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What Is The Spanish Subjunctive and How To Use It

The Spanish Subjunctive is a type of verb conjugation that is used after specific clause types, which I call subjunctive triggers. The subjunctive is not a verb “tense” itself, but it does come in 4 possible verb tenses, which I will explain later. Spanish students are often taught that the subjunctive mood is used to express the speaker’s doubt or uncertainty. But this is only one of its uses, associated with one of the subjunctive trigger types.

For native English speakers, the Spanish subjunctive is probably the hardest thing about learning the Spanish language. The reason for this is because the subjunctive doesn’t really exist in English. Grammatically and technically there are a few cases of its use in English that correspond to Spanish usage. But those rare cases hardly prepare the native English speaker for the plethora of uses of the subjunctive in Spanish. In fact, the subjunctive is so common in Spanish, that to be able to speak Spanish fluently, you must know when and how to use it effortlessly.

Another reason why native English speakers learning Spanish struggle with mastering the subjunctive is that there are practically no aids for practicing it! Learning about the subjunctive tense and understanding theoretically how it works is hardly enough to come close to using it naturally in conversation.

3 STEPS FOR LEARNING THE SPANISH SUBJUNCTIVE

There are three main aspects of learning the Spanish subjunctive. The first step is learning how to conjugate the verb forms correctly. The second step is to know when to use it. The third step is deciding which of the four possible tenses to conjugate your subjunctive verb.

The first step is the easiest. It is just a matter of learning how to conjugate the verbs correctly. There are 4 subjunctive tenses that you need to learn to conjugate. They are:
1) Present Subjunctive
2) Present Perfect Subjunctive
3) Imperfect Subjunctive
4) Past Perfect (or Pluperfect) Subjunctive
(There are two other tenses that are no longer used in modern Spanish, but you may encounter them in literature or legal documents. These are the Future Subjunctive and the Future Perfect Subjunctive. These tenses are expressed with one of the other 4 tenses, but the specific conjugations of these tenses are obsolete.)

After knowing how to conjugate these four tenses, you then need to know when to use them. Fortunately there are numerous subjunctive trigger clauses that often start out a sentence and give you the heads up that the subjunctive will be needed. When you hear the trigger, you know you need to follow it with a subjunctive. Many of the triggers tend to fall nicely into a few categories. It is just a matter of becoming familiar with these triggers and their categories, to start using the subjunctive more fluently.

W.E.I.R.D.O. HELPS YOU KNOW WHEN TO USE THE SPANISH SUBJUNCTIVE

There is an acronym that you may have seen before to help you categorize the various triggers. It is W.E.I.R.D.O. This isn’t a perfect guide, but it can be helpful.
W = A verb of Wishing, Willing, Wanting, Hoping, etc.
E = A verb of Emotion
I = An Impersonal expression, often introduced by es
R = A verb of Requesting, asking, demanding, commanding, etc.
D = A verb of Doubt, Denial, etc.
O = Ojalá que

If a sentence starts out with a phrase that is one of these subjunctive triggers, AND there is a change of subject, THEN those are the conditions to use the subjunctive conjugation.

A few examples are needed at this point. Let’s use the verb lavar, to wash, conjugated in the present subjunctive.

W example
Opening clause = I hope that (this is a subjunctive trigger phrase)
What do I hope? = he washes the dishes (here is our new subject)
Yo quiero que él lave los platos.

E example
Opening clause = I am happy that (emotional subjunctive trigger phrase)
What am I happy about? = he is washing the dishes (here is our new subject)
Me alegro que él lave los platos.

I example
Opening clause = It’s surprising that (impersonal expression trigger)
What’s surprising? = he is washing the dishes (a new subject again)
Es asombroso que él lave los platos.

R example
Opening clause = I am asking that (a request subjunctive trigger)
What is the request? = he washes the dishes (again we have a 2nd subject)
Le pido a él que lave los platos.

D example
Opening clause = I doubt that (expression of doubt trigger)
What do I doubt? = He is washing the dishes (again we have a 2nd subject)
Yo dudo que él lave los platos.

O example
Opening clause = Ojalá que (unique Spanish expression that always triggers the subjunctive)
What do I hope to Allah for? = He is washing the dishes.
Ojalá que él lave los platos.

In all of the above examples, you may notice the basic formula of having 2 sentences, each having its own subject and verb, with the word “that” or que connecting the two. The 2nd sentence is known as the dependent clause, since it is dependent on the opening statement, aka independent clause.

It is important to know that just because que appears in a sentence, that doesn’t automatically mean the subjunctive is to be used. AND, there are plenty of other triggers for the subjunctive tense outside of the WEIRDO categories. Mastering the Spanish subjunctive requires becoming familiar with all the various subjunctive triggers, which just takes a little practice. It’s not that hard.

DECIDING WHICH SUBJUNCTIVE TENSE TO USE

So once you have mastered the conjugations of the various 4 subjunctive tenses, and familiarized yourself with the various triggers, the final step is deciding which tense to use. Is it expressing something in the present? The immediate past? The ongoing past? The future? The subjunctive tense you use often depends on the tense of the verb in the opening clause. For example, if the opening clause is in the past, the dependent clause would have to be one of the subjunctive past tense, either the imperfect subjunctive, or the pluperfect subjunctive.

As I go deeper down the rabbit hole of the Spanish subjunctive, I am learning the subtle differences that can be expressed in the English translation, depending on the combinations of the various tenses as they appear in the independent and dependent clause. So for the purpose of this introductory article, I will refrain from going into these details. The main thing is to know the 3 steps for forming the correct subjunctive expression.

THE IMPORTANCE OF LEARNING THE SPANISH SUBJUNCTIVE

Now, why should we care? If you want to speak Spanish fluently, you will need to know the subjunctive. For me, as I focused on mastering the subjunctive tense, I realized how often it is used in day-to-day Spanish. Knowing how to use the subjunctive is like having this amazingly versatile tool for expressing things in Spanish way more simply and naturally. It’s like having a thousand “ah that’s how you say that!” moments. It’s like uncovering a new layer to Spanish that has been hidden to the gringo world, or the non-serious Spanish student. It’s like a linguistic treasure, or a puzzle that has an amazing reward once you’ve solved it.

So if you are passionate about being fluent in Spanish, I encourage you to tackle the challenge of mastering the subjunctive mood. It is definitely rewarding.

HOW TO PRACTICE THE SPANISH SUBJUNCTIVE

NOW, how on earth do we practice the subjunctive? I am convinced that the only way to master the subjunctive is to practice it. And since we don’t use it in English, since our brain isn’t wired to use it, like the brain of native Spanish speakers, we need TONS of practice. Unfortunately, there aren’t any adequate methods for practicing the subjunctive. By adequate, I mean a method that
1) helps you practice all of the 4 tenses
2) helps you practice all of the various conjugations of those 4 tenses
3) helps you learn all or most of the various triggers
4) provides accurate English translations to the Spanish
5) provides hours and hours of practice, preferably in audio form with native Spanish speakers

Well, the good news is I have created an audio based course called Mastering the Spanish Subjunctive.

Stay tuned for more in-depth articles about the Spanish subjunctive.

Posted by scottshell, 13 comments

How To Conjugate The Spanish Subjunctive

So you want to conjugate the Spanish subjunctive? Don’t you have anything better to do?! If you aren’t sure if you have come to the right article, because you don’t know what the subjunctive is, you may want to read my article What Is the Spanish Subjunctive and How To Use It?

As you may know, there are 4 different verb tenses that can be conjugated in the subjunctive. They are:

Present subjunctive
Present perfect subjunctive
Imperfect subjunctive
Past perfect (or pluperfect) subjunctive

(Two more, the future and future perfect subjunctive, are antiquated tenses that can be found in old manuscripts and legal documents. They are no longer used or taught in modern Spanish, ¡gracias al cielo!)

Conjugating these 4 subjunctive tenses is pretty easy to do. Figuring out how and when to use them is a different matter entirely. But before we can use them, we need to conjugate them correctly. So that’s the first step in mastering the Spanish subjunctive. Let’s start with

CONJUGATING THE SPANISH PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE

First get your stem by going to the first person singular conjugation of the verb. Let’s take an irregular verb like poder. The first person singular is yo puedo. Drop the “o” and that is your stem. “pued-“. Now stick the correct ending on it to get your present subjunctive.

There are two possible endings to choose from. If the original verb is an -AR verb, a verb that ends in -AR in the infinitive, like hablar, you use these endings for the following subjects:

yo = -e = Yo hable
tú = -es = Tú hables
él, ella, usted = -e = Él hable
nosotros = -emos = Nosostros hablemos
vosotros = -éis = Vosotros habléis
ellos, ellas, ustedes = -en = Ustedes hablen

If the verb ends in -ER, or -IR in the infinitive, like our friend poder above, slap on one of these bad boys:

yo = -a = Yo pueda
tú = -as = Tú puedas
él, ella, usted = -a = Él pueda
nosotros = -amos = Nosostros podamos
vosotros = -áis = Vosotros podéis
ellos, ellas, ustedes = -an = Ustedes puedan

Whoa there tiger! Why is the stem different in the nosotros and vosotros. That’s because if there is a stem-changing verb, you know, where the O changes to UE, or E to IE, the nosotros and vosotros want to keep the stem of the infinitive.

empezar – yo empiece, nosotros empecemos (here the z changes to c to keep the original pronunciation)
rogar – yo ruegue, nosotros roguemos (here the g changes to gu)
contar – yo cuenta, nosotros contemos (here the t stays a t)
querer – yo quiera, nosotros queramos

The above examples are for -AR and -ER verbs. If it’s an -IR stem-changing verb with E to IE, the nosotros / vosotros takes an I where the IE would go. (In case you are wondering, this evolved this way due to the sound of the IE coming before the accented A.)

preferir – yo prefiera, nosotros prefiramos
sentir – yo sienta, nosotros sintamos

With -IR stem-changing verbs that change from U to UE, the nosotros / vosotros take a U where the UE would go.

dormir – yo duerma, nosotros durmamos

You’ll be happy to know that with -IR stem-changing verbs that change from E to I don’t change stems in the nosotros forms. To wit:

Pedir – yo pida, nosotros pidamos
Medir – yo mida, nosotros midamos
Seguir – yo siga, nosotros sigamos

Anymore weird conjugations? So glad you asked! As a matter of fact, there are 6 verbs that are irregular in the present subjunctive. They are:
Dar, Estar, Haber, Ir, Saber, Ser

All of these verbs have an irregular conjugation in the first person singular, so this makes it difficult to create our stem for the present subjunctive. Here are the conjugations:

Dar = dé, des, dé, demos, deis, den
NOTE the accent (or tilde) is written over dé so as not to confuse it with de
Estar = esté, estés, esté, estemos, estéis, estén
Haber = haya, hayas, haya, hayamos, hayáis, hayan
Ir = vaya, vayas, vaya, vayamos, vayáis, vayan
Saber = sepa, sepas, sepa, sepamos, sepáis, sepan
Ser = sea, seas, sea, seamos, seáis, sean

If you are knew to the subjunctive, your head is probably spinning by now. My head is spinning trying to remember what all these rules are! The cool thing is that once you memorize all these various conjugations of the present subjunctive, you forget all about the rules. It really does become second nature, like your ear tweaks if you hear it pronounced incorrectly. So take heart, I know it may seem overwhelming, but it really is a matter of time and practice, and you really do get used to these conjugations.

The other good news is that the other 3 tenses are MUCH easier to conjugate. Let’s take a quick looksee.

CONJUGATING THE SPANISH PRESENT PERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE TENSE

Remember that the perfect perfect tense is to have done something:

I have eaten = Yo he comido
You have drank = Tú has bebido
She has burped = Ella ha eructado
We have sweated = Nosotros hemos sudado
You (plural, familiar) have returned = Vosotros habéis vuelto
They have put = Ellos han puesto

This “have” verb is the Spanish verb haber which you can see above, is one of the 6 irregular conjugations of the present subjunctive. So all you do is change the above conjugations thusly:

PRESENT PERFECT — PRESENT PERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE

Yo he comido — Yo haya comido
Tú has bebido — Tú hayas bebido
Ella ha eructado — Ella haya eructado
Nosotros hemos sudado — Nosotros hayamos sudado
Vosotros habéis vuelto — Vosotros hayáis vuelto
Ellos han puesto — Ellos hayan puesto

That’s all you have to do for the present perfect subjunctive. The past participles stay the same! Easy enough.

CONJUGATING THE SPANISH IMPERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE TENSE

Another easy one. We start with the third person plural of the preterite tense. Let’s take the verb hacer. In the preterite, the 3rd person plural is hicieron. To get our stem, we drop the -ron to get:

hicie-

The 6 endings to choose from are these:

yo = -ra = yo hiciera
tú = -ras = tú hicieras
él, ella, usted = -ra = él hiciera
nosotros = -ramos = nosotros hiciéramos
vosotros = -rais = vosotros hicierais
ellos, ellas, ustedes = -ran = ellos hicieran

There is another set of endings for the imperfect subjunctive tense that is less common, but you will run across it in written Spanish, and spoken in some parts of Spain.

yo = -se = yo hiciese
tú = -ses = tú hicieses
él, ella, usted = -se = él hiciese
nosotros = -semos = nosotros hiciésemos
vosotros = -seis = vosotros hicieseis
ellos, ellas, ustedes = -sen = ellos hiciesen

(Nosotros in both forms always have an accent on the 3rd to last syllable.)

CONJUGATING THE SPANISH PAST PERFECT (PLUPERFECT) SUBJUNCTIVE TENSE

The 4th and final subjunctive tense to learn to conjugate is similar to the present perfect subjunctive that we learned above. Here we are using that “have” verb in the past tense. For example:

I had eaten = Yo había comido
You had drank = Tú habías bebido
She had burped = Ella había eructado
We had sweated = Nosotros habíamos sudado
You (plural, familiar) had returned = Vosotros habíais vuelto
They had put = Ellos habían puesto

That’s the ole pluperfect. Now to subjunctify it, we go to our 3rd person plural of haber. Don’t worry if you have no frickin’ clue what it is. Why would you? It is hubieron. Like the imperfect subjunctive, drop the -ron, and add the same endings as above. It can take either of the two versions, but the first set is more common.

PAST PERFECT — PAST PERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE

Yo había comido — Yo hubiera comido
Tú habías bebido — Tú hubieras bebido
Ella había eructado — Ella hubiera eructado
Nosotros habíamos sudado — Nosotros hubiéramos sudado
Vosotros habíais vuelto — Vosotros hubierais vuelto
Ellos habían puesto — Ellos hubieran puesto

So there we have it, the 4 tenses that can be conjugated using the subjunctive mood. I hope I explained this well enough. If not, look up another website that explains it, and between the two, hopefully it will start to sink in.

The big question is, how do you go about practicing all this? Sure you can read about how to conjugate the Spanish subjunctive, but it really isn’t going to help you learn it.

If you are only looking to practice the various verb conjugations of the subjunctive described above, I HIGHLY recommend using the Verberrator to help you drill over 500 verbs, including all the irregular ones. With the Verberrator you can select the verbs and the tenses that you want to practice. To purchase, click here.


It is an amazing tool, although it has some flaws. When practicing the subjunctive tenses, it only gives you one trigger, “Esperar que”. And many of the sentences that result in the randomizer make absolutely no sense, and will teach you the wrong way to use the subjunctive mood. It will help you with the actual conjugations, but will mess you up with the “how” and “when” part of speaking subjunctively. (I know, that’s not a word. I’m just being silly.)

If you want to practice the “how” and “when” of using the various subjunctive forms, the best resource for that is in production. It is called Mastering the Spanish Subjunctive and it is the creative work of yours truly. It is currently in production and the first volume will be available in July 2012. To stay informed about its release, be sure to sign up to my newsletter BY CLICKING HERE.


Posted by scottshell, 2 comments