Nothing in the Spanish language can seem quite as confusing to English speakers as the subjunctive! It’s not surprising, as this is one area of grammar in which English and Spanish are very different. The use of the subjunctive in English is very limited and can often sound arcane or old-fashioned whereas it is a fundamental part of everyday Spanish being used in about 15% of everyday conversation. This is the highest among all modern romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese etc.)
MOST IMPORTANTLY: The subjunctive is not a tense; it is a mood.
A tense expresses when something is occurring ie. present, past, future. The subjunctive is a mood. It shows the probability or likelihood of something occurring.
All verb tenses in Spanish are divided into the indicative or subjunctive mood. (There is a third mood, the imperative, used for commands)
Indicative: that which is known to be fact and true, habitual events
Subjunctive: that which is open to subjectivity, unknown future events.
Common Indicative mood conjugations: present tense, imperfect, preterit, future, present perfect, past perfect
Common Subjunctive mood conjugations: present subjunctive*, imperfect subjunctive, present perfect subjunctive
*Note: About 80% of the use of the subjunctive is in the present tense so that is our focus here.
Overall, there are less subjunctive mood conjugations than indicative. Over the centuries, many subjunctive conjugations have become obsolete or relegated to legal use only.
Now that we have put the subjunctive into context let’s start looking at some specific examples.
Examples of the use of the subjunctive in English:
Long live the King! (live replaces lives to show a wish)
Let there be light! (be replaces is show a desire)
He insists the child stay put. (stay replaces stays for a command)
May she rest in peace. (rest replaces rests to show a wish)
If I were you…. (were replaces am as it’s not real)
Examples of the subjunctive in Spanish:
As the use of the subjunctive is much more widespread in Spanish it is useful to have an acronym:
C ~ Conjunctions (cuando, para que)
O ~ Ojalá (also: quizás etc.)
W ~ Wishes/Wants (desear que, querer que)
R ~ Requests/Recommendations (pedir que, insistir que)
I ~ Impersonal Expressions (es posible que, es probable que)
D ~ Doubts/Denial (Dudo que, no estoy seguro que)
E ~ Emotions (me alegro que, estoy triste que)
Each category above (COW RIDE) has a long list of verbs or expressions associated with it that must be memorized! The general concept behind the subjunctive is always the same: someone/thing wishes/insists etc. for someone/thing else to behave in a certain way.
Rosa quiere que su novio trabaje menos.
El padre insiste que su hijo estudie hoy.
El posible que ellos trabajen hoy.
Formation of the present subjunctive
Forming the present subjunctive is a two-step process:
-First find the ‘yo’ form of the present indicative: vivo, tengo etc.
-Then, drop the letter ‘o’ and replace it with the ‘opposite vowel.’ That is to say, if your verb is an –ir/-er verb you replace it with an ‘a’ and for –ar verbs you use an ‘e’. Examples:
|usted, él, ella||hable||tenga||viva|
|ustedes, ellos, ellas||hablen||tengan||vivan|
As the first and third person share the same form, it is more common to see the use of the personal pronouns with the present subjunctive to avoid confusion.
Take heart, as the consistent and correct use of the subjunctive often takes years to develop as a non-native speaker of the Spanish language. The true and natural use of this mood means you have ‘arrived’ as a fluent speaker of the Spanish language.