An Introduction To The Spanish Subjunctive Mood


An Introduction To The Spanish Subjunctive Mood


At this stage of your learning you are probably very familiar with the word ‘tense’ when it comes to a language. This is a grammatical term that locates a situation in time, it indicates when the situation takes place.


You have many tenses in Spanish including the following:


The present tense:   Como.    I am eating.

The future tense: Comeré.   I will eat.

The preterite (simple past): Comí.   I ate.

The imperfect past: Comía.   I was eating. / I used to eat.

The conditional tense: Comería.   I would eat.


All of the above tenses are shown in what is known as the ‘indicative’ mood.  


The indicative mood is the one you want when the purpose of your sentence is to declare a fact or to declare something you believe to be a fact.


That might sound fairly simple but you need to remember that not only is the indicative about facts (content) but it’s also about purpose (why you as the speaker want to make this comment) and you need to consider both if you are to use the Spanish subjunctive well.


Along with the indicative there are 2 other Spanish Moods:


To use the Spanish subjunctive well it’s useful to consider the uses of these other two moods as well (Indicative and imperative).  (NB.  Just like tenses these moods are indicated by how the verb is conjugated.)


As we mentioned before one’s purpose needs to be taken into consideration when choosing between the Spanish moods.  There is often more than one option and the mood of a verb can indicate the speaker’s attitude toward the situation or what role the situation plays in the sentence.


1) The indicative mood (the most common, ‘normal’ verb form) and probably the first one that everyone learns.  Use it when your purpose is to declare facts – not just when something is a fact but when the desire to impart that fact is the main reason behind your sentence.

eg: Lo hago. I do it. I am doing it.


2) The imperative mood.  Use this mood when your purpose is to give commands.  Not to indicate what ‘is happening’ but rather what you are ‘commanding to happen’.

eg: Hazlo. Do it.

NB: Notice that the Spanish imperative mood is indicated by special verb conjugation, ¡Hazlo! but in English it is indicated just by omitting the subject of the verb. Do it!)

3) The subjunctive mood.  This mood is used for everything not covered by the other two moods.  If your purpose is not to declare a fact or to tell someone to do something, use the subjunctive.  


Sometimes it’s your choice but at other times you just can’t declare something as a fact because it hasn’t  happened yet or there’s some doubt that it will happen.  That’s where you will again need to express those things with the subjunctive.  

eg.   Iremos al parque cuando llegues.   We’ll go to the park when you arrive.

NB:  The person hasn’t arrived yet and their arrival is out of your control, it may or may not happen so we can’t declare that with the indicative, hence ‘llegues’ in the subjunctive mood.


‘Purpose’ needs to be a consideration when choosing a mood because your choice alerts the hearer/reader to which part of the sentence they really need to pay attention to, which part is the focus of the sentence. If you use the indicative they know that’s the important bit and the rest of the information is secondary. For this reason you often express how you feel with the indicative but use the subjunctive for the reason behind that emotional state/reaction.  The speakers purpose is to share how they feel about something (indicative) not to declare what made them feel that way (subjunctive).

eg.  Es una lástima que se hayan perdido. It’s a shame that they got lost.  (How the person feels is what you should focus on, the part about people getting lost is just given as context and plays a secondary role.)

When to expect the subjunctive:

More often than not the Spanish subjunctive verb is used in a clause that starts with the relative pronoun que (which/that/who).

Quiero que él vaya. I want him to go.

NB: ‘vaya’ is the present subjunctive, third person singular form, of the verb ‘ir’.

There are many situations where the subjunctive mood is used but as mentioned above often you’ll find it is used when the action that is referred to is less important than the speaker’s reaction to it.


Indicative (belief): María viene. (María is coming.)

Subjunctive (emotional reaction): Me alegro de que María venga. (I’m happy that María is coming.)

The indicative is used in the first sentence to express a fact but in the second sentence the subjunctive is used and whether María comes or not is not as important as how the speaker feels about it.


The subjunctive is common in sentences that express desire, doubt, uncertainty, denial, commands or reactions to the clause containing the subjunctive verb. Whereas the indicative as we know is used when our purpose is to present a particular piece of information as a fact.


Compare the following sentences:


(belief): María lee. (María is reading.)


(desire): Espero que María lea. (I hope that María is reading.)

(doubt):   Dudo que María lea. (I doubt that María is reading).

(emotional reaction):   Me alegro de que María lea.  (I’m happy that María is reading.)


‘If’ clauses can go either way.


Use the indicative as always to declare facts.  This is the case when you want to declare that both the ‘if’ and the ‘result’ clause are real conditions.

Si te comportas bien te compraré un helado.

If you behave well (and you are or I’m sure you will) I’ll buy you an ice cream (that’s sure to happen).


But use the subjunctive (usually in the ‘if’ clause) if you are describing unreal or contrary to fact conditions (follow this us with the conditional in the result clause).


Si te comportara bien te compraría un helado.

If you were to behave well (which you’re not or I believe you wont) I would buy you an ice cream.

Si te hubieras comportado bien te habría comprado un helado.

If you had behaved well (but you didn’t) I would have bought you an ice cream.


A good clue for when to use the subjunctive in Spanish with these type of ‘if’ clauses is when the English would use the word ‘would’, or the phrase ‘would have’ with the past tense (were) to refer to a present activity.  


…   It would be a shame if someone were to tell your mum




A few extra notes and reminders that you might find helpful:


When there is no change of subject after a verb of desire, the infinitive form of the verb is often used.


Quiero ir a la playa.   (Just one subject – ‘I’ want (myself) to go to the beach.)


But … When there is a change of subject after a verb of desire, the subjunctive is required.


Quiero que (él) vaya a la playa.  (Two subjects – ‘I’ want ‘him’ to go to the beach.)


The subjunctive follows impersonal expressions that do not express certainty or objectivity such as …. ‘it’s important that’ ….  ‘it’s a shame that’ ….. ‘it’s terrible that’  etc.