What Is the Subjunctive in Spanish?
The subjunctive is a “mood” (or “mode”) in the grammatical world, which is similar to a tense, but rather than expressing when something happened, it expresses the speaker’s attitude toward the subject. A few other grammatical moods are indicative (used for declarative sentences) and imperative (expressing a suggestion or command).
These moods combine with tense to pack a whole lot of information into one verb: both when something occurred and an underlying subjective mood that the speaker wants to express from their perspective. The subjective mood or attitude toward the topic in the case of subjunctive could be one of desire, an opinion, or feeling. Notice that these subjunctive sentences always have two verbs (in bold). Check out a few examples:
Espero que podamos ir al cine juntos. (I hope that we can go to the movies together.)
Me alegra que cantes. (I’m glad that you are singing.)
Es una pena que no sea del tamaño correcto. (It’s a shame it’s not the right size.)
Es necesario que estudies mucho para aprobar el examen. (It’s necessary that you study a lot to pass the exam.)
This isn’t to say that choosing when to use the subjunctive is subjective! Its use is not an extra voluntary feature: There are certain situations which always require the subjunctive in Spanish. In this guide, find out both how to form the most common subjunctive tense (present) and when to use it!
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When to Use the Subjunctive
Syntax deals with the structure of a sentence. Sentences which require the subjunctive have two clauses, two verbs, and two subjects. The subjunctive tense is always used in the second, dependent clause, but the main clause and main verb are important for introducing the subjunctive-type topic (doubt, desire, possibilities). You will often notice the following syntactic features of subjunctive sentences:
A. a dependent clause using que (or another phrase like a conjunction from the lists in the next sections linking a main and dependent clause – there are some exceptions to this one)
B. two different subjects in the main and dependent clauses
Dudo que él venga. (I doubt that he is coming.)
A. Dependent clause: The que functions in the same way as “that” in English in this sentence, namely linking the main clause (dudo) and the dependent clause (underlined).
B. Two different subjects: The subject of the main clause is yo (I), and the subject of the dependent clause (underlined) is él (he). The verb of the main clause (dudar) is in the present indicative. The verb of the dependent clause (venir) is in the present subjunctive.
Es importante que conduzcas con cuidado. (It is important that you drive carefully.)
B. Two different subjects: The subject of the main clause is “it,” which is sometimes called a “dummy subject” or impersonal subject because it serves as a subject without having any real meaning or referring to any real person. Many subjunctive sentences are impersonal.
This doesn’t mean that you always use the subjunctive after que. Keep your eye out for the “moody” subjective meaning of the sentence and combine that with the syntactic triggers (A and B above) to decide when to use subjunctive. Here are a few examples of sentences with the correct syntactic triggers but that don’t use the subjunctive because they are not subjective enough; namely, they are expressing too certain of a fact.
Veo que se comió todas las galletas. (I see that he ate all of the cookies.)
Escuché que el tren llega tarde. (I heard that the train is arriving late.)
Combining Different Tenses with Present Subjunctive
The present subjunctive can be used in the dependent clause to talk about something occurring presently or in the future. The action in the main clause needs to use one of the following tenses (also talking about the present or future), followed by the subjunctive in the dependent clause.
|Tense||Main clause||Dependent clause|
|present||Quiero… (I want…)||que venga. (her to come.) (her coming.)|
|progressive (estar + gerundio)||Estoy deseando… (I am looking forward to…)||que venga. (her to come.) (her coming.)|
|future||Querré… (I will want…)…si se porta bien. (…only if she behaves herself)||que venga. (her to come.) (her coming.)|
|future (ir + a)||Voy a necesitar… (I am going to need…)||que venga. (her to come.) (her coming.)|
|imperative||¡Espera que venga! (Wait for her to come!)||n/a|
Coupled with your expertise on syntactic situations involving the subjunctive, you can use these meaning-based (semantic) triggers to know when to use the subjunctive. Subjunctive is commonly used with the following phrases to express desires, hopes, judgments, opinions, uncertainty, and surprise. Take a look at these common phrases that are found with the subjunctive to get an idea of what types of topics require its use.
Expressing Hypothetical Possibility, Situational Dependency, or Doubt
These conjunctions join the main and dependent clauses (with or instead of que) and can be used with the subjunctive.
|a condición de que||on the condition that|
|a fin de que||so that; in order that|
|a no ser que||unless|
|a pesar de que||although|
|como si||as if|
|con tal de que||provided that|
|de ahí que||hence|
|después de que||after|
|en caso de que||in the case that|
|para que||so that, in order that|
|por miedo a que||for fear that|
|sin que||without (which)|
|tan pronto como||as soon as|
|tal vez||maybe, perhaps|
Wish, will, or command
These expressions do not have a written “dummy subject,” but the meaning is implied.
expression + que + subjuntivo
Example: Urge que me llames. (It’s urgent that you call me.)
|es importante||it’s important|
|ojalá||hopefully, it is to be hoped|
Impersonal Expressions Expressing Opinion/Counsel
expression (with “dummy” subject es) + que + subjuntivo
Example: Es aconsejable que traigas un impermeable a Londres. (It is advisable that you bring a raincoat to London.)
|es aconsejable||it is advisable|
|es conveniente||it is sensible/desirable|
|es fundamental||it is fundamental|
|es importante||it is important|
|es posible||it is possible|
|es probable||it is probable|
|es imprescindible||it is indispensable/essential|
|es improbable||it is unlikely|
|es incierto||it is uncertain|
|es interesante||it is interesting|
|es mejor||it is better|
|es necesario||it is necessary|
|es urgente||it is urgent|
Positive Vibes Only
The following verbs express doubt in the affirmative, but when combined with a negation (no), their meaning is the opposite, meaning that there is no longer the implication of possibility. When used in the negative, these verbs do not use the subjunctive.
no dudar que: to not doubt that no hay duda de que: there is no doubt that
Negative Vibes Only
Some phrases express a certain fact when used in the affirmative, but express a possibility when used in a negative sense. This means that when using the following phrases in a “negative” or contradictory way, often when asking a question to check the speaker’s understanding, the subjunctive is required.
Note that these verbs are left in infinitive in this list, though you would need to conjugate the first verb in the relevant tense.
no creer: don’t believe / don’t think no parecer: doesn’t seem no considerar: don’t consider
How to Form the Subjunctive
The situations in which the subjunctive is appropriate will probably take some time and lots of exposure to Spanish to master. But luckily, the conjugation for subjunctive present verbs is fairly easy!
- Start with the yo (first person singular) present tense indicative
- Remove the -o ending
- Add the subjunctive present ending (which are “opposite” in the sense that the endings with “a” are for -ir/-er verbs and the endings with “e” go with the -ar verbs)
|Subject||Subjunctive -ar Ending||Subjunctive -ir/-er Ending|
|usted, él, ella||-e||-a|
|ustedes, ellos, ellas||-en||-an|
|Infinitive||Escribir (to write)||Escuchar (to listen)|
|1. Start with the present ind. yo||escribo||escucho|
|2. Remove the -o ending (stem)||escrib-||escuch-|
|3. Add subjunctive present ending||nosotros escribamos||tú escuches|
|Example sentence||Dudo que escribamos un ensayo hoy. (I doubt that we are writing an essay today.)||Dudo que escuches música todas las noches. (I doubt that you listen to music every night.)|
Irregular Subjunctive Verbs
Irregular subjunctive verbs often follow this pattern as well, except that their stems may be different. For stem-changing verbs, use their new stem (already implied by step 2) to form the subjunctive.
|Infinitive||Pensar (to think)|
|1. Start with the present ind. yo||pienso|
|2. Remove the -o ending (stem)||piens-|
|3. Add subjunctive present ending||tú pienses|
|Example sentence||Dudo que pienses que los unicornios existen. (I doubt that you think unicorns exist.)|
There are also a few types of verbs that require a spelling change in the subjunctive. This change takes place after you begin with its normal (present indicative) yo form stem change.
|Spelling Change||Example Infinitive||Subjunctive|
|-car becomes -qu-||buscar||busque|
|-zar becomes -c-||comenzar||comience|
|-gar becomes -gu-||pagar||pague|
|-ger/-gir becomes -j-||escoger/eligir||escoja/elija|
Common Irregular Subjunctives
Saber has an irregular stem in subjunctive, but follows the same pattern of endings: sep-
saber (to know)
|yo sepa||nosotros sepamos|
|tú sepas||vosotros sepáis|
|usted, él, ella sepa||ustedes, ellos, ellas sepan|
Ser (to be) and estar (to be) are two of the most common verbs in Spanish. Although their translation is the same in English, there are distinct contexts in which they are appropriate.
ser (to be)
|yo sea||nosotros seamos|
|tú seas||vosotros seáis|
|usted, él, ella sea||ustedes, ellos, ellas sean|
In all person categories except for nosotros, the “e” has a written accent on it. This is the same for the verb dar (to give).
estar (to be)
|yo esté||nosotros estemos|
|tú estés||vosotros estéis|
|usted, él, ella esté||ustedes, ellos, ellas estén|
Note that the accent (é) is the only thing that differentiates “I am/ he/she is” (subjunctive) from the word este, for “this.”
Within the same category of subjunctive mood we have both present and an imperfect tense. The imperfect subjunctive is used for when the dependent clause took place in the past, but it isn’t all that common. For more details on the imperfect subjunctive, see The Ultimate Guide to Spanish Past Tense Forms..
Ready to get moody and let everyone know your hopes, dreams, and desires? Urge que tú sign up for Lingvist’s Spanish course to practice using the subjunctive mood today!