A Simple Guide to Subjunctive vs Indicative in Spanish
The subject of moods in Spanish sounds tricky, but it’s easier than it sounds. Subjunctive vs indicative vs imperative. What are these words? Why do you need them? And more importantly, how do you learn when to use them?
I always go back to the expression that languages are complex creatures and that’s why there are so many weird terms and obscure grammatical concepts. But just imagine for a minute how many things you can express with a language. Facts, opinions, ideas, emotions, wishes, hopes, beliefs, realistic situations, imaginary situations, etc.
In some languages, such as English, you can express all of that with the same word. A verb that doesn’t change at all or if it changes, the modification is minimal and it’s usually the same for other verbs. In Spanish, as you may know by now, verbs change all the time depending on the time the action happens and the intention of the speaker. That’s where the moods enter the scene.
Today, we’ll learn about tenses and moods and explore when to use subjunctive vs indicative.
Tenses vs Moods
Once you start dealing with grammar terms and concepts in Spanish, things can get a bit confusing. Just don’t let the big words scare you; these terms are here to help you navigate the intricacies of the language.
Let’s start with tenses. Tenses refer to time. They exist to inform about the moment in time when an action takes place. Think past, present, and future, and you’ll get the idea of what a tense is. However, in Spanish there are many other tenses, and they’re divided into simple and compound tenses depending on the number of parts they have.
Moods, on the other hand, are grammatical categories that help you distinguish between different verb tenses. If the tense indicates when an action takes place, the mood indicates the intention of the speaker.
Three moods exist in Spanish: subjunctive, indicative, and imperative. The imperative doesn’t use tenses, so for the purposes of this post I’m leaving it out of the discussion. Let’s focus on the subjunctive vs indicative debate.
What’s the Subjunctive?
The subjunctive has a bad reputation as a weird mood that’s hard to understand. But in reality it’s quite logical and very useful once you master it. The subjunctive expresses the meaning of the verb as a non-reality. Wishes, hopes, desires, and possibilities are expressed by using the subjunctive mood. All these things aren’t facts; they are not real.
In the subjunctive vs indicative discussion, reality is not on the side of the subjunctive.
What’s the Indicative?
The indicative is considered the “normal” mood. The one you use when you want to say something as straightforward and simple as el perro come carne (the dog eats meat). You aren’t wondering if the dog might want to eat meat or wishing that it does. You’re just saying it straight: the dog eats meat, period.
The indicative expresses the meaning of the verb as a reality. Facts are the indicative specialty, and this leads to the belief that it’s the “main” mood. But this subjunctive vs indicative debate is not about winning, it’s about the possibilities that each mood has to offer. Let’s explore some of them.
When to Use Subjunctive vs Indicative
1. Beliefs vs Doubts
Even though beliefs seem to be part of the realm of the uncertainty reserved for the subjunctive, in Spanish, positive beliefs are expressed using the indicative.
Yo creo que hoy gana el Real Madrid. – I believe Real Madrid will win today.
However, if that belief is negative, expresses uncertainty or doubt, then you have to use the subjunctive.
Yo no creo que hoy gane el Real Madrid. – I don’t believe Real Madrid will win today.
In the subjunctive vs indicative debate, positive beliefs go on the side of the indicative and doubt or negative beliefs on the side of the subjunctive.
2. One Verb vs Two Verbs
Again, this is not a black-and-white discussion, so it’s not as if the sentence has one verb you use one mood, and if it has two then you use the other one. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Let’s try to make it as simple as possible:
Use Indicative If…
– The sentence has only one verb.
Carlos juega fútbol. – Carlos plays football.
– The sentence has two verbs and both refer to the same person.
Carlos quiere jugar fútbol. – Carlos wants to play football.
– The sentence has two verbs and the first one expresses certainty; then use the indicative for the second verb, too.
Estoy seguro que Carlos juega fútbol. – I’m sure Carlos plays football.
Use Subjunctive If…
– In a sentence with two verbs, the first one expresses emotion and is separated from the second one by que, then the first verb is indicative and the second one is subjunctive.
Carlos quiere que Emilio juegue fútbol. – Carlos wants Emilio to play football.
– The sentence has two verbs and the first one expresses uncertainty; then use the subjunctive for the second verb.
No creo que Carlos juegue fútbol. – I don’t believe Carlos plays football.
3. Certainty vs Uncertainty
If there’s anything certain about the subjunctive vs indicative discussion, this is it: certainty goes with the indicative mood and uncertainty with the subjunctive. Anytime you’re sure about something, use the indicative. If there’s room for doubt, then the subjunctive should be your choice.
El abuelo de María es argentino. – María’s grandfather is Argentinian.
No sé si el abuelo de María sea argentino. – I don’t know if María’s grandfather is Argentinian.
4. Reality vs Imagination
By now, I’m sure you know which one goes on either side of the subjunctive vs indicative discussion. When you are dealing with realistic situations, you have to use the indicative; when the situation is imaginary, then the subjunctive is the mood to use.
Si estudias, aprobarás el examen. – If you study, you’ll pass the test.
In this example, I’m using the indicative even though there is a si clause. One would assume that si clauses would express uncertainty. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The truth is that the situation presented is realistic. If you study, you’ll pass. That’s not an imaginary situation, it’s a simple fact (although I accept that sometimes we can study and still fail tests).
Si estudiaras, aprobarías el examen. – If you studied, you would pass the test.
In this case, the sentence expresses the idea that this kid doesn’t study. Let’s say it’s his father talking; he knows his son doesn’t study and that’s why his expression is imaginary. He’s saying that if at any time his son wanted to study, he would pass the test, but the father knows that’s not the reality.
Subjunctive vs Indicative Conclusion
In the subjunctive vs indicative debate, sometimes it is not clear when you should use one or the other. Even native Spanish speakers can have problems with this issue. However, try using the few tips discussed above and you’ll be closer to mastering the tricky discussion of the subjunctive vs indicative in Spanish.
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