Understanding the Subjunctive Mood in Spanish

Subjunctive contrasts with more common indicative mood

Young Couple in the City

AzmanL / Getty Images 

The subjunctive mood can be daunting for English speakers who are learning Spanish. This is mostly because even though English has its own subjunctive mood, we don't use its distinctive forms very often. Therefore, the subjunctive can often most easily be learned by studying examples of its use.

What Is the Subjunctive Mood?

Let's start with the basics: The mood (sometimes called the mode) of the verb either expresses the speaker's attitude toward the verb or describes how the verb is used in a sentence.

The most common mood—the indicative mood—is used to refer to what is real, to state facts, to make declarations. For example, the verb in "Leo el libro" (I am reading the book) is in the indicative mood. In contrast, the subjunctive mood is typically used in such a way that the verb's meaning relates to how the speaker feels about it. In the sentence "Espero que esté feliz" (I hope that she is happy), the second verb, esté (is), may or may not be reality; what is important here is the speaker's attitude toward the second half of the sentence.

Examples of the Subjunctive Mood

Proper uses of the subjunctive mood can best be seen through examples. In these sample sentences, the Spanish verbs are all in the subjunctive mood (even if the English verbs are not). The explanations can help you understand why the verbs are in the subjunctive mood in the first place.

  • Quiero que no tengas frío. (I want you to not be cold.)
    • It's irrelevant whether or not the person is cold or not. The sentence expresses a wish, not necessarily reality.
  • Siento que tengas frío. (I'm sorry you are cold.)
    • The sentence expresses the speaker's emotions about a perceived reality. What is important in this sentence is the speaker's feelings, not if the other person is actually cold.
  • Te doy mi chaqueta para que no tengas frío. (I'm giving you my coat so you won't be cold.)
    • The sentence expresses the speaker's intent, not necessarily reality.
  • Se permite que lleven chaquetas allí. (People are allowed to wear jackets there.)
    • The phrase expresses permission for an action to take place.
  • Dile a ella que lleve una chaqueta. (Tell her to wear her jacket.)
    • This expresses a command or wish of the speaker.
  • Es preferible que ustedes no viajen mañana a Londres. (It is preferable that you don't travel to London tomorrow.)
    • The subjunctive is often used in giving advice.
  • No hay nadie que tenga frío. (Nobody is cold.)
    • This is an expression of a negation of the action in a subordinate clause.
  • Tal vez tenga frío. (Perhaps he is cold.)
    • This is an expression of doubt.
  • Si yo fuera rico, tocaría el violín. (If I were a rich man, I would play the fiddle.)
    • This is an expression of a statement contrary to fact. Note that in this English translation, "were" is also in the subjunctive mood.

Comparing the Subjunctive and Indicitive Moods

These sentence pairs show differences between the indicative and subjunctive. Note how in most of the examples, the English verb form is the same in translating the two Spanish moods.

Example 1

  • Indicative: Es cierto que sale tarde. (It is definite that she is leaving late.)
  • Subjunctive: Es imposible que salga tarde. Es probable que salga tarde. (It is impossible that she is leaving late. It is likely that she will leave late.)
  • Explanation: In the indicative sentence, the early departure is presented as fact. In the others, it is not.

Example 2

  • Indicative: Busco el carro barato que funciona. (I'm looking for the cheap car that works.)
  • Subjunctive: Busco un carro barato que funcione. (I'm looking for a cheap car that works.)
  • Explanation: In the first example, the speaker knows that there is a car that matches the description, so the indicative is used as an expression of reality. In the second example, there is doubt that such a car exists, so the subjunctive is used.

Example 3

  • Indicative: Creo que la visitante es Ana. (I believe the visitor is Ana.)
  • Subjunctive: No creo que la visitante sea Ana. (I don't believe the visitor is Ana.)
  • Explanation: The subjunctive is used in the second example because the subordinate clause is negated by the main clause. Generally, the indicative is used with creer que or pensar que, while the subjunctive is used with no creer que or no pensar que.

Example 4

  • Indicative: Es obvio que tienes dinero. (It is obvious you have money.)
  • Subjunctive: Es bueno que tengas dinero. (It is good you have money.)
  • Explanation: The indicative is used in the first example because it expresses reality or apparent reality. The subjunctive is used in the other example because the sentence is a reaction to the statement in the subordinate clause.

Example 5

  • Indicative: Habla bien porque es experto. (He speaks well because he's an expert.)
  • Subjunctive: Habla bien como si fuera experto. (He speaks well as if he were an expert.)
  • Explanation: The subjunctive is used in the second example because it's irrelevant to the sentence whether he's an expert, although the sentence suggests that he isn't.

Example 6

  • Indicative: Quizás lo pueden hacer. (Perhaps they can do it [and I'm sure of it].)
  • Subjunctive: Quizás lo puedan hacer. (Perhaps they can do it [but I doubt it].)
  • Explanation: In a sentence such as this, the subjunctive is used to emphasize uncertainty or doubt, while the indicative is used to emphasize certainty. Note how the Spanish verb form is used to indicate an attitude that might need further explanation in English.

Example 7

  • Indicative: Hay políticos que tienen coraje. (There are politicians who have courage.)
  • Subjunctive: ¿Hay políticos que tengan coraje? (Are there politicians with courage?)
  • Explanation: The subjunctive is used in the second example to express doubt, and it is not clear that the subject of the sentence exists in reality.

Example 8

  • Indicative: Llegaré aunque mi carro no funciona. (I will arrive even though my car isn't running.)
  • Subjunctive: Llegaré aunque mi carro no funcione. (I will arrive even if my car isn't running.)
  • Explanation: The indicative is used in the first sentence because the speaker knows their car isn't working. In the second sentence, the speaker doesn't know whether or not it is running, so the subjunctive is used.

Example 9

  • Indicative: La pirámide ha sido reconstruida por el gobierno provincial. (The pyramid has been restored by the provincial government.)
  • Subjunctive: Estoy feliz que la pirámide se haya reconstruido. (I am happy that the pyramid has been restored.)
  • Explanation: The indicative is used in the first sentence because it is a direct statement of fact. The main point of the second example is the speaker's reaction to the event, so the subjunctive is used.

Example 10

  • Indicative: Cuando estás conmigo se llena mi corazón. (When you are with me my heart is full.)
  • Subjunctive: Cuando estés conmigo iremos por un helado. (When you are with me we will go for an ice cream.)
  • Explanation: When the indicative is used with cuando in a sentence such as the first example, it refers to a recurring action. The use of the subjunctive in the second example indicates that the event has yet to take place.

Finding the Subjunctive in English

The subjunctive was once used in English more than it is today—it is now employed most in formal speech, not everyday conversation. Still, cases where it is still used in English might help you remember some of the instances where it is used in Spanish.

  • Contrary-to-fact condition: If I were the president, I'd keep us out of war.
  • Expression of a desire: I would like it if he were my father.
  • Expressions of request or advice: I insist that he go. We recommended that he fill out the form.

In all the above cases, a straightforward translation to Spanish would likely use the subjunctive mood. But remember that there are numerous instances where the subjunctive is used in Spanish where we make no distinction in English.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Understanding the Subjunctive Mood in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/when-to-use-the-subjunctive-mood-3079851. Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 28). Understanding the Subjunctive Mood in Spanish. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/when-to-use-the-subjunctive-mood-3079851 Erichsen, Gerald. "Understanding the Subjunctive Mood in Spanish." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/when-to-use-the-subjunctive-mood-3079851 (accessed March 31, 2023).