The Conditional Tense of Spanish

Verb form usually the equivalent of ‘would’ in English

Cathedral in Guadalajara
Si pudiese, viviría en Guadalajara. (If I could, I would live in Guadalajara.).

Ari Helminen / Creative Commons.

Just as in English, the conditional tense of verbs in Spanish is difficult to classify. Unlike the past, future and present tenses, it doesn't always refer to a particular period of time. And while its name suggests that it is used when there's a condition involved, in Spanish it also has some close connections with the future tense. In fact, in Spanish, the conditional tense is known as both el condicional and el futuro hipotético (the hypothetical future).

The conditional also has various uses that don't at first glance seem closely related. But the connection among them is that verbs in the conditional don't refer to events that definitely or necessarily have happened or are happening. In other words, the conditional tense refers to acts that can be seen as hypothetical in nature.

Conditional Tense Often Translates English 'Would'

Fortunately for those of us who speak English, the theory is fairly easy to apply, since the conditional tense can usually be understood as the Spanish verb form that is used to translate English "would + verb" forms. In most cases where we use "would" in English we use the conditional in Spanish, and vice versa. As long as you remember the rare exceptions, you won't go wrong often by thinking of the conditional as the "would" tense.

Here are some examples (in boldface) of the conditional tense in use:

  • No comería una hamburguesa porque no como animales. (I wouldn't eat a hamburger because I don't eat animals.)
  • Si pudiese, viviría en Guadalajara. (If I could, I would live in Guadalajara.)
  • Hay seis películas que yo pagaría por ver. (There are six films I would pay to see.)

Here are the major usages of the conditional that can be understood by using the English "would." If the explanations are confusing, read the examples for clarification:

Using the Conditional for Actions Conditioned on Something Else

Another way of putting this is that the conditional indicates the possibility of an action related to specific circumstances. The circumstances (that is, the condition) can be stated, but they don't have to be. Note the following examples, with the conditional verb in boldface:

  • Si tuviera dinero, iría al cine. (If I had money, I would go to the movies. The condition is having money. In this case, the condition in Spanish is stated in the imperfect subjunctive, as is very common. It is also stated in the subjunctive in the English sentence, and this is one of the few constructions where the subjunctive form is still used in English today.)
  • Yo comería la comida, pero soy vegetariano. (I would eat the meal, but I'm vegetarian. (he condition is being a vegetarian.)
  • María habría venido, pero su madre estaba enferma. (Mary would have come, but her mother was sick. The condition is her mother's sickness. This sentence is in the conditional perfect form, using the conditional tense of haber followed by the past participle.)
  • María habría venido. Mary would have come. (This sentence is the same as the one above, but without the condition explicitly stated. The condition would have to be inferred from the context.)
  • Con más dinero, yo ganaría. With more money, I would win. (The condition is having money. This is a case where a condition is expressed without using si.)
  • Yo no hablaría con ella. (I wouldn't talk with her. The condition is unstated.)

Using the Conditional in a Dependent Clause Following a Past Tense

Sometimes, the conditional is used in a dependent clause that follows a main clause that uses a past-tense verb. In such cases, the conditional tense is used to describe an event that might have happened after the event in the main clause. A few examples should help clarify this usage:

  • Dijo que sentiríamos enfermos. (He said that we would feel sick. In this case, feeling sick happened, or might have happened or will happen, after he made his statement. Note that in such a sentence construction, the que, or "that," doesn't always have to be translated into English.)
  • Supe que yo saldría. (I knew I would leave. As in the above sentence, the act of leaving isn't connected to a specific period of time, except that it takes place, or could take place, at some time after the knowing.)
  • Me prometió que ganarían. (She promised me they would win. Again, we can't tell from this sentence whether they actually won, but if they did it came after the promise.)

Using the Conditional for Requests

The conditional can also be used to make requests or some statements sound less blunt.

  • Me gustaría salir. I would like to leave. (This sounds gentler than Quiero salir, "I want to leave.")
  • ¿Podrías obtener un coche? (Would you be able to get a car?)

Note that querer in the subjunctive is sometimes used in a similar way: Quisiera un taco, por favor. I would like a taco, please.

Conjugating the Conditional Tense

For regular verbs, the conditional tense is formed by adding a suffix to the infinitive. The same suffixes are used for -ar, -er, and -ir verbs. Hablar is used here as an example:

  • hablaría (I would speak)
  • hablarías (you would speak)
  • hablaría (you/she/he/it would speak)
  • hablaríamos (we would speak)
  • hablaríais (you would speak)
  • hablarían (you/they would speak)

Key Takeaways

  • As its name suggests, the Spanish conditional tense is typically used, like "would," to indicate that a verb's action that is conditioned on some other event, which need not be explicitly stated.
  • The conditional tense can refer to real or hypothetical actions in past, present, and future.
  • The same method is used to form the conditional tense for all regular verbs, regardless of whether they are -ar, -er, or -ir verbs.