Spanish Subjunctive Usage and Meaning
In this chapter, you’ll gain a broad overview of what the subjunctive is, and how it is used.
The first thing to realise about the Spanish subjunctive is that it is not a tense, but rather a “mood”, which has its own tense system (sorry… Another one to learn!). It’s helpful to think of it as a shift to another perspective, one where you are viewing the world through the perspective of human judgment. Using the subjunctive means that you are adding a human, emotional element to what you are saying, rather than simply stating a fact.
This chapter will give you a flavour of the subjunctive, so you can start to understand what it is and how it is used.
The Spanish Subjunctive vs the indicative
The indicative is what we could call the “normal” tense: the one we use most often:
This is a statement of fact about the world. Compare it to this phrase:
In this statement, the speaker is expressing a feeling, or judgment about Lis working so much – this triggers the use of subjunctive trabaje. So, one use of the subjunctive is to express feeling or emotion about something.
Another use is to express doubt:
It’s possible to categorise all of the instances of the subjunctive, and one Spanish scholar took on this entertaining task in 1894 (Ramsey, “A Textbook of Modern Spanish”). He came up with the following list:
Did you remember all of those? No?
That’s the main problem with this approach. There are lots of taxonomies which have been collated by linguists, and these are very difficult to memorise, internalise, and then correctly use.
It also raises the question of how these categories were decided in the first place. There must be something in common between all these categories, as native Spanish speakers seem to pick all of this up without learning this list. What’s the actual meaning of the subjunctive?
What does the subjunctive mean?
The subjunctive is used when speakers want to add either a layer of emotion or “unreality” to what they are saying. When we speak, we frequently make assertions – things which we believe to be true about the world. If I say “he’s eating”, I’m making an assertion about someone eating.
We can consider this as a “fact”, and this is where the indicative is used. When there is no doubt, just the assertion of a fact, we use the indicative. So, “he’s eating” becomes él come. So far, so simple.
However, as a speaker, I can comment on the assertions I make. I can add a layer of emotion by doubting, denying, judging, and all other subjective actions that humans can make. I could say “it’s terrible that he’s eating”, or “I’m so happy he’s eating”, etc. This is when we use the subjunctive: It signifies the layer of subjectivity and emotion which is added to the assertion.
To make a comparison to ice cream, the indicative is plain vanilla: Just the fact, simply stated (or “asserted”). The subjunctive consists of all the toppings of human emotion sprinkled on top, changing the flavour of the ice cream.
So, “it’s terrible he’s eating” becomes es terrible que coma, and “I’m so happy he’s eating” becomes Me alegro mucho que esté comiendo.
Some more uses of the subjunctive
To expand on the idea above, there are a few other common instances when we use the subjunctive, which all still fall under the same “layer of emotion” theme:
When we comment on our assertions, we can express all sorts of beliefs regarding how true we believe the assertion to be. We can doubt, deny, dis-believe, and more. For these “un-real” comments, we also use the subjunctive:
But, when we express belief that something is true (reality), we use the indicative:
If we’re expressing that something is perhaps true, perhaps false, we also use the subjunctive:
We can extend this idea of “non-reality” to hypothetical situations – to situations which are contrary to fact, or which are not real. This is used in conditional statements:
Imposition of will
When you want something to happen, you are also expressing non-reality. If I want Lis to arrive, or I want her to make me a sandwich, I want something which is not true, or does not exist, at the moment.
That’s why the subjunctive is used with commands, orders, imperatives, and other types of speech which express the imposition of will:
Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense to you at the moment. In the next few chapters, we’ll explore these uses in more detail. But, it’s worth remembering the meaning of the subjunctive, as well as its uses.
We’ll finish with an exercise. Look at the phrases below, and think about why the indicative or subjunctive has been used in each case:
Click on the expandable section below for some answers:
Subjunctive Vs Indicative
El sol sale a las siete
The indicative is used, as this is a statement of fact: “the sun rises at seven”.
Nos sorprende que se casen
The subjunctive was used, as this sentence expresses emotion about the upcoming marriage: “we’re surprised that they are getting married”
Ojalá que no llueva
The subjunctive was used, as emotion was expressed: a desire for it not to rain. “I hope it doesn’t rain”
Salimos si no llueve
The indicative was used, as again this was a plain statement of fact. “We’ll go out if it doesn’t rain”. There is no hope or emotion about it raining or not.
Tememos que se van
The indicative was used, as although the focus of this phrase is not on the emotion, but more the fact of their leaving: “We’re afraid that they’ll go” (ie, they may or may not go)
Tememos que se vayan
The subjunctive was used, and this acts to place more of an emphasis on the fear/emotion of the phrase: “We’re afraid that they’ll go” (ie, we don’t want them to go)
In the next few chapters, we’ll dive into more specific uses of the subjunctive. Although these may seem complicated, by remembering the principles from this chapter, you’ll be able to understand the “why” behind each use.