Chapter five

Spanish Subjunctive uses 2: Adjective clauses

In this chapter, we’ll learn how to use the subjunctive in another very common scenario – with subordinated adjective clauses.
Rob Ashby
The Spanish Obsessive

One of the most common uses (and misuses for learners) of the subjunctive is with adjective clauses.

This is far less difficult than it sounds, and as with previous sections you’ll get a chance to check your comprehension at each key point.

What is an adjective clause?

A noun clause (which we met in the last chapter) is a clause which stands in for a noun:

Lis wants Rob to eat pasta

An adjective clause, then, is a clause which stands in for an adjective. This clause describes, or modifies the rest of the sentence:

Spanish Obsessed has lots of podcasts which help you learn Spanish

Subject (who?): Spanish Obsessed

Verb: Has

Object (what?): Lots of podcasts which help you learn Spanish

Within this, we have the adjective clause: …which help you learn Spanish

The adjective clause “which help you learn Spanish” describes, or modifies “podcasts”.

Let’s take another example in English:

I prefer pizza which doesn’t have too much cheese

Subject: I

Verb: Prefer

Object: pizza which…

Adjective clause: …which doesn’t have too much cheese (this clause describes “pizza”)

As you can see, adjective clauses in English are often introduced with words such as “which”, “that”, “when”, etc. In Spanish, this is also true, and you’ll often see que used:

Prefiero una pizza que no tenga queso “I prefer a pizza that doesn’t have cheese”

Learner’s advice

You can check for an adjective clause by substituting it with an adjective. If the sentence still makes sense then it’s an adjective clause.

With the above example:

Prefiero una pizza que no tenga queso azul

That works for this sentence. Let’s take another example:

Quiero que vengas conmigo azul

This doesn’t work, so we know we don’t have an adjective clause.

Check your understanding

Once we have determined that we are dealing with an adjective clause, we only need to apply one guideline:

The adjective clause modifies (describes) something (the “antecedent”) vague or nonexistent 

Let’s take another example:

No hay nadie que me pueda ayudar

The adjective clause is everything following queque me pueda ayudar

The antecedent is the “something” that is being modified: Nadie

What does the phrase say about nadieNo hay nadieThis implies nonexistence: “there isn’t anyone”. So, we use the subjunctive:

No hay nadie que me pueda ayudar

Let’s explore a few more examples:

Busco a una persona que sea responsable

Adjective clause: que sea responsable

Does the antecedent imply doubt, vagueness, or non-existence? Busco a una persona.. “I’m looking for a person…” – this implies I haven’t found that person. I don’t have anyone definite in mind, so this implies vagueness. Therefore, we use the subjunctive.

Quería la casa que tenía tres cuartos

Adjective clause: que tenía tres cuartos

Does the antecedent imply doubt, vagueness, or non-existence? Quería la casa… “I wanted the house… “. This implies that I have already seen the house, and have the house in mind. Therefore, we don’t use the subjunctive.

¿Hay alguien que nos pueda ayudar? 

Adjective clause: …que nos pueda ayudar?

Does the antecedent imply doubt, vagueness, or non-existence? ¿Hay alguien…? “Is there anyone”. This implies that there is no one at the moment – non-existence. So, we use the subjunctive.

Check your understanding