When to Use Subjunctive in Spanish: An Intermediate Learner’s Guide
Are you having trouble discerning when to use the subjunctive mood in Spanish?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Actually, the subjunctive is one of the hardest-to-master concepts in the Spanish grammar.
However, today you are going to learn specific cases that simplify this challenging subject. In this post, we’ll make a quick recap of what the subjunctive is and when to use it in Spanish, then we’ll focus on specific cases such as noun clauses, adjective clauses, and other uses. By the end of this blog post, you’ll be an expert in the use of the subjunctive mood in Spanish.
What’s the Subjunctive? A Quick Recap
The subjunctive is one of the three moods in the Spanish language. A mood is a criteria to classify verbs that indicates the intention of the speaker. The subjunctive expresses the meaning of the verb as a non-reality.
There you have your first clue to know when to use the subjunctive in Spanish. I recommend you to read our 3-part series on the subjunctive for a deeper understanding of what it is and how to use it.
When to Use Subjunctive in Spanish
In a comparison between the indicative and subjunctive moods, I reviewed some cases for when to use subjunctive in Spanish:
- Doubts or negative beliefs
- Some sentences with two verbs
Here are eight more cases when you should use the subjunctive:
- Noun clauses
- Adjective clauses
- Future Actions
- Negative Statements
- -ever Statements
- Whether or not
- Para que
1. Noun Clauses
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a clause is “a group of words containing a subject and predicate and functioning as a member of a complex or compound sentence.” Independent clauses which function as meaningful sentences on their own exist, as do dependent or subordinate clauses which cannot form a complete sentence on their own.
A noun clause is a dependent clause that acts as a noun.
How to Use the Subjunctive with Noun Clauses
If you want to know when to use subjunctive in Spanish, a sentence with two different subjects is usually a good time to do it.
Carlos espera que Ana vuelva pronto de Madrid.
Carlos hopes that Ana comes back soon from Madrid.
Remember that the subjunctive specializes in verbs that express “hypothetical” or “non-real” situations.
When you are hoping, wishing, wanting, or needing someone else to do something, it fits the description of “hypothetical” or “non-real” situations.
This is not to say that they can’t become reality, just that at the moment they aren’t real.
Carlos is hoping that Ana comes back soon from Madrid. Ana is not with him at the moment, that’s the non-real situation.
There is a useful acronym that can help you to understand better which verbs express this type of situation: WEIRDO. I’ve included some verbs of each kind.
- Wishing: desear (to wish), esperar (to hope), querer (to want), necesitar (to need)
- Emotion: alegrarse (to be happy that), molestarse (to be annoyed that)
- Impersonal expression: es + adjective + que – Es increíble que... (It’s incredible that…)
- Requesting: pedir que (to ask that), querer que (to want that)
- Doubt: dudar que (to doubt that), negar que (to deny that)
- Ojalá (Spanish expression that means “God willing”)
In summary, if you have a sentence with two different subjects and the first verb is a WEIRDO, then you should use the subjunctive on the second verb.
Carlos espera que Ana vuelva pronto de Madrid.
Subject 1: Carlos
Subject 2: Ana
Verb 1: esperar (WEIRDO)
Verb 2: volver conjugated in the third person of present tense of subjunctive: vuelva.
Let’s see one more example:
Dudo que el Barcelona gane el partido.
I doubt that Barcelona wins the game.
Subject 1: Yo (me – I doubt)
Subject 2: El Barcelona
Verb 1: dudar que (WEIRDO)
Verb 2: ganar conjugated in the third person of present tense of subjunctive: gane.
2. Adjective Clauses
An adjective clause is a dependent clause that acts as a noun. If you want to be sure if your sentence has an adjective clause, try substituting it with an adjective. If it still makes sense, then it’s an adjective clause.
Quiero una cama que no lastime mi espalda. – I want a bed that doesn’t hurt my back.
I’m thinking that que no lastime mi espalda is an adjective clause, let’s see if I can substitute it with an adjective.
Quiero una cama cómoda. – I want a comfortable bed.
It makes sense to me. So yes, that’s an adjective clause.
Using the Subjunctive with Adjective Clauses
Another tip to know when to use subjunctive in Spanish is when the adjective clause modifies something vague or nonexistent.
Remember that the subjunctive is the mood of “hypothetical” and “non-real” situations. “Vague” and “nonexistent” are definitely within that realm.
In our previous example, the adjective clause is que no lastime mi espalda. The “antecedent” or the thing modified by the adjective clause is Quiero una cama. As I don’t have a definite bed in mind, this idea is vague and that’s why you have to use the subjunctive in the second verb: lastimar (third person of present tense of subjunctive: lastime).
Let’s see one more example:
No hay ninguna película que me llame la atención. – There’s no movie that catches my attention.
First, check if que me llame la atención is an adjective clause.
No hay ninguna película interesante. – There’s no interesting movie.
Yes it’s an adjective clause, as I was able to substitute it with an adjective.
Now, the antecedent is no hay ninguna película (there’s no movie). This clearly implies nonexistence, therefore you have to use the subjunctive in the second verb: llamarse. (first person present tense of subjunctive: me llame).
3. Additional Uses
To know when to use subjunctive in Spanish it’s important to consider the following cases:
There are a few expressions that you use in Spanish that refer to the future, which by its nature is vague and nonexistent. These expressions always use the subjunctive:
- Antes de que (before)
Quiero que esté terminado antes de que me vaya. – I want this finished before I leave.
Verb ir conjugated in first-person present subjunctive: vaya.
- Después de que (after)
Después de que termine el invierno iré a visitarte. – After the winter is over, I’ll visit you.
Verb terminar conjugated in third-person present subjunctive: termine.
- Hasta que (until)
Estaré aquí hasta que todo se aclare. – I’ll be here until everything is cleared up.
Verb aclarar conjugated in first-person present subjunctive: aclare.
- Cuando (when)
Ven directo a casa cuando acabe el partido. – Come directly home when the game is over.
Verb acabar conjugated in third-person of present subjunctive: acabe.
Another clue to know when to use subjunctive in Spanish is when it’s a negative statement.
No es que no quiera ir, es solo que estoy muy ocupado.
It’s not that I don’t want to go, it’s only that I’m too busy.
Verb querer conjugated in first-person present subjunctive: quiera.
There are no -ever statements in Spanish, but it’s easier for you to remember them this way.
- Quien sea – whoever
- Donde sea – wherever
- Cuando quieras – whenever you want
- Como quieras – however you want
These expressions are already using the subjunctive form of the verbs (sea, quieras).
Ven a verme cuando quieras. – Come to see me whenever you want.
Whether or not
This is another expression that’s easier to name and remember in English than in Spanish. The structure in Spanish is:
Verb in subjunctive + o no
Es tu trabajo, te guste o no.
It’s your job, whether you like it or not.
Verb gustar conjugated in second-person present subjunctive: guste.
Para que – in order that, so that
When the Spanish expression para que appears in a sentence expressing purpose, you should use the subjunctive only if there is a change in subject.
Necesito ver a mi doctor para que me dé una receta médica.
I need to see my doctor so that he can give me a prescription.
Verb dar conjugated in third-person present subjunctive: dé.
Aunque – even if
Knowing when to use subjunctive in Spanish is not always straightforward. For example, not every time you see aunque in a sentence should you use the subjunctive. If it implies doubt about what is referring, then you have to use subjunctive.
Think of it as the difference between “even if” and “even though.” In the latter, you use the indicative, while in the former you use the subjunctive.
Voy a pasar el examen, aunque es difícil.
I’m going to pass the test, even though it’s difficult.
In this case, you know that the test will be difficult, so there’s no doubt about it. That’s why you use indicative mood: es.
Voy a pasar el examen, aunque sea difícil.
I’m going to pass the test, even if it’s difficult.
In this case, you don’t know if the test will be difficult or not; you have no idea. That’s why you use subjunctive mood: sea.
Aprende Español Cuando Quieras
“Learn Spanish whenever you want.” By learning when to use subjunctive in Spanish, you’re now one step closer to mastering the Spanish language. This post is full of useful tips and specific cases to help you better understand how the subjunctive works. Don’t let its reputation as “the weird mood” scare you! Its uses are well-defined, they’re just more specific than the uses of the indicative.
Now that you know when to use subjunctive in Spanish, start practicing these cases in real-life conversations. Sign up for a free trial class today with one of our native-speaking, certified teachers from Guatemala and impress them with your deep understanding of the subjunctive mood!
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