrier to communication. If you get it wrong, it’s not the end of the world!

Have you found any easy ways to approach the subjunctive? Let us know in the comments below!

  • Ania

    It’s quite complicated ;) It’s good to remember a few expressions when we always must use the subjunctive like: Ojala, para que.., como si, que (when giving orden or instruction) etc. The best approach is practise, practise & practise :)

  • Keith Kreuz

    Great thoughts on how to simplify the approach to learning the Subjunctive … As an English teacher I feel it is best to start simple and then build on that. So for me the most simple kernal that I hold on to when practicing the Subjunctive is to think of a picture of a HEART, and that any language that passes through the heart comes out the other side as the Spanish Subjunctive. This approach obviously does not work in all cases, but it is a helpful starting point.

    • spanishobsessed

      Nice idea! But how are we to know what language comes from the heart?

      • Keith Kreuz

        I received that tip from my Spanish teachers while I was in Spain preparing to take the DELE exam, and those guys have been teaching Spanish for many years so I trust what they say. Like I said, it is not a foolproof rule that can be applied at all times and in all circumstances, but it simply is a starting point for a person to get their head around how to use the subjunctive. So the way I use that rule is to consider what I am going to say (i.e. whether to use the indicative or the subjunctive) based on whether those words will pass through the filter of FEELING … so where the indicative is often used to tell the facts or state information, if I am about to say anything with any measure of feeling, then I should consider using the subjunctive. Again, the image I have in my mind is that of a big heart, and if my words are going to be processed with some element of my heart/feeling (including doubt, emotion, suggestions, prohibition, request, etc), then those words should take the form of the subjunctive as they leave my heart. Working from that one kernel, I can then use some rules (like the use of que, the importance of a change of subject, etc.) to develop my understanding and use of the subjunctive. It works for me!

        • spanishobsessed

          I like it! Thanks for sharing