Introduction to the Subjunctive Mood

Spanish for Beginners

Barcelona building
Espero que puedan viajar a Barcelona. (I hope they can travel to Barcelona.). Photo by Rick Ligthelm; licensed via Creative Commons.

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.

With that in mind, since this lesson is part of a series aimed at beginners, we won't attempt now to discuss the subjunctive mood in detail. But even as a beginner 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.

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.

Another mood you're familiar with, at least in English, is the imperative mood. In both English and Spanish, the imperative mood is used to give commands. Note that in a sentence such as "do it" (or the equivalent, "hazlo," in Spanish) the verb doesn't indicate what is happening, but what you are ordering to happen. Thus it plays a different role in the sentence than an indicative verb would. (In Spanish, this mood is indicated by its conjugation. In English, the imperative mood can be indicated by omitting the subject of the verb.)

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. Without limiting yourself much, you 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. Compare the following two 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.

See how the pattern holds true in the following sentences:

  • Indicative (statement of fact): Britney está enferma. (Britney is sick.)
  • Indicative (statement of fact): Sé que Britney está enferma. (I know that Britney is sick.)
  • Subjunctive (doubt): No es cierto que Britney esté enferma. (It is uncertain that Britney is sick.)
  • Subjunctive (denial): No es verdad que Britney esté enferma. (It is not true that Britney is sick.)
  • Subjunctive (reaction): Estoy feliz que Britney esté enferma. (I am happy that Britney is sick.)
  • Subjunctive (desire): Espero que Britney esté enferma. (I hope that Britney is sick.)
  • Subjunctive (desire): Preferimos que Britney esté enferma. (We prefer that Britney be sick.)
  • Subjunctive (command): Insisto que Britney esté enferma. (I insist that Britney be sick.)

Note the use of the subjunctive mood in the English translation of the final two examples. If the indicative mood were used in English in the final example (I insist that Britney is sick), the speaker would be insisting that a fact is true; when the subjunctive is used in this instance, it expresses what the speaker wants to be true (whether it is or not is immaterial to the meaning of the sentence). Similarly, in Spanish sentences where either the subjunctive or indicative mood can be used, the choice almost always affects the meaning of the sentence. In this way, the subjunctive mood can sometimes be used in Spanish to indicate doubt or feelings in ways that aren't available in English by merely changing the verb form.

As you study Spanish, even before you have formally studied the subjunctive, pay attention to verb conjugations that seem a bit unusual. They may be verbs in the subjunctive mood. Paying attention to when the mood is used will put you in a better position later to fully master Spanish verb usage.