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The Spanish Subjunctive: Selected Rules and Tips

The Spanish subjunctive is the way to express a hope or wish, an uncertainty or attitude in respect of a fact or idea.

In English, the subjunctive is difficult to recognise because it is spelled like other tenses of a verb.

This is a summary of the most common rules and uses of the subjunctive in Spanish.

It is, by no means, a complete guide, but it will get you started.

If you still find yourself battling to understand Spanish grammar concepts, you should check out the books recommended at the bottom of this page. Click here to check them out.

To be able to follow some of the explanations in this page, you should know that a sentence containing a subjuctive verb has 2 clauses:

  1. an independent clause, and
  2. a dependent clause.

For instance, in the following sentence...

[Yo] Quiero que digas la verdad (I want you to tell the truth).

The independent clause is the one with the main verb (querer).

The dependent clause is the one with the subjucntive mood of the verb (digas, from the verb decir, i.e. to tell or say).

The Present Subjunctive in Spanish

Spanish Subjunctive Present: Fig 1

Use the Spanish subjunctive when you want a subject to do something. Example:

Yo quiero que usted hable español. (I want you to speak Spanish).
Usted quiere que yo hable español. (You want me to speak Spanish).
Ellos quieren que nosotros hablemos español. (They want us to speak Spanish).

When the subjects of the 2 verbs are the same, that is, when I want to do something myself, use the infinitive, not subjunctive:

Yo quiero hablar español.
Usted quiere hablar español.
Ellos quieren hablar español.

To use the present subjuntive in Spanish, simple or compound, in the dependend clause, the verb in the main clause must be in the present or future indicative (simple or compund), or in a command form, and the verb must express "volition" (will), emotion or feeling, belief, doubt or denial.

The subject pronouns are used to help you, but in conversation we know to whom we are referring and therefore they are not essential.

You may grasp the idea of the Spanish subjunctive more easily by recalling that in English it is similarly used in many expressions such as: It is my wish that she wait here (not waites). In Spanish: Yo quiero que ella espere aquí.

Here are other examples:

¿Quiere usted que yo lea? (Do you want me to read?).
Ellos quieren que usted salga temprano. (They want you to leave early.
Temo que Elena no venga. (I'm afraid Elena will not come).
Le diré a María que me compre el libro. (I'll ask Mary to buy me the book).
Dígale a Gullermo que escriba pronto. (Tell Guillermo to write soon.
Mis padres me prohiben que fume en la casa. (My parents forbid me to smoke at home).
Yo dudo que ellos vengan. (I doubt they'll come).
¿Crée Ud que María esté en casa? (Do you believe María is at home?

Note that the indicative is used when the verb dudar is in the negative, and when the verb Creer is in the affirmative.

No dudo que ellos vendran. (I don't doubt they'll come)
Creo que María está; en casa. (I think María is at home).

Use the Spanish subjunctive in impersonal expressions when the dependent verb has a subject (expressed or implied):

Es necesario que Ud salga hoy. (It is necessary for you to go out today).
Es imposible que ella lo sepa. (It's impossible for her to know that).
Será conveniente que hagas eso. (It'll be advisable for you to do that.)
¡Es increíble que ellos no hayan venido todavia! (It's incredible that they have not arrived yet!)
Es urgente que usted hable con él. (It's urgent that you speak with him).

The Spanish subjunctive is not used when the dependent verb has no subject, nor when the impersonal expressions denot certainty. For instance:

Es imposible saber eso. (It's impossible to know that).
Es verdad que ella viene. (It's true she's coming).

The Imperfect Spanish Subjunctive

Imperfect Spanish Subjunctive: Fig 2

To use the imperfect subjunctive in the dependent clause, the verb in the main clause must be in the past (preterite), imperfect, or conditionalindicative, and the verb must express volition (will), etc. There is no difference between the -ra and the -se verb endings.

¿Quería usted que yo leyera [leyese] el libro? (Did you want me to read the book?).
Ellos pedian que comieras temprano. (They asked that you eat early).
Yo temí que ella no viniera [viniese]. (I was afraid she would not come).
Yo le dije a María que me comprara [comprase] el libro. (I told María to buy me the book).
Mis padres me prohibieron que yo fumara en casa. (My parents forbid me to smoke at home).
Yo preferiría que ustedes vinieran [viniesen] mas temprano. (I would prefer that you come earlier).
José me había dicho que yo fuera a su casa esta noche. (José had told me to go to his home tonight).

When a verb of motion, feeling, belief, or doubt is in the present indicative, it may be followed by the imperfect subjunctive to express what you still feel about something that has already happened. Compare the following sentences:

Yo siento que usted no venga conmigo (I'm sorry you're not coming with me).
Yo siento que usted no viniera conmigo (I'm sorry that you did not come with me).

Yo no creo que ella venga. (I don't think she is coming).
Yo no creo que ella viniera. (I do not think she came).

Yo temo que ella vaya allá. (I am afraid she'll go there).
Yo temo que ella fuera allá (I'm afraid she went there).

A statement or a polite request using querer, poder y deber may be softened by using the -ra form of the imperfect subjunctive. For instance:

¿Quiere [usted] venir conmigo? (Do you want to come along with me?).
¿Quisiera [usted] venir conmigo? (Would you like to come along with me?).

Quiero mandar un mensage a Panamá. (I want to send a message to Panama).
Quisiera mandar un mensage a Panamá (I would like to send a message to Panama).

¿Puede [usted] decirme si voy bien para la capital? (Can you tell me if this is the correct way to the capital city?).
¿Podría [usted] decirme si voy bien para la capital? (Could you tell me if this is the correct way to the capital city?).

Use the imperfect Spanish subjunctive with como si (as if, as though). Examples:

Usted me mira como si no me comprendiera. (You look at me as if you didn't understand me).
¡El corrio como si los siguiera el diablo! (He ran as if the devil was after him!).

Further Rules For the Spanish Subjunctive

As if you did not have enough rules already!

But you will find the following rules governing the general use of the Spanish subjunctive mood.

Use the subjunctive in the dependent clause when the antecedent is an indefinite or unknown person or thing expressed either by a noun or a pronoun. For instance:

Busco a alguien que hable español. (I'm looking for someone who speaks Spanish).
No había nadie que pudiera decirme dónde estaba la tienda. (There was nobody who could tell me where the store was).

Use the Spanish subjunctive (imperfect) in the dependent clause after the following Spanish conjunctions:

a fin de que (so that).
a menos que (unless).
antes (de) que (before).
de manera que (so that).
de modo que (so that).
para que (so that).
sin que (without).
con tal que (provided that).

Use the Spanish subjunctive (imperfect) in the dependent clause with the following conjuctions to express future action:

asi que (so that).
en cuanto (as soon as).
luego que (as soon as).
tan pronto como (as soon as).
después (de )que (after).
hasta que (until).
mientras que (as long as).
siempre que (privied that, whenever).
aunque (although).

confused? Still confused? confused?

If you're finding it difficult to grasp complex grammar concepts like the Spanish subjunctive, you should consider getting a copy of English Grammar for Students of Spanish: English Grammar for Students of Spanish, by Emily Spinelli, and/or Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Spanish Grammar, by Gilda Nissenberg.

English Grammar for Students of Spanish
Complete Spanish Grammar

English Grammar for Students of Spanish: English Grammar for Students of Spanish explains spanish grammar from an English grammar angle. If your grammar skills are very basic, this book will fix your handicap, and Spanish grammar will become much easier to understand.

Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Spanish Grammar is a complete guide presented in 26 units, and contains more than 2,500 exercises in a question and answer format.

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