The Past Subjunctive in Spanish Grammar
What is the past subjunctive in Spanish and why is it essential for Spanish learners to know?
We use the past subjunctive—or the imperfect subjunctive, as it is commonly called—to talk about hypotheses, wishes, or uncertainty. In this particular scenario, we do so when referring to actions in the past.
In this blog post, I’ll cover all aspects of how to use the past subjunctive mood and share lots of examples using both regular and irregular verbs.
¡Vamos a practicar con el subjuntivo!
Let’s start by taking a look at the two different tenses of past subjunctive in Spanish: first, the imperfect subjunctive and then the past perfect (a.k.a. pluperfect) subjunctive.
How to Form the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish
The past subjunctive of all Spanish verbs is formed by changing the ending of the third person plural (ellos) of the preterite from -ron to one of the endings below.
This is great news, right? No need to differentiate the endings for -AR versus -ER and -IR verbs!
|Subject||Past Subjunctive Verb Ending|
For example, let’s look at the regular -AR verb practicar (“to practice”).
The past subjunctive Spanish conjugations are:
- Yo practicara
- Tú practicaras
- Nosotros practicáramos
- Ellos practicaran
The same goes for regular -ER and -IR verbs.
When you use the verb comer (“to eat”), conjugate it first to its third person plural form (they) in the preterite tense:
Now remove the -ron and you have comier-. This is your stem.
The past subjunctive Spanish conjugations for comer are:
- Yo comiera
- Tú comieras
- Nosotros comiéramos
- Ellos comieran
Let’s do it again with the verb vivir (“to live”). First conjugate it to the third person plural form (they) in the preterite tense:
Now remove the -ron and you have vivier-. Again, this is your stem!
The past subjunctive Spanish conjugations are:
- Yo viviera
- Tú vivieras
- Nosotros viviéramos
- Ellos vivieran
PRO TIP! Note that the nosotros verb form uses an accent mark on the syllable before the verb ending -amos.
When to Use the Imperfect Subjunctive
We use the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish in the following 6 ways:
1. To indicate an action in the past in the same situations where the subjunctive would be required in the present.
Es agradable que Esteban me lea los poemas. (present subjunctive)
It is nice that Esteban reads me the poems.
Era agradable que Esteban me leyera los poemas. (imperfect subjunctive)
It was nice that Esteban would read me the poems.
2. After the expression ojalá (or ojalá que).
Ojalá estuviera en la playa en este momento.
I wish I were at the beach right now.
3. After “if” clauses to indicate unlikely events.
Compraría una casa grande si tuviera una familia.
I would buy a big house if I had a family.
4. When the verb in the main clause is in one of the past tenses or in the conditional.
Quise que ella me escribiera.
I wanted her to write to me.
Quería que mi amiga me escribiera cada día.
I wanted my friend to write to me every day.
Había querido que mi amiga me escribiera durante su viaje.
I had wanted my friend to write to me during her trip.
Quería que mi amiga me escribiera durante su viaje.
I would like my friend to write to me during her trip.
5. When the verb in the main clause is in the present but it refers to a previous occurrence.
Es increíble que ustedes estudiaran juntos.
It’s incredible that you studied together.
6. To speak politely.
Quisiera asistir a la clase.
I would like to attend the class.
¿Pudiera ir contigo?
Could I go with you?
How to Form the Past Perfect Subjunctive in Spanish
The past perfect subjunctive is common when discussing past hypotheticals, conditionals, and past actions preceding other past actions.
Remember, all Spanish grammar structures that contain the word “perfect” use a similar formula when it comes to conjugation:
haber (auxiliary verb) + past participle
To conjugate in past perfect subjunctive, haber is conjugated in the imperfect subjunctive form, resulting in the following formula:
hubiera/hubiese + past participle
As you can see, the imperfect subjunctive of haber can be conjugated in two different ways. Both are correct and interchangeable, though use of hubiera is much more widespread. Although hubiese is seldom heard in conversation, it is more common in literature.
Ojalá hubiera estudiado más español.
I wish I had studied Spanish more.
Era posible que él hubiera llegado temprano.
It was possible that he had arrived early.
No tendrías tantos problemas ahora si hubieras dicho la verdad.
You wouldn’t have so many issues now if you had told the truth.
Ojalá hubieras aprendido español.
I wish you had learned Spanish.
No creo que hubieras viajado conmigo a Italia.
I don’t think you would have traveled to Italy with me.
Si yo hubiera tenido una beca, habría asistido a una universidad privada.
If I had had a scholarship, I would have attended a private university.
Past Subjunctive in Spanish: Common Irregular Verbs
As any intermediate or advanced Spanish student knows, a slew of irregular verbs exist in Spanish.
Let’s dive into how to conjugate some of the most common irregular verbs in the past subjunctive.
This fundamental “to be” verb has its own unique conjugation set to memorize.
This second “to be” verb is irregular in the present subjunctive form due to its accent marks—but not in the past subjunctive!
While tener (“to have”) is an irregular verb in most tenses, it’s actually quite regular in the past subjective mood!
This super-common verb for “to go” also features a special conjugation set.
Another frequently used verb, poder (“to be able to”), follows the past subjunctive conjugation rule for regular verbs.
Finally, hacer (“to do” or “to make”) features a straightforward conjugation set, as well.
Which Clauses Introduce the Past Subjunctive in Spanish?
Several clauses trigger the use of the past subjunctive. Check out the categories and example sentences below.
Ojalá hubiera sabido.
I wish I had known.
¿Y si mi papá hubiera tenido razón sobre las reglas?
What if my dad had been right about the rules?
(See the section below on “If Clauses” for more details about this usage.)
Actions Preceding Other Past Actions
La maestra de arte no creyó que hubieras limpiado el escritorio.
The art teacher did not believe that you had cleaned the desk.
Norberto me pidió que fuera a visitarlo.
Norbert asked me to go visit him.
Nos gustaba que viniera.
We liked that he used to come around.
Doubt or Denial
No es que estuviera feliz porque perdió el equipo.
It’s not that I was happy because the team lost.
Uncertain or Unclear Antecedent
Quería un milagro que le ayudara.
She wanted a miracle to help her.
Clauses Introduced with “It would be…”
Sería bueno que llegaras a tiempo.
It would be good for you to arrive on time.
When it comes to si clauses, we use the past subjunctive in conditional sentences that refer to hypothetical situations. Use the following structure to express situations that are unlikely to happen:
Si + past subjunctive, conditional
Si ella fuera millonaria, tomaría un paseo alrededor del mundo.
If she were a millionaire, she would take a trip around the world.
Si estuvieras aquí, te cocinaría una rica cena.
If you were here, I would make you a delicious dinner.
We also use the past subjunctive with the conditional tense for impossible or imaginary situations in the past. The formula is:
Si + past perfect subjunctive, past perfect subjunctive or conditional
Si lo hubiera sabido, nunca habría dicho la broma.
If I had known, I never would have told the joke.
Si te hubiera invitado a la promoción, no habrías venido.
If I had invited you to the graduation, you would not have come.
Si hubiera tenido más tiempo en Nueva York, habría visitado la galería.
If I had had more time in New York, I would have visited the gallery.
Let’s briefly discuss another advanced concept related to the past subjunctive in Spanish: tense sequences, or tense agreement.
If you start with a present or future tense in the indicative clause, you have to continue with a present tense verb in the subjunctive clause. On the other hand, when the main sentence is in a past tense, the subjunctive must also be in a past tense.
When the subjunctive clause is simultaneous with or following the indicative clause, this triggers the use of imperfect subjunctive.
Yo le pedí que me hiciera un favor.
I asked her to do me a favor.
When the subjunctive clause is prior to the indicative clause, use the past perfect subjunctive.
Me molestó que mi hermana mayor hubiera ido a la escuela sin mí.
It bothered me that my older sister had gone to school without me.
Practice Past Subjunctive in Spanish!
Now that you’ve mastered the past subjunctive in Spanish, are you ready to start using it in conversation? If you’re looking for a native Spanish speaker to practice your new skills with, try a free trial class with one of our friendly, certified teachers today! They’re equipped to meet you at your level and would love to support you on your Spanish learning journey.
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