Introduction to the Subjunctive Mood in Spanish

Tips for beginners learning this essential verb form

many angry with phone
Está enojado que su celular no funcione. (He is angry that his phone isn't working. Note that the verb "funcione" is in the subjunctive mood.).

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One of the most confusing aspects of Spanish for beginners is the subjunctive mood. In fact, it usually isn't taught, at least to those using English as a first language, until at least the intermediate level.

But even as a beginning Spanish student, you should be aware of what role the subjunctive mood plays, if only so you can recognize it when you come across it in speech or reading.

What is the Subjunctive Mood?

The mood of a verb, sometimes known as its mode, indicates what type of role it plays in a sentence and/or the speaker's attitude toward it. For the most part, in English as well as Spanish, the most common verb mood is the indicative mood. In general, it is the "normal" verb form, indicating both action and state of being.

Both Spanish and English have two other verb moods. One of them is the imperative mood, used in making direct commands. For example. the Spanish "Hazlo," and its direct English equivalent, "Do it," use a verb in the imperative mood.

A third mood, extremely common in Spanish and other Romance languages such as French and Italian, is the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood also exists in English, although we don't use it very much and its use is less common than it used to be. (The "were" in "if I were you" is an example of the subjunctive mood in English.) Without limiting yourself much, you can speak English for days and get by without using a subjunctive form. But that isn't true in Spanish. The subjunctive mood is essential to Spanish, and even many simple types of statements can't be made properly without it.

In general, the subjunctive is a verb mood that is used to express an action or state of being in the context of the speaker's reaction to it. Most commonly (although not always), the subjunctive verb is used in a clause that starts with the relative pronoun que (meaning "which," "that" or "who"). Frequently, the sentences that contain a subjunctive verb are used to express doubt, uncertainty, denial, desire, commands, or reactions to the clause containing the subjunctive verb.

Comparing the Indicative and Subjunctive Moods

The most important differences between indicative and subjunctive moods can be seen by comparing two simple sentences:

  • Indicative: Los hombres trabajan. (The men are working.)
  • Subjunctive: Espero que los hombres trabajen. (I hope the men are working.)

The first sentence is in the indicative mood, and the men's working is stated as a fact. In the second sentence, the men's working is placed in the context of what the speaker hopes for. It isn't particularly important to the sentence whether men work or not; what is important is the speaker's reaction to it. Note also that while the Spanish distinguishes the subjunctive through the conjugation of trabajar, no such distinction is made in English.

Although not common, sometimes a Spanish sentence using the subjunctive is translated to English using the subjunctive:

  • Indicative: Insisto que Britney está sana. (I insist that Britney is healthy.)
  • Subjunctive: Insisto en que Britney esté feliz. (I insist that Britney be happy.)

Note how the first sentence in both languages asserts Britney's health as a fact. But in the second sentence, her health is stated as a strong desire. "Insist" is one of very few verbs in English that can trigger the subjunctive mood, but Spanish has thousands of such verbs.

The following sentences show other reasons for using the subjunctive; note how a distinctive subjunctive form is used in English in only the final translation.

  • Indicative (statement of fact): Britney está sana. (Britney is healthy.)
  • Indicative (statement of fact): Sé que Britney está sana. (I know that Britney is healthy.)
  • Subjunctive (doubt): No es cierto que Britney esté sana. (It is uncertain that Britney is healthy.)
  • Subjunctive (likelihood): Es probable que Britney esté sana. (It is likely that Britney is healthy.)
  • Subjunctive (denial): No es verdad que Britney esté sana. (It is not true that Britney is healthy.)
  • Subjunctive (reaction): Estoy feliz que Britney esté sana. (I am happy that Britney is healthy.)
  • Subjunctive (permission): Es prohibido que Britney está sana. (It is prohibited for Britney to be healthy.)
  • Subjunctive (desire): Espero que Britney esté sana. (I hope that Britney is healthy.)
  • Subjunctive (preference): Preferimos que Britney esté sana. (We prefer that Britney be healthy.)

Recognizing the Subjunctive Mood

In everyday Spanish, the subjunctive is used in only two of the simple tenses, the present and the imperfect (a type of past tense). Although Spanish has a future subjunctive, it is nearly obsolete. While you may not need to memorize the subjunctive conjugations as a beginning Spanish student, becoming familiar with them can help you learn to recognize them..

Here are the subjunctive forms for regular -ar verbs, using hablar as an example:

  • Present subjunctive: yo hable, tú hables, usted/él/ella hable, nosotros/nosotras hablemos, vosotros/vosotras habléis, ellos/ellas hablen.
  • Imperfect subjunctive: yo hablara, tú hablara, usted/él/ella hablara, nosotros/nosotras hablaramos, vosotros/vosotras hablareis, ellos/ellas hablaren. (There are two forms of the imperfect subjunctive. This one is the more common.)

And the subjunctive forms for regular -er and -ir verbs using beber as an example:

  • Present subjunctive: yo beba, tú bebas, usted/él/ella beba, nosotros/nosotras bebamos, vosotros/vosotras bebáis, ellos/ellas beban.
  • Imperfect subjunctive: yo bebiera, tú bebieras, usted/él/ella bebiera, nosotros/nosotras bebiéramos, vosotros/vosotras bebierais, ellos/ellas bebieran.

The subjunctive perfect tenses and progressive tenses are formed by using the appropriate subjunctive form of haber or estar followed by the appropriate participle.

Key Takeaways

  • The subjunctive mood is a key aspect of Spanish grammar and is much more common in Spanish than it is in English.
  • The subjunctive is used primarily for viewing a verb's action from the perspective of the speaker rather than stating it as a fact.
  • The subjunctive mood is used in the present and imperfect tenses.