Verb Moods and Voices

An Overview of Spanish Verb Properties

Spanish verbs can be classified by three properties: tense, mood and voice. Photo by Raúl Hernández González; licensed via Creative Commons.

When we think about the properties that verbs might have, chances are that the first property that comes to mind is its tense: Does it refer to actions in the past, present or future? But verbs also have two other grammatical properties that are important to understanding how they are used: their mood and their voice.

The mood of a verb (sometimes called the mode of a verb) is a property that relates to how the person using the verb feels about its factuality or likelihood; the distinction is made much more often in Spanish than it is in English.

The voice of a verb has more to do with the grammatical structure of the sentence in which it is used in and refers to the connection between a verb and its subject or object.

The three moods: Both English and Spanish have three verb moods:

  • The indicative mood is the "normal" verb form used in everyday statements. In a sentence such as "I see the dog" (Veo el perro), the verb is in the indicative mood.
  • The subjunctive mood is used in many statements that are contrary to fact, are hoped for or are in doubt. This mood is by far more common in Spanish, since it has mostly disappeared in English. An example of the subjunctive in English is the verb in the phrase "if I were rich" (si fuera rico in Spanish), which refers to a contrary-to-fact condition. The subjunctive is also used in a sentence such as "I request that my pseudonym be published" (pido que se publique mi seudónimo), which indicates a type of desire.
  • The imperative mood is used to give direct commands. The short sentence "Leave!" (¡Sal tú!) is in the imperative mood.

More about the subjunctive mood: Because it is so frequently necessary in Spanish yet unfamiliar to English speakers, the subjunctive mood is an endless source of confusion for many Spanish students.

Here are some lessons that will guide you through its usage:

  • Statements of necessity: Verb phrases such as es necesario que ("it is necessary that") are generally followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood.
  • Statements of fear: These are sometimes followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood.
  • Use with opinar: Although the subjunctive mood is usually used in giving opinions, it usually isn't used with opinar.

More about the imperative mood: The imperative mood is used for making direct commands or requests, but it is far from the only way to ask that someone do something. These lessons look at the different ways of making requests:

Active and passive voice: The voice of a verb depends primarily on the structure of a sentence. Verbs used in a "normal" fashion, in which the subject of the sentence is performing the action of the verb, are in the active voice.

An example of a sentence in the active voice is "Sandi bought a car" (Sandi compró un coche).

When the passive voice is used, the subject of the sentence is acted on by the verb; the person or thing performing the action of the verb isn't always specified. An example of a sentence in the passive voice is "The car was bought by Sandi" (El coche fue comprado por Sandi). In both languages, a past participle ("bought" and comprado) is used to form the passive voice.

It is important to note that, while common in English, the passive voice isn't used as much in Spanish. A common reason for using the passive voice is to avoid stating who or what is performing the action of a verb. In Spanish, that same goal can be accomplished by using verbs reflexively.