Spanish Subjunctive Usage and Meaning
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.
This chapter will give you a flavour of the subjunctive, so you can start to understand what it is and how it is used.
Chapters in this guide:
The Spanish Subjunctive vs the indicative
The indicative is what we could call the “normal” tense: the one we use most often:
Lis trabaja muchas horas: Lis works a lot of hours
This is a statement of fact about the world. Compare it to this phrase:
No me gusta que Lis trabaje tanto: I don’t like that Lis works so much
In this statement, the speaker is expressing a feeling, or judgment about Lis working so much – this triggers the use of subjunctive trabaje. So, one use of the subjunctive is to express feeling or emotion about something.
Another use is to express doubt:
Dudo que venga: I doubt that he’s coming
It’s possible to categorise all of the instances of the subjunctive, and one Spanish scholar took on this entertaining task in 1894 (Ramsey, “A Textbook of Modern Spanish”). He came up with the following list:
- Impersonal expression
- Denial, doubt
- Indefinite relative
- Negative result
- Exclamatory wishes
- Conditions of implied negation
Did you remember all of those? No?
That’s the main problem with this approach. There are lots of taxonomies which have been collated by linguists, and these are very difficult to memorise, internalise, and then correctly use.
It also raises the question of how these categories were decided in the first place. There must be something in common between all these categories, as native Spanish speakers seem to pick all of this up without learning this list. What’s the actual meaning of the subjunctive?
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 él 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 is when we use the subjunctive: It 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.
The subjunctive is used when speakers want to add either a layer of emotion or “unreality” to what they are saying.
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:
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 Lis venga
“I doubt that Liz is coming”: Yo dudo que Lis venga
But, when we express belief that something is true (reality), we use the indicative:
“I think Liz is coming”: Creo que Lis 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 Lis 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 Lis
“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
Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense to you at the moment. In the next few chapters, we’ll explore these uses in more detail. But, it’s worth remembering the meaning of the subjunctive, as well as its uses.
We’ll finish with an exercise. Look at the phrases below, and think about 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
Click on the expandable section below for some answers:
In the next few chapters, we’ll dive into more specific uses of the subjunctive. Although these may seem complicated, by remembering the principles from this chapter, you’ll be able to understand the “why” behind each use.