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The Spanish Subjunctive Explained

Updated on July 25, 2017

The Spanish subjunctive is often explained as a mood that refers to uncertainty, doubts, or emotions. But this explanation doesn’t apply in every case. Compare, for instance, the following:

Dudo que María esté en el banco. [I doubt that María is in the bank.]

Supongo que María no está en el banco. [I suppose that María isn’t in the bank.]

In neither case is the speaker sure if María is in the bank or not, and yet in one sentence the subjunctive is used, and in the other the indicative.

The Basics

The subjunctive normally appears in sentences with at least two clauses or in sentences that begin with que. For instance:

Quiero que Juan venga aquí. [I want Juan to come here.]

Que te vaya bien! [Good luck!]

The second example is a wish and can be conceptualized as a shortened version of:

Espero que te vaya bien! [I wish you good luck!]

Whereas it is true that the subjunctive tends to appear when a sentence has two different subjects, it is not so in every case. Consider, for instance, this sentence:

Te llamo cuando vuelva a casa. [I’ll call you when I return home.]

The subject in both clauses is the same, and yet the conjunction cuando combined with a future sense of the verb vovlver require the subjunctive.

Wishes and Influence

Use the subjunctive to express wishes such as the above Que te vaya bien! and Espero que te vaya bien. If the sentence has just one subject, use the infinitive.

Quiero comprar una casa grande. [I want to buy a big house.]

Juan quiere casarse con María. [Juan wants to get married with María.]

Use the subjunctive if you want to influence somebody. For instance:

Quiero que limpies la casa. [I want you to clean the house.]

Te ruego que me escuches. [I beg you to listen to me.]

Use the subjunctive to express wishes or influence somebody.

The Speaker's Attitude

The subjunctive is also used to express the speaker’s attitude towards information

Me alegro de que hayas encontrado trabajo. [I’m glad you’ve found a job.]

Me parece bien que tenga novia. [I think it’s good he or she has a girlfriend.]

What that the speaker is trying to convey in the first sentence is not that you’ve found a job (you already know that), but what is his or her attitude towards this fact (gladness). Again, use the infinitive if the sentence has just one subject, for instance:

Me alegro de haber econtrar trabajo. [I’m glad I’ve found a job.]

The subjunctive may be also used in the following sentence:

Busco a una chica que sepa chino. [I’m looking for a girl who knows Chinese.]

The subjunctive in this sentence indicates that the speaker doesn’t have in mind any specific girl who knows Chinese. Compare with:

Busco a la chica que sabe chino. [I’m looking for the girl who knows Chinese.]

In the sentence above the girl who knows Chinese is identifiable and the speaker knows that she exists.

You also use the subjunctive in the following sentence:

Haz lo que tú quieras. [Do what you want.]

By using the subjunctive the speaker indicates that he or she doesn’t know what it is that you want to do.

The indicative - expressing information

The subjunctive - expressing the speaker's ATTITUDE towards the information

Impersonal Constructions

The subjunctive tends to be used with impersonal constructions such as es bueno/malo/interesante. For instance:

Es bueno que tengas novia. [It’s good that you have a girlfriend.]

If you want to make a general comment, you have to use the infinitive, for instance:

Es interesante ser bombero. [It’s interesting to be a fireman.]

However, you don’t use the subjunctive with such constructions as es cierto/evidente/obvio or any other that purport to announce something evident or certain.

Es cierto que María es amable. [It’s true that María is nice.]

You only use the subjunctive with constructions as es cierto/evidente/obvio if you want to use them in the negative, for instance:

No es cierto que María sea amable. [It isn’t true that María is nice.]

Impersonal Constructions - Subjunctive, Indicative, Infinitive

Indicative
Subjunctive
Infinitive
Es cierto/evidente/obvio que
No es cierto/evidente/obvio que
-
-
Es bueno/malo/interesante que
Es bueno/malo/interesante

Expressing Probability

To express probability you use either the subjunctive or the indicative, depending on what grammatical construction you want to use.

The constructions: creo que, estoy seguro/a de que, me imagino que, supongo que, a lo mejor, igual , lo mismo require the indicative. For instance:

Creo que a Juan le gusta el fútbol. [I believe that Juan likes football.]

Me imagino que María está de fiesta. [I imagine that María is at a party.]

A lo mejor no aprobó el examen. [Maybe he or she didn’t pass the exam.]

However, constructions such as creo que or estoy seguro/a de que are used with the subjunctive in the negative.

No creo que a Juan le guste el fútbol. [I don’t believe that Juan likes football.]

The constructions es posible que, es probable que, puede que are used with the subjunctive.

Es probable que no quiera a su novio. [It’s possible he or she doesn’t love his or her boyfriend.]

Puede que no tenga ganas de comer. [Maybe he or she doesn’t feel like eating.]

The constructions seguramente, probablemente , posiblemente, tal vez, quizá, quizás can be used either with the indicative or the subjunctive, depending on the degree of certainty that the speaker wants to express. Use the subjunctive to indicate a lesser degree of certainty and the indicative to express a greater degree of certainty.

Posiblemente se fuera a casa. [He or she probably went home.]

Posiblemente se fue a casa. [He or she probably went home.]

Tal vez haya llovido. [Maybe it’s rained.]

Tal vez ha llovido. [Maybe it’s rained.]

Probability - Subjunctive vs Indicative

Indicative
Subjunctive
Creo que, estoy seguro/a de que, me imagino que, supongo que, a lo mejor, igual, lo mismo
No creo, no estoy seguro/a que
-
Es posible que, es probable que, puede que

Clauses of Purpose

Clauses of purpose require the subjunctive if a sentence has two different subjects. They are accompanied by such conjunctions as: para (que),a fin de (que), con el fin de (que), con el propósito de (que), con la intención de (que), con el objeto de (que), con vistas a (que). Use the infinitive if the sentence has just one subject.

Volveré a casa para tomarme el medicamento. [I’ll go back home to take the medicine.]

Volveré a casa para que se tome el medicamento. [I’ll go back home so that he or she can take the medicine.]


La policía investiga con el objeto de averiguar la verdad. [The police are investigating in order to discover the truth.]

La policía investiga con el objeto de que averigüemos la verdad. [The police are investigating so that we can discover the truth.]

Clauses of Purpose - Infinitive vs Subjunctive

Infinitive - One Subject
Subjunctive - Two Subjects
Para, a fin de, con el fin de, con el propósito de, con la intención de, con el objeto de, con vistas a
Para que, a fin de que, con el fin de que, con el propósito de que, con la intención de que, con el objeto de que, con vistas a que

Hasta, Antes, Después

Some time clauses require the subjunctive as well. In particular, use the subjunctive with the conjunctions: hasta (que), antes de (que), and después de (que) if the sentence has two different subjects. Otherwise, use the infinitive.

Después de que terminara la cosecha, se trasladaron al pueblo para venderla. [After the crop was ready, they moved to the village to sell it.]

No olvides volver a casa antes de que salga el sol. [Don’t forget to come back home before the sun sets.]


Llama antes de entrar. [Ring before you enter.]

No paró hasta solucionar el problema. [He or she hadn’t stopped until he or she solved the problem.]

Use the imperfect subjunctive to refer to the past and the present subjunctive to refer to the future.

Hasta, Antes, Después - Subjunctive vs Infinitive

Infinitive - One Subject
Subjunctive - Two Subjects
Hasta, antes de, después de
Hasta que, antes de que, después de que

Other Time Clauses

With the majority of time clauses you use the indicative if they refer to the past, present, or doesn’t have a specify time-frame. However, always use the subjunctive if the time clause refers to the future.

Cuando la madre murió, toda la familia se puso triste. [When mother died, the whole family became sad.]

Cuando la madre muera, toda la familia se pondrá triste. [When mother dies, the whole family will become sad.]


En cuanto el profe aparece en el aula, la clase se queda en silencio. [When the professor appears in the classroom, the students fall silent.]

En cuanto el profe aparezca en el aula, la clase se quedará en silencio. [When the professor appears in the classroom, the students will fall silent.]


Mientras vivía con él nunca limpió. [As long as she lived with him, he never cleaned.]

Mientras viva con él nunca limpiará. [As long as she lives with him, he’ll never clean.]

Other Time Clauses - Subjunctive vs Indicative

Indicative - Past, Present, Unspecified
Subjunctive - Future
Cuando, en cuanto, mientras
Cuando, en cuanto, mientras

Concessive Clauses

Concessive conjunctions are used when there is some objection or impediment to fulfilling the action, but which doesn’t’ stop the action form happening. Examples of Spanish concessive conjunctions include: aunque, a pesar de (que), por más que, por mucho que, por poco que. With concessive clauses you can use either the indicative or the subjunctive, depending on the type of information you want to convey.

Aunque Alicia no me quiere, yo la quiero a ella. [Although Alicia doesn’t love me, I love her.]

Aunque Alicia no me quiera, yo la quiero a ella. [Even if Alicia doesn’t love me, I love her.]

In the example with the indicative, the information in the concessive clause is considered certain – the speaker knows that Alicia doesn’t love him. In the example with the subjunctive, it is only a hypothesis – the speaker doesn’t know if Alicia loves him or not.

You should also use the subjunctive with concessive clauses if you disregard someone’s objection, for instance:

- No me gusta la sopa. – Aunque no te guste la sopa, tienes que comértela. [- I don’t like the soup. – Even if you don’t like the soup, you have to eat it.]

Concessive Clauses - Subjunctive vs Indicative

Indicative - Certainty
Subjunctive - Hypothesis
Aunque, a pesar de que, por más que, por mucho que, por poco que
Aunque, a pesar de que, por más que, por mucho que, por poco que

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