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.

13 comments

Glad to see that you’re up and running again. Got your new website from Patrick.
The subjunctive has alluded me for the past 20 yrs, So I’m very happy to see this article. Please put me on your newsletter list.
Thanks MB

Hi Mary,
Thanks for your message. It’s been a year since I’ve been able to work on the TYS site, but starting to get back on it now, from Peru!
Best,
Scott

Thank you! I have learned quite a bit about subjunctive but still found this very helpful/useful.

Hi Scott, I bought Mastering the Spanish Subjunctive about 1 year ago and have worked through the first 2 volumes. I’d like to use the randomizer to practice all the tenses, but I can’t figure out how to do that. Can you point me to the instructions?

Also, I bought volumes 1-4 but I heard there are 2 more volumes. Where can I buy them?

Thanks much,
Cheryl

Hi Cheryl,

Sorry for the LOOOOOONG reply. I’m finally getting to a point where I can devote some time to TYS again. Volume 5 is planned to be released in early 2019. If you are still interested in the randomizer, I’m afraid that is not going to work on current operating systems. But I have a work around if you are interest. Let me know.

Best,
Scott

Hi Scott,
Are you still selling your Spanish downloadable audios fro learning the subjunctive?
I tried to access them through the other site where Patrick sells them but the website is closed.

Hi Gary,
So sorry for the loooong delay in replying. I am working on getting the products back up now. Please email me at info@teachingyourselfspanish.com if you are still interested.
Best,
Scott

Thank you so much for providing us with such helpful materials in order to become more proficient in Spanish. If you are Paralee Whitmyer (sp?) your lessons are priceless and I cherish them dearly. But once again – whoever you are – thank you so much! (Sorry to hear that your server went defunct.)

Thanks! More Spanish products coming down the pike. Next is Mastering the Spanish Subjunctive Volume 5!

GERALD FLANAGAN

Where is the ” se le construction ” information? Your program tells me that it can’t be found.

Rats! I have so many pages I need to re-create. I am working on the site re-build now. So much to do! And I’m afraid that article, which I was so proud of, is totally lost and will have to be re-written. Uggh!

GERALD FLANAGAN

Scott:
What happened to Volume 5? Wasn’t it supposed to appear a year ago? Am looking forward to seeing it.

Jerry F.

Hi Jerry,
Finally stabilized financially in my personal life, and am currently working on the audio edits for Volume 5. I hope to have it available in early 2019.
Best,
Scott

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