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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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
(verbs ending in ar)
(verbs ending in er and ir)
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:
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.
Answers: 1. esté; 2. quiera*; 3. estudie; 4. dormir; 5. den; 6. venga*; 7. prepares; 8. llueva*; 9. quites; 10. mandes, llegues
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Irma is a trained linguist, native Spanish speaker, and teacher. She is the founder and CEO of Diáfano.
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