Sequence of Tenses in Spanish

Present and Imperfect Tenses in the Subjunctive Mood

dirty hands
Era mejor que te ensuciaras las manos. (It was better that you got your hands dirty.).

CJ Sorg/Creative Commons.

Spanish has two basic tenses of the subjunctive mood in everyday use, the present subjunctive, and the imperfect subjunctive. (Although a future subjunctive form exists, it generally isn't used in speech, its use being limited primarily to formal legal documents.)

Fortunately, knowing which tense to use is fairly easy to remember. Verbs in the subjunctive mood are typically in a part of a sentence (a dependent clause) that begins with que, which follows a verb in the indicative mood. The tense of the subjunctive verb depends on the tense of the verb in the first part of the sentence, as indicated in the following list of sentence structures.

  • Present indicative verb + que + present subjunctive verb.
  • Preterite indicative verb + que + imperfect subjunctive verb.
  • Imperfect indicative verb + que + imperfect subjunctive verb.
  • Future indicative verb + que + present subjunctive verb.
  • Conditional indicative verb + que + imperfect subjunctive verb.

Distinctions in the above list are often referred to as the sequence of tenses. Although there are exceptions as well as instances where the subjunctive mood is used with other sentence structures, these rules take into account the vast majority of cases where the subjunctive mood is used.

Here are examples of sentences using each of the above structures:

Present Indicative/Present Subjunctive

  • Recomiendo que no estudies cuando comas. I recommend that you don't study when you eat.
  • ¿Es buena idea que duerma con mi bebé? Is it a good idea for me to sleep with my baby?
  • Todo está listo para que inicie el foro. Everything is ready for the forum to begin.

Preterite Indicative/Imperfect Subjunctive

  • Intenté que ellos me entendieran. I tried to get them to understand me.
  • Nunca mereciste que te amara, hasta ahora. You never deserved for me to love you, until now.
  • Era mejor que te ensuciaras las manos. It was better that you got your hands dirty.

Imperfect Indicative/Imperfect Subjunctive

  • Yo quería que cantaran juntos. I wanted them to sing together.
  • Estaba yo en casa y esperaba que lloviera. I was at home and hoping it would rain.
  • No aparecía que hubiera tomado alcohol o sustancias tóxicas. It didn't appear that she had taken alcohol or poisonous substances.

Future Indicative/Present Subjunctive

  • Negaré que seas mi hijo. I will deny that you are my son.
  • Si suspende el examen, dudaré que estudie mucho. If he flunks the test, I will doubt he studies much.
  • Esperarás que llegue la hora del dormir. You will hope that bedtime will come.

Conditional Indicative/Imperfect Subjunctive​​

  • Hay 10 cosas que las mujeres desearían que los hombres supieran sobre el amor. There are 10 things that women would want men to know about love.
  • ¿Quién dudaría que tuviera un puesto en el equipo cubano? Who would doubt that he had a position on the Cuban team?
  • "Nunca querría que le quitaran la medalla. I would never want them to take the medal from him.