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Spanish Subjunctive: The No-Frills Approach to Taming the Unruly Mood

Easy Tips to Understand, Master, and Get Cozy with the Hardest Part of Spanish Grammar

If it's subjective, it's subjunctive. It's that simple.

Photo credit: Jay Galvin licensed CC BY 2.0

HomeBlogSpanish Subjunctive: The No-Frills Approach to Taming the Unruly Mood

Spanish subjunctive, the very mention of which drives a chill up many a novice language learner, doesn’t really deserve all of its notoriety. This is the very idea that I aim to assert through this post. Some myths shall be dispelled, some tricks will be shared. By the end of this read, you’ll be as hands-on with the Spanish subjunctive as you are with any concept of grammar in your favorite language. Well, that’s the plan, let’s see how it goes.

Right off the bat, let’s dispel the first myth: Spanish subjunctive is not an advanced topic. The sooner you ace it, the quicker you’ll be able to engage in real-life conversations with ease. That’s because native speakers use the subjunctive all the time. With that out of the way, here’s another myth you ought to shrug off: Subjunctive is not a tense. It’s a mood. What mood? Well, Spanish, like English, is a very moody language. Actually, more so than English. How you conjugate a verb depends on not only when the action happens but also how you relate it. We don’t have to be very conscious of moods in English, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. We’ll see how.

Spanish Subjunctive: Mood or Tense?

There’s three moods — indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. You’re already familiar with indicative, the mood in which you relate events as they are:

You are smart.

I’m coming home.

They ate up all the pie.

Indicative is the mood you start off with whenever learning a new language. Most likely, when you learn the present tense, the imperfect, or the preterite for the first time, you do so in the indicative tense. The next most common mood is the imperative. This is where you address someone directly with a request or an order:

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Gimme a break!

Please teach me the subjunctive.

And just as the above two, subjunctive is a mood. Not a tense. All tenses can be expressed as either indicative or subjunctive. When to use the subjunctive? Why is it so weird? Is it actually that weird? How to conjugate in this mood? These are the questions we’ll be answering in the following sections. But before we get there, it’s important to first understand what a mood even is and how it is different from tense.

English Has a Subjunctive Too!

At this point, let me shock you with a revelation: English has a subjunctive too! You heard that right, Spanish subjunctive is not all that special. What makes it appear special, though, is that it’s way more ubiquitous than its English counterpart. Coming back to tense vs. mood, mood basically expresses not the time of action but its expression. The manner in which the thought is conveyed, if you will. If you’re expressing an assertion, it’s indicative. If it’s a command or a request, it’s imperative. And if it’s a mere wish or hope that you’re expressing, it’s subjunctive. Subjunctive expressions do not state facts, they express what-ifs or imaginations:

I wish Hitler were never born.

Well, Hitler did happen, he did live, didn’t he? What the above example is expressing is a wish rather than a fact. The sentence is, thus, in the subjunctive mood. See the were in there? Didn’t I tell you English has subjunctive too? Had the wish been a fact, the sentence would’ve been in the indicative mood:

Hitler was born.

The usage of were for even singular nouns is usually your cue that it’s a subjunctive expression we’re dealing with.

What’s so Special about Spanish Subjunctive?

But if English also has this mood, why Spanish subjunctive such a strange concept to most native English speakers? Why doesn’t it come naturally? That’s because over the course of its evolution, English has become super relaxed about its subjunctive rules. In most cases today, you could — and often, do — get away with just using the indicative for what ideally ought to be in the subjunctive. Thus, the above wish is often also expressed as:

I wish Hitler was never born.

But the rules aren’t as relaxed in Spanish. This language remains more or less conservative when it comes to evolution and resists any drastic changes to its rules. Thus, the above wish can only be rendered in Spanish as below:

Ojalá Hitler nunca naciera.

Unlike in English, you do not have the luxury of this in Spanish:

Ojalá Hitler nunca nació.

The rules for Spanish subjunctives are mighty rigid. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot substitute Spanish indicative for Spanish subjunctive even in casual speech. That said, if you have a good handle of how subjunctives works in English, even if you don’t use it much, you’ll do quite well with Spanish subjunctives as well.

So What Is Subjunctive Again?

We just established that there’s mood and there’s tense. We also established that tense tells us when an action occurred, whereas mood tells us how it’s expressed. Indicative is when an action is expressed as is, like plain-vanilla narration. Imperative is when the expression is an order or a request. The action hasn’t actually been done but is being asked to be done. These are the two moods all English speakers are familiar with already.

Subjunctive is the third mood, and a tad more elusive than the other two. How is it different from indicative or imperative? It’s different in the sense that it neither narrates, nor orders. It expresses a wish. Or something similar. Think of it like this: The event hasn’t actually taken place, nor is one being requested or ordered to do it. Following English expressions, regardless of how their verbs are conjugated, are all in the subjunctive mood:

I wish I could join you tomorrow.

If I were God, I’d make everyone immortal.

I request that she be taken care of.

Don’t let the word request in the last one fool you. It’s a wish masquerading as a request. Such expressions are not terribly common in modern English in which it just renders as a direct request for the sake of simplicity:

I request you to take care of her.

Barring a very few exceptions, you don’t do that in Spanish. Here, you ought to be clear on whether you’re requesting or wishing. When I say exceptions, I mean cases like want. Wants are always in the indicative mood even though they’re synonymous to wishes. We’ll dwell on this a little later.

Popular Spanish Subjunctive Use-Case Tricks

There are rules and then there are rules. That’s the evil thing about grammars, they’re packed with rules and exceptions to those rules. And with Spanish subjunctives, the scene only gets further complicated. And that’s where tricks come in. Several mnemonics have been invented to tackle this beast, some more popular than the others. One of them that I see peddled the most is what’s called the WEIRD trick. Almost right up in the alley with this mnemonic in terms of popularity is the trigger-word trick. These are the two methods that, if memorized, cover the most ground with Spanish subjunctives. The only problem with these, in my personal opinion, is that these tricks demand too much of memorizing of their own to make things much easier. In order to understand how, let’s first learn what these tricks even are.

Spanish Subjunctive: The WEIRD Trick

Each letter of this acronym represents an entire use-case for the Spanish subjunctive. This is how it expands:

  • Wishes
  • Emotions
  • Impersonal expressions
  • Recommendations
  • Doubts

Wishes, we have already seen. You can further extrapolate them to include expectations and hopes too. Let me illustrate each one of these situations one by one.

Wish: Espero que te mejores pronto (I hope you get better soon).

Emotion: Me sorprendo que pueda caminar (I’m surprised that you can walk).

Impersonal expression: Es importante que Jaime venga (It’s important that James comes).

Recommendation: Sugiero que te vayas a dormir ya (I suggest you go to sleep now).

Doubt: Duda que yo tenga su dirección (She doubts I have her address).

See how well this mnemonic covers all Spanish subjunctive situations? That’s what’s great about it, besides the fact that it seems to have worked for many, given its popularity. Personally though, I find it too bulky to remember and bulkier even to recall during an active conversation. Which is why I gave it up in favor of what worked for me, but more on that later.

Spanish Subjunctive: The Trigger-Word Trick

This one is so plain-vanilla, I wonder why they even call it a trick in the first place. All you have to do here is remember a list of conjunctions and other words that indicate that the expression that follows is most likely in the subjunctive mood. These are signature subjunctive triggers, tell-tale signs if you will. I could list out all possible triggers here, but why reinvent the wheel? So lemme discuss just a couple to give you a feel and then point you to someplace where someone has already put together the whole thing for us.

Ojalá goes back to when Arab Muslims ruled Spain. Ojalá goes back to when Arab Muslims ruled Spain.
Sharon Mollerus licensed CC BY 2.0

First things first, the most common word that blindly takes the subjunctive, no matter what, has to be ojalá. You’d do well to learn this word as it features in native conversations a lot. The word goes back to the Moors who sneaked in a lot of Arabic into Spanish. Allah, as we all know, is Arabic for God. And just as we sometimes go oh God when making wishes, the Arabs go with Oh Allah. And when this expression crept into Spanish, it became ojalá. Typically, it comes at the beginning of an utterance and may or may not take a que immediately after it. Here’s an example usage:

Ojalá que tengamos buen tiempo hoy (Let’s hope we have a good weather today).

With ojalá out of the way, we can move on to other triggers. One such trigger is esperar (to hope), especially if it comes with a que. There’s also a menos que (unless), ser fácil que, (to be likely that), and others. In case you haven’t noticed, they all have one common feature: que. Use that as a cue. For a more exhaustive list, check out this heavyweight.

My Approach to Spanish Subjunctive

If the WEIRD trick works for you, great. If you’re able to cram up the bazillion and one trigger expressions, even better. But lesser beings like me who find them too much work, follow my approach. And my approach this time is no trick. It’s simply a thorough understanding of the basics so that when faced with real-life situations, you know intuitively whether subjunctive is warranted. Sounds boring, but if you do get a firm grasp on why and how Spanish subjunctive works, you’ll be able to feel it rather than just use it like as cold mathematical rules.

It’s All About the Hypotheticals

I know I’m becoming a broken record now but this one just can’t be stressed enough. The subjunctive mood is about things that haven’t happened and aren’t confirmed to do so in the future. It’s about the hypotheticals as against the indicative mood which is about assertions. This distinction is key to understanding this mood. Look at the following two examples:

Mi hermana habla español (My sister speaks Spanish).

Yo Sé que mi hermana habla español (I know that my sister speaks Spanish).

In both these cases, it’s established that my sister does speak Spanish. These are assertions, and assertions indicate rather than speculate. The mood is, thus, indicative. Now look at the following:

Espero que mi hermana hable español (I hope my sister speaks Spanish).

Es difícil que mi hermana hable español (It’s unlikely that my sister speaks Spanish).

This time, I’m not asserting. Hopes, likeliness, possibility — these are all speculative in nature. My sister doesn’t actually speak Spanish and if she does, these sentences don’t confirm that. This is a case of Spanish subjunctive. So indicative vs. subjunctive is essentially just reality vs. possibility.

Denials Are Hypothetical

That’s right. At least in the context of Spanish. When you deny something that follows que, you cast doubt on it. As always, let’s illustrate this with some real-world examples:

Creo que mi hermana habla español (I believe my sister speaks Spanish).

No creo que mi hermana hable español (I don’t believe my sister speaks Spanish).

Guess what, the two sentences are in two different moods! I know, both sentences seem assertive because in the context of what I believe, my sister speaking or not speaking Spanish is pretty much established. Thus, both should be tagged indicative. But Spanish grammar thinks otherwise. It sees the second example as a subjunctive situation. This is one anomaly you’ll just have to make peace with. The simple rule of thumb is that whenever two clauses are brought together by a que and the first clause is in the negative, the second is automatically subjunctive. Some examples are no creer que…, no ser que…, no parecer que…, etc.

Unless the negation adds an element of certainty. The following will not trigger the Spanish subjunctive:

No dudar que…

No ser dudoso que…

This will take a lot of practice but will serve you way better than the WEIRD acronym.

Changed Person, Changed Mood

This is perhaps the easiest of all Spanish subjunctive use-cases to identify. Whenever a sentence comes in the form of two clauses strung with a que, there’s a potential trigger. In such cases, just watch out for the grammatical person in both clauses. Are they different? The most likely the second clause is in the subjunctive. Let’s illustrate this with English:

I want you to finish this today.

The above looks like a simple straightforward assertion but is actually not supposed to be. As I already explained somewhere above, English has lost much of its subjunctive over the centuries. The above example would most accurately render as:

I want that you finish this today.

Quite a mouthful but this is what proper subjunctive looks like. Spanish didn’t go through this simplification and mandates the second construction exclusively. Notice the that conjunction there? It becomes que in Spanish. And the conjunction brings together two clauses, both with two different persons, I and you. And that’s why the Spanish version conjugates terminar (to finish) in the subjunctive mood here:

Quiero que lo termines hoy.

Again, the rule of doubt trumps all others. Even if the two clauses do introduce two different persons, the sentence will not use the subjunctive if there were no speculation involved:

Creo que ella viene (I believe she’s coming).

Here, two persons are involved: I and she. But since there’s no doubt being cast (in the context of my belief, she is coming), the sentence remains indicative and not subjunctive.

The Spanish Subjunctive Sorcery

This one is for the advanced, more adventurous learners. It will confuse you but trust me, you’ll enjoy the confusion. And I promise you won’t be confused by the time you’re done with this section. Say you’re looking for a girl who wears glasses. How would you say that in Spanish?

Busco a una chica que lleva anteojos.

Busco a una chica que lleve anteojos.

Do they look different? Lleva is indicative, lleve is subjunctive. So which one is correct? Guess what, both! Don’t fret, allow me to explain.

Remember what I said about doubt and uncertainty being defining subjunctive features? That’s exactly the idea here as well. The first translation is in the indicative mood. Which means that the bespectacled girl actually exists, and I know who she is. It’s a very specific person I’m looking for. The second one, however, is in the subjunctive. And that casts a doubt over the girl’s existence. She may or may not exist, I don’t know. I’m just looking for someone, anyone who fulfills the condition. Thus, in the first example, I might be looking for a particular friend and in the second, just anybody who wears glasses.

So, Spanish subjunctive is not only doubt but also a lack of specificity. Although if you think about it, the lack of specificity does follow from lack of certainty anyway. Not confused anymore, are you?

Key Takeaway

If you had to distill this entire longwinding rant into a single-word takeaway, it has to be the word, subjective. Facts are objective. Hypotheses are subjective. And when something is subjective, it goes with the subjunctive. Think of this subjective-subjunctive pair as a mental cue, a mnemonic device. Now in the context of Spanish subjunctive, subjective has a rather broad connotation. Negations are subjective too, as illustrated earlier. That’s something you’re gonna have to take on face value.

Another key takeaway is that when two clauses connect using a que and the persons therein are different, it’s a potential subjunctive trigger for the second clause. So keep an eye out for que. I say potential because obviously not every usage of que indicates a subjunctive. It’s just a mental cue. Beyond that, you’ll still look for whether there’s any subjectivity, i.e. doubt, to what the second clause is saying.

This might sound like a tall order in terms of remembering the rules but think about it, there’s just one! All the practice you need is going to be in identifying the element of subjectivity and doubt in what’s being communicated and everything will follow. Conjugations are the least of your worries when it comes to Spanish subjunctives because once you get a hang of where to use them, the how will be just a matter of inventing some clever mnemonics. Some other day, I’ll talk about how to memorize the Subjunctive conjugations, the irregulars, and which ones to even bother with. Doing it today will make this post too long and unwieldy, so let’s take a pause here.

Do drop in a comment should you have anything to contribute, any tricks of your own, or even if you have any question. Learning is always a community effort, so why do it in isolation, right?


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