Using the Imperfect Subjunctive

Such verbs can relate to past or present

skiing in Spain
Si viviera en Aragón, me gustaría esquiar. (If I lived in Aragón, I'd like to ski.). es.topsportholidays.com/Creative Commons

The imperfect subjunctive of Spanish is the simple past form of the subjunctive mood, the one used to refer to events or hypothesized events relating to the past (although it sometimes refers to the present). Although the equivalent verb form is rare in English, the imperfect subjunctive is an essential part of Spanish grammar.

Spanish has two forms of the imperfect subjunctive, the -ra form and the -se form.

The -ra form will be used for examples throughout this lesson because it is by far more common in speech.

How To Use the Imperfect Subjunctive

Like the present subjunctive, the imperfect subjunctive is used most often in sentences of the following form:

  • Subject (may be implied) + indicative verb + que + subject (may be implied) + subjunctive verb

The subject and indicative verb form what is known as an independent clause; que and what follows form a dependent clause. The imperfect subjunctive is most common when the independent clause is in the preterite, imperfect or conditional tense.

The imperfect subjunctive also is used sometimes following si (the word for "if").

This lesson assumes that you know when to use the subjunctive and how it is conjugated. Here are the major uses of the imperfect subjunctive:

Following a Past-Tense Independent Clause

This use of the imperfect is the most straightforward, because all verbs clearly refer to the past.

Note, however, that English may use a "would" in translation because of the sometimes hypothetical nature of the Spanish subjunctive:

  • El gobierno ordenó que se hablaran con los terroristas. (The government ordered them to speak to the terrorists.)
  • Me asombró que nadie me diera apoyo. (It amazed me that nobody gave me support.)
  • Todos esperábamos que dijera algo más, pero eso fue todo. (We all hoped he would say something more, but that was all.)
  • No quería que mis hijos me vieran. (I didn't want my children to see me.)
  • ¿Tenías miedo que te matara? (Were you afraid he would kill you?)

Following a Conditional Independent Clause

The imperfect subjunctive can refer to a present possibility when it follows a main clause in a conditional tense. Such sentences cannot be translated word for word into English and may require the use of "if" or "would":

  • Nos gustaría que hubiera más participación. (We would like it if there were more participation. Note the use of the English subjunctive "were" in the translation.)
  • Me temería que mi amigo tomara la misma actitud. (I'd be afraid my friend would take on the same attitude.)
  • Estaría feliz que me dieras su opinion. (I would be happy if you gave me your opinion.)

After Expressions of Possibility

The main verb of a sentence following a word or phrase meaning "maybe" can be either in the indicative or the subjunctive. Use of the subjunctive may indicate considerable doubt on the speaker's behalf that the statement is true.

  • Quizá quisieran conocer los detalles. (Perhaps they wanted to know the details.)
  • Tal vez pensaran que mis padres eran ricos. (Maybe they thought my parents were rich.)
  • Posiblemente no tuvieran otras alternativas. (Possibly they didn't have other alternatives.)

To Indicate an Unlikely Condition

As with the English past subjunctive following "if," the Spanish imperfect subjunctive can be used following si to indicate something that the speaker believes is false or highly unlikely. An example would be a sentence starting out "si yo fuera rico" (if I were rich). When used this way, the subjunctive verb is typically followed by verb in the conditional tense, such as "si yo fuera rico, compraría un coche" (if I were rich, I would buy a car). Note that the condition expressed by the subjunctive verb refers to the present.

  • Si yo comprara la otra consola, podría ahorrar la diferencia para comprar juegos. (If I bought the other console, I could save the difference for buying games. See how comprara and "bought" refer to the present even though they take the form of past tenses.)
  • Si estuvieras aquí, te estrecharía entre mis brazos. (If you were here, I'd hold you tightly in my arms.)
  • Si viviera en Aragón, me gustaría esquiar. If I lived in Aragón, I'd like to ski.

If you need to refer to a past condition, you can use the imperfect subjunctive of haber with a past participle to form the pluperfect subjunctive: Si yo hubiera comprado la otra consola, habría ahorrado la diferencia para comprar juegos. If I had bought the other console, I would have saved the difference to buy games.

Key Takeaways

  • The imperfect subjunctive is the simple form of the past subjunctive and is a frequently used feature of Spanish grammar event though it is rare in English.
  • The imperfect subjunctive is used most often in a dependent clause that begins with que.
  • The imperfect subjunctive can also follow si (the word for "if") when referring to a condition that is unlikely.