Using the Subjunctive To Refer to Real Events

Subjunctive Often Required After Certain Verbs

La lluvia produjo que me quedara sin correo electrónico. (The rain resulted in me being left without e-mail.). Photo by Rubé D&iacue;az Caviedes; licensed via Creative Commons.

Question via email: From El Nuevo Herald in Miami, front page, is this sentence: El descubrimiento de una segunda persona con ántrax — que ya dejó una reciente víctima — en el sur de la Florida, ha hecho que las autoridades estén investigando la posibilidad de que sea un acto criminal. (Translation: The discovery of a second person with anthrax — which already claimed one recent victim — in southern Florida has made authorities investigate the possibility that it is a criminal act.)

Please help me understand why estar is subjunctive as estén investigando instead of están investigando.

Answer: Since the subjunctive mood in general is used to refer to occurrences that are either contrary to reality or are only possibilities, it's easy to forget sometimes that, due to sentence structure, the subjunctive can be used to refer to events that are a reality. This is such an instance.

Since you obviously have been studying the subjunctive mood, you probably already know that the most common way for the subjunctive to be used is in a sentence of this type

when the indicative verb is used to state a command, permission or a desire. Thus statements such as quiero que salga (I want him to leave), mando que salga (I am ordering him to leave), permito que salga (I am permitting him to leave), autorizo que salga (I am authorizing him to leave) and consiento que salga (I am giving consent for him to leave) all use the subjunctive mood.

In those sample sentences, such uses of querer que, mandar que, permitir que, autorizar que (to authorize) and consentir que all require use of the subjunctive in the following clause, regardless of whether the verb action in the subjunctive is a reality or not. The same is the case with hacer que when it means "to make someone do something." In other words, it's the use of hacer que that prompts use of the subjunctive mood, not the reality of the event.

Here are some other verbs that can prompt use of the subjunctive when followed by que, even when the subjunctive refers to a real occurrence:

  • Causar: La diabetes causa que las heridas no se curen bien. Diabetes causes wounds to not heal well.
  • Obligar: La ley obliga que asistamos. The law requires us to attend.
  • Producir: La lluvia produjo que me quedara sin correo electrónico. The rain resulted in me being left without e-mail.
  • Vigilar: Vigiló que vayamos a la escuela. He made sure that we will go to the school.

Note that in all these sentences the clause using the subjunctive refers to an actual, not merely possible, event.