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Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Joys and Horrors of the Spanish Subjunctive

Most English speakers don’t know anything about the subjunctive tense, and why should they? We barely use it in English and even when we do use it we usually don’t realize it. The subjunctive is used to describe situations that have not yet occurred, or things that are not reality like “If I weren’t addicted to beer I’d have six-pack abs by now.”  “If I weren’t addicted to beer” is a situation that is contrary to fact because I am addicted to beer. English doesn’t have a lot of completely different verb conjugations for the subjunctive. The subjunctive is something that even educated English speakers can totally ignore and not sound illiterate.

Spanish is a whole different story. The subjunctive in Spanish has insinuated its way into all sorts of different constructions it still retains this idea of something that is contrary to fact or hasn’t yet happened.  In Spanish, a sentence like “When I come to see you tomorrow I will tell you” requires that you conjugate the verb “come” in the subjunctive tense because it deals with a sort of hypothetical. It’s as if the Spanish or saying something to the effect of “I may come tomorrow and I may not. It’s in God’s hands. Maybe I’ll get hit by a bus. You never know.”

Spanish has even borrowed a phrase from Arabic which relates to this fleeting nature of all human existence. In shah Allah in Arabic means “If God wills it” which the Spanish have hijacked as “Ojalá” and verbs following this admonition require the subjunctive.  Let’s imagine that your girlfriend says to you, “Don’t worry. I brought enough beer for the camping trip.” To which you could reply, “Ojalá tengas razón” which uses the subjunctive in Spanish and which translates loosely as “I hope to hell you're right or we’ll have to spend an entire three-day weekend as sober as judges and do you remember who is going with us on this trip? Only the most tedious two couples I’ve ever known.”

Here a just a few clauses in Spanish that often introduce the use of the subjunctive:

1)a menos que – unless  2)antes (de) que - before  3)con tal (de) que - provided that 4)cuando - when  

5) conviene que - it is advisable that 6) después (de) que - after 7) dudar que - to doubt that

8) en caso de que - in case  9) en cuanto - as soon as 10) es aconsejable que - it's advisable that

11) es bueno que - it's good that 12) es difícil que - it's unlikely 13)t es dudoso que - it is doubtful 

14) es fácil que - it's likely 15)es fantástico que - it's fantastic 16) es importante que - it's important


  1. In my studies, the real English subjunctive is actually even farther from the conditional. It's more like, "I suggested that she not to that". There's a list of verbs with orders, suggestions, wishes, etc.) A lot of Spanish grammar books use the English condiitonals as a corolary to the Spanish subjunctive, but it's much more complicated than that. I usually tell students that once they start learning the conditionals, to forget Spanish logic and start thinking in English (and ditto, backwards-like. You know what I mean.) I get a bit nuts on this subject, but I believe that students of English need to be exposed to the conditionals pretty early in their learning - before intermediate - because expressing ambiguity and possibility is so intrinsic to everyday communication and more importantly, ADULT communication, that they should learn to use it ASAP. And yes,I did have wine for lunch.Why do you ask?

  2. It's Sunday in Spain. If you didn't have wine for lunch you just aren't assimilating.


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