The Complete Guide To Spanish Subjunctive Triggers, Part 2

The Complete Guide To Spanish Subjunctive Triggers, Part 2

In part 2 of this series of articles on Spanish subjunctive triggers, we are going to look at a group of triggers that express doubts, desires, and denial.

Before we take a closer look at this category of subjunctive triggers, I want to express that the purpose of this categorization process may be questioned by some Spanish language teachers for various reasons. They may say it is more important to just be immersed in the language. Or that language isn’t the expression of grammar, but rather grammar serves the language, and overemphasizing the grammar is not the way to learn Spanish.

SO, I want to make sure that I express this again clearly. Native English speakers have the most difficulty with speaking Spanish fluently because of their limited practice and grasp of the subjunctive mood. Because of this, we need some extra practice with this mood, and a way to understand it. There are obviously different learning styles that suit different individuals, and examining grammar in depth may not be helpful for every learner.

Also, this type of study is merely a way to supplement other learning methods, not an attempt to supersede them. Grammar drills that focus on the Spanish subjunctive, like the ones I created and produced in my audio course, Mastering the Spanish Subjunctive, are only meant to support our learning.

From my personal experience as a native English speaker learning Spanish, as I’ve mentioned before, I have found that familiarity with these triggers, which has come from practicing the drills in my course, have allowed me to not only speak Spanish much more naturally and fluently, but to understand it better as well. For example, when a native Spanish speaker uses the imperfect subjunctive, I can now recognize the conjugations, the sounds and the meaning. So, for me, this has been an invaluable method for helping me achieve my goal.

OK, so let’s get technical and start going deeper into the subject at hand. First off, it will be helpful to be clear on some definitions that I will adhere to throughout the remainder of this series.

Independent clause
 = This clause contains the trigger, not the subjunctive. It has a subject and a verb.

Dependent clause = This clause is dependent on the independent clause and is connected to the independent clause by the word que (that) or si (if). The dependent clause has a subject and verb, and the verb can be in the subjunctive mood if there is a subjunctive trigger in the independent clause.

Subjunctive mood versus tense = The subjunctive mood is the subjunctive in general and is distinguished from the only other possible mood in Spanish, the indicative. The subjunctive mood only has 4 tenses (in modern spoken Spanish): the present, the present perfect, the imperfect, and the past perfect, also called pluperfect. (I will call it the past perfect throughout this series of articles). The indicative mood includes those 4 tenses plus all the other tenses imaginable (conditional, future, etc.)

Immediate future tense
 = Ir + a + infinitive structure. For example, He is going to come. = Él va a venir.

And now some basic ground rules to know about. In looking at the various trigger types throughout this series of articles, we will be observing the following things:

1) What are the possible tenses that can be used in the independent clause for each of the 4 subjunctive tenses.
2) The nuances of the most natural English translations with respect to the different trigger classes in general, and specific triggers themselves.
3) Commonalities and differences between different trigger types.
4) How the meanings of the triggers change in the English translation between different subjunctive tenses.

So with definitions and ground rules out of the way, let’s look at this first group of Spanish subjunctive triggers in more depth.

Subjunctive Triggers of Desire, Doubt and Denial

This first group of desire, doubt and denial does not include impersonal expressions of the same, which are a different category of triggers. For example, es dudoso que, or es preferible que, both express doubt and desire. However, the group of triggers we are looking at in this article have these 3 condition

1) a subject in the independent clause,
2) a different subject in the dependent clause
3) and connected by que or si.

PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE WITH TRIGGERS OF DOUBT

Let’s start by looking at the triggers of doubt that trigger the present subjunctive. These triggers can be in the present tense, the future tense or the immediate future tense. The future tenses work grammatically but sound unusual and will not likely be used with these specific triggers. Let’s start with some examples, then examine them further.

Dudar que
Yo dudo que él venga = I doubt that he is coming.

No creer que
Yo no creo que él venga = I don’t believe he is coming.
(Here “believe” is a more literal translation, but “think” is also a good English translation as well.)

No estar seguro que

Yo no estoy seguro que él venga = I am not sure he will come.

No estar convencido de que
Yo no estoy convencido de que él venga = I am not convince that he is coming.

No pensar que
Yo no pienso que él venga = I don’t think he will come.

No imaginarse que

Yo no me imagino que él venga = I don’t imagine that he is coming.

No suponer que
Yo no supongo que él venga = I don’t suppose that he will come.

Note that the English translation can either be in the present tense “comes”, the present progessive “is coming”, or future “will come”, and that these tenses don’t translate literally to Spanish. For example, in English if you said:
“I don’t think he is coming”, you wouldn’t say, Yo no creo que él esté viniendo (Spanish progressive tense). Also if you said, “I don’t think he will come”, you wouldn’t say, Yo no creo que él vendrá (Spanish future tense).
To translate the future in this way in Spanish, use the subjunctive present as the subjunctive future is not used anymore in everyday speech.

Also with these triggers of doubt, you will notice that if the negative phrases are changed to a positive statement, or if the phrase with dudar is changed into a negative statement, the doubt disappears. When there is no doubt, the verb in the dependent clause will be in the indicative.

Yo dudo que él venga. = I doubt that he will come.
Yo no dudo que él viene. = I don’t doubt that he is coming.

Él no cree que nosotros vengamos. = He doesn’t believe we are coming.
Él cree que nosotros venimos. = He believes we are coming.

However, if a question is posed with an expression that doesn’t express doubt, you will often see the subjunctive used. For example:

¿Crees que él venga? = Do you think he’s coming?
Here the person asking the question is unsure if the person being asked has doubt or not. If not, the response will use the indicative. Creo que el viene.

You can try replacing any of the verbs in the examples above with the future or immediate future tense. You will notice that they can work with the subjunctive present in the dependent clause, but if followed by the subjunctive present perfect in the dependent clause, they sound much more natural. So now let’s look at the subjunctive present perfect with these triggers of doubt.

PRESENT PERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE WITH TRIGGERS OF DOUBT

Yo dudo que él haya venido. = I doubt that he has come.

Yo no voy a creer que él haya venido. = I am not going to believe that he has come.

Yo no pensaré que él haya venido. = I will not believe that he has come.

The future tense seems to be more common if it is in the form of a question.

¿No creerá ella que yo haya venido? = She won’t believe that I have come?

¿No van a estar seguros ustedes que él haya venido? = You (plural) are not going to be sure that he has come?

With the above 2 examples, it would be natural in English to use “if”. For example, You are not going to be sure if he has come? This doesn’t translate direct to Spanish with these triggers of doubt with the present or present perfect subjunctive. In Spanish, you would use the conditional in the independent clause, and the subjunctive imperfect or past perfect. So in Spanish it would be ¿No estarían seguros ustedes si él hubiera venido? In English, this translates as You (plural) wouldn’t be sure if they would come? We’ll see more examples of this shortly, but just notice for now that the common English use of the future tense for an if / then type sentence structure, doesn’t translate directly into Spanish.

Going back to the subjunctive present perfect, like the present subjunctive, the only tenses you will find in the independent clause of doubt triggers are present, future, and immediate future.

IMPERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE WITH TRIGGERS OF DOUBT

The tenses that we will find in the independent clause that trigger the imperfect subjunctive with triggers of doubt are the preterite, the imperfect, the past perfect, the conditional, and the conditional perfect. The preterite is less common, and indicates that the doubt happened once at a specific point in time. The imperfect in the independent clause with triggers of doubt sounds more natural and indicates that the doubt was an ongoing doubt, whether it lasted for 10 minutes or 10 years. And since the nature of doubt is that it is ongoing, it makes sense to use these triggers in the imperfect, rather than the preterite. However, in every day speech you will hear these in the preterite tense.

The imperfect subjunctive can have four different English translations, and depending on the tense of the trigger, one of these translations will make more sense. The English translation can be the equivalent of the Spanish preterite, imperfect or conditional. Let’s look first at the different possible English translations, then we’ll examine the different tenses in the independent clause.

As our example, let’s look at:
Yo dudaba que él viniera.

The possible translations can be: (parenthesis refer to the verb to come)
I doubted that he came. (Spanish preterite, indicating a one time event in the past.)
I was doubting that he was coming. (Spanish imperfect, indicating that the action in process.)
I used to doubt that he used to come. (again, Spanish imperfect, indicating that the coming was an ongoing action. This doesn’t make too much sense with the verb venir, but works well with plenty of other verbs.
I used to doubt that he would come. (Spanish conditional.)

In all of the cases above, the imperfect subjunctive, viniera, is used. But the English translation can be a little different in the independent clause, depending on the meaning of viniera in the dependent clause. These subtleties of meaning is what makes translating the imperfect subjunctive into English so challenging. Especially in textbook explanations that I’ve seen, or even in my audio course Mastering the Spanish Subjunctive, the exact English translations taken out of the context of a conversation are difficult to pin down.

Another thing that has created confusion in my attempts to understand the imperfect subjunctive has to do with the English translation where the equivalent of the Spanish preterite is used. As an example, a more exact translation of the first translation above, that indicates a one time event (Spanish preterite), I would think it is better to use the past perfect subjunctive, because that translates as a single event. I wonder if the Spanish imperfect translation is probably why the tense is called the subjunctive imperfect, and not the subjunctive preterite. Although I have seen in several Spanish grammar textbooks the subjunctive imperfect being translated like a Spanish preterite in English, I have often wondered how accurate those translations really are. Just to be clear, here’s another example:

Nosotros dudábamos que él fuera a la panadería.

One English translation is:
We were doubting that he was going to the bakery. (Spanish imperfect, referring to going)
We used to doubt that he would go to the bakery. (Spanish conditional, referring to would go)

If you wanted to say:
We were doubting that he went to the bakery (Spanish preterite)

my question is this. Wouldn’t the past perfect subjunctive be used here?

Nosotros dudábamos que él hubiera ido a la panadería.

Here the English translation is: We were doubting that he had gone to the bakery. What’s the difference in the English meaning to say, We were doubting that he went to the bakery? Both indicate that the event happened one time. So this is why I am questioning the common English translations that I have found that give a direct past (or equivalent to the Spanish preterite) translation to the subjunctive imperfect. I hope to find some advice on this to clarify this content of the article, and I think it will only be accurate if it comes from someone who is fully bilingual, that is, an equally high level of fluency in both English and Spanish.

I posed this to a Spanish teacher from Mexico (who is not fluent in English) and she explained that the difference in meaning between the above sentence and,

Nosotros dudábamos que él fuera a la panadería.

when the meaning is referring to a single time, has to do with the degree of likelihood of the action taking place. When the subjunctive past perfect is used, the degree of likelihood is LESS than if the subjunctive imperfect is used. If this is indeed the case, then this is one of those nuances of the subjunctive mood that is probably not going to be learned in a textbook or with audio drills. This can only really be understood and used fluently, by immersing oneself in the language and culture.

Now if we move forward using these different English translations, let’s look at some of the different possible tenses for the triggers, and how these effect the corresponding English translations.

Preterite:
If the believing happened one time, or at a specific moment of time, use the preterite.
Yo no creí que él viniera. = I didn’t believe he came OR I didn’t believe he was coming.

Imperfect:
If the believing occurred continually during a period of time, use the imperfect.
Yo no creía que él viniera. = I didn’t used to believe he would come.

Past Perfect:
Yo no había creído que él viniera. = I had not believed that he was coming.

Conditional:

There are two possible uses of the conditional, with que and with si. In this first example, the “if” clause is implied. If spoken, it would come before or after, and would also use the subjunctive imperfect or past perfect.
Yo no creería que él viniera. = I would not believe that he would come.

If the implied “if” clause was “if she came”, and was expressed, this sentence could be:
Yo no creería que él viniera si ella viniera. = I would not believe that he would come if she came.

You could also use si in the original sentence, but with triggers of doubt, you need to include a lo(it) for it to make sense, with “it” being implied by the speaker referring to a previous reference of the conversation.

Yo no lo creería si él viniera. = I would not believe it if he were to come.
The English translation with “if / then” clauses sounds best when using the accurrate and somewhat rare English subjunctive conjugation, “he were”.

Conditional Perfect:
Yo no habría creído que él viniera. = I would not have that believed he was coming.

Like the conditional above, this example lacks the “if” clause. However, if you wanted to turn it into an “if / then” clause by adding lo, the subjunctive would then be in the past perfect. (More on this below.)

Yo no lo habría creído si él hubiera venido. = I would not have believed it if he had to come.

As you can see, the tense of the trigger has an effect on the best English translation, but also the context of the conversation will have an influence. Here is another example:

Preterite:
Yo no estuve convencido de que él comiera los chocolates. = I was not convinced that he ate the chocolates.

Imperfect:
Yo no estaba convencido de que él comiera los chocolates. = I was not convinced that he was eating the chocolates.

Past Perfect:
Yo no había estado convencido de que él comiera los chocolates. = I hadn’t been convinced that he was eating (or used to eat) the chocolates.

Conditional:

Yo no estaría convencido de que él comiera los chocolates. = I would not be convinced that he would eat the chocolates.
Yo no estaría convencido si él comiera los chocolates. = I would not be convinced if he were to eat the chocolates.

Conditional Perfect:
Yo no habría estado convencido que él comiera los chocolates. = I would not have been convinced that he was eating the chocolates.

PAST PERFECT SUBJUNCTIVE WITH TRIGGERS OF DOUBT

Let’s now look at the 4th and final subjunctive tense with triggers of doubt, which is only as difficult as the imperfect subjunctive if you haven’t studied the imperfect subjunctive first. Otherwise, it’s a breeze. The tenses you will find in the independent clause are the same as the imperfect subjunctive.

Here the English translation can refer to a specific moment in time, or in reference to another point in time. Again, the best translation will depend on the tense of the trigger.

Preterite:
Yo dudé que él hubiera venido. = I doubted that he had come. (OR I doubted that he came.)

Imperfect:
Yo dudaba que él hubiera venido. = I used to doubt that he had come. (OR I was doubting that he came.)

Past Perfect:
Yo había dudado que él hubiera venido. = I had doubted that he had come.

Conditional:
Yo dudaría que él hubiera venido. = I would doubt that he had come.
OR
Yo lo habría dudado si él hubiera venido. = I would have doubted it if he had come.

Conditional Perfect:
Yo habría dudado que él hubiera venido. = I would have doubted that he had come.
OR
Yo lo habría dudado si él hubiera venido. = I would have doubted it if he had come.

Since this article has turned out to be quite long, I decided to write about the other triggers in this category (desires and denial) in the next article. They work similarly to the triggers of doubt, but there are some nuances that we will see that probably require their own feature article.

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