Whatever you do, don’t start singing to Edwin Starr and answer my question with “Absolutely nothing!”
After over a decade of teaching Spanish, I can read your mind and I know what you believe will be your greatest challenge with the language: subjunctive. Why? Because everyone has told you that it’s hard and you’ve made up your mind that that’s the case.
No more! The subjunctive serves a lot of purposes in Spanish. It can seem challenging to many students, but there is no reason to lose sleep over it. Spanish is supposed to be fun, remember? Forget everything (I mean everything!) you’ve learned about the subjunctive, including that one teacher who said, “I know it’s hard” (condescending face included). Now the subjunctive can add a little fun to your life and more fluidity to your conversation when you get the basics down with my help.
Subjunctive vs. indicative mood
There are three standard moods in Spanish: imperative, indicative, and subjunctive. I’d say the conditional is a different mood as well, but not all linguists agree. The imperative is for commands (do your Spanish homework!). The indicative deals with a lot of facts, but don’t be misguided by this, it is certainly not all facts. The subjunctive deals with emotions, desires, demands. I like to say that the subjunctive is very “subjective.” The conditional is for (you guessed it) conditions or politeness.
The indicative mood also deals with wishes, emotions, and opinions as long as there is one clause and the same subject.
a) Indicative: Mi hijo necesita aprobar el examen – My son needs to pass the exam.
b) Subjunctive: Mi hijo necesita un tutor que lo ayude a aprobar el examen – My son needs a tutor to help him pass the exam.
In the first example, a need is expressed, but there is only one subject, therefore the second verb is infinitive. In the second example, a second subject and clause have been introduced. The subjunctive is needed.
The subjunctive in English
Ever talk about the thing you would do if only you could? It’s not true that the subjunctive doesn’t exist in English. Chances are you don’t realize you are using it. When you use phrases such as, “If I were there, I’d give you a big, wet kiss,” you are using the subjunctive. And I hope that’s a puppy saying that. 🙂
Uses of the subjunctive
The emotional. The hopeful. The sceptics. The uncertain. The intolerant. The know-it-alls with all your recommendations (sometimes unsolicited). The subjunctive was made for you! Bring all your emotions, wishes, doubts, uncertainty, demands, advice. The subjunctive welcomes you all to its realm!
Here is what you need to know. When you are expressing a wish, desire, recommendation, demand, etc., there are at least two clauses (main and subordinate) and a change in subject.
Let’s look at these examples:
a) Quiero que bailes conmigo – I want you to dance with me.
b) La enoja mucho que su novio no sea romántico – It upsets her that her boyfriend is not romantic.
c) Es importante que ustedes estudien – It’s important that you guys study
d) ¡Necesitamos que nos ayudes, por favor! – We need you to help us, please!
Now let’s analyze the phrases above on two levels: 1) the subject in the main clause, as well as the subject in the subordinate clause; 2) what the phrase is actually expressing (love, wish, need, etc.).
a) Main clause: yo; subordinate clause: tú. Expressing: desire
b) Main clause: ella; subordinate clause: su novio. Expressing: annoyance, upset
c) Main clause: impersonal expression, no subject; subordinate clause: ustedes. Expressing: a recommendation
d) Main clause: nosotros; subordinate clause: tú. Expressing: necessity
A change in subject is not needed when using doubt: Dudo que yo vaya a la fiesta – I doubt I will go to the party.
Trigger phrases in the subjunctive
a) Es posible/probable que… – It’s possible that…
b) Es necesario/importante/bueno que… – It’s necessary/important/good that…
c) No es seguro que… – It is not certain that…
d) No es cierto que… – It is not true that…
e) No creo que… – I don’t believe that…
f) No pienso que… – I don’t think that…
Notice that for the above c-f, the added no brings a layer of uncertainty.
Conjugating the subjunctive
I always teach the imperative before the subjunctive. Why? The imperative is very straightforward: no rules, just commands and memorization. Learning the imperative is easy for most students. Well, it turns out that the conjugation of the subjunctive is pretty much the same as the imperative usted (formal you).
Estudie – study
Coma – eat
Viva – live
Subjunctive (verbs ending in ar)
Subjunctive (verbs ending in er and ir)
What a weirdo!
Not you, the subjunctive! I didn’t want to say this at the beginning of the article and give it all away, but the truth is the subjunctive is just a fancy word for:
Ejercicios con el subjuntivo
Now that you know the rules, let’s see how well you do on these exercises. First try them without looking at the translation. Note not all answers are subjunctive.
- Qué pena que __________ (estar, él) tan mal – What a pity that he is so ill.
- Él quiere que ella lo __________ (querer), pero la vida puede ser un poco más complicada – He wants her to love him, but life can be a bit more complicated.
- Mi madre insiste en que yo no __________ (estudiar) en el extranjero. – My mother insists that I don’t go abroad.
- Llegamos de Nueva York muy cansados. Queremos __________ (dormir) – We arrived very tired from New York. We want to sleep.
- ¡Exijo que me __________ (dar, ustedes) un reembolso! – I demand that you give me a refund!
- ¿Es posible que __________ (venir, ella) más tarde? – Is it possible that she’ll come later?
- Es bueno que te __________ (preparar) para tus clases – It’s a good idea for you to get ready for classes.
- ¡Ojalá no __________ (llover) hoy! – Hopefully it won’t rain today!
- Te aconsejo que te __________ (quitar) esa mueca de la cara – I suggest you take that grimace off your face.
- Necesito que me __________ (mandar, tú) un texto cuando __________ (llegar, tú) – I need you to send me a text when you arrive.
Answers: 1. esté; 2. quiera*; 3. estudie; 4. dormir; 5. den; 6. venga*; 7. prepares; 8. llueva*; 9. quites; 10. mandes, llegues