When To Use the Subjunctive Mood

Subjunctive Contrasts With More Common Indicative Mood

Parque Nacional del Teide
Flickr/Santiago Atienza/Creative Commons.

The subjunctive mood can be especially daunting for English speakers learning Spanish — mostly because even though English has a subjunctive mood we don't use its distinctive forms very often. Therefore, the subjunctive can often be learned best by studying examples of its use rather than studying translations.

What Is the Subjunctive Mood?

Subjunctive mood? What's that?

Let's start with the basics: First of all, the mood (sometimes called the mode) of the verb expresses either the speaker's attitude toward the verb or describes how it 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 or "is") may or may not be reality; what is important here is the speaker's attitude toward the final half of the sentence.

Another way of expressing the concept is that the indicative expresses reality or what is believed to be reality. But the subjunctive is used for different purposes: It can express facts that are contrary to reality. It can express doubt that something is or will be a fact. It can express how a person feels about a possible action or state of being.

It can express a wish, intent, or command for a possible action or state of being. In Spanish, it is often used in subordinate clauses that begin with que.

Examples of the Subjunctive Mood

How the subjunctive is used can best be seen through examples of various uses. In these sample sentences, the Spanish verbs are all in the subjunctive mood, although the English verbs may not be:

  • Quiero que no tengas frío. (I want you to not be cold. It's irrelevant whether 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 whether the other person is 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.)
  • Di a ella que lleve una chaqueta. (Tell her to wear her jacket. This expresses a command or wish of the speaker.)
  • 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 un 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.)

    Example Sentences Contrasting Subjunctive and Indicative Moods

    These sentence pairs show show differences between the indicative and subjunctive.

    • 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.)
    • 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.
      • 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.
      • 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.
      • Indicative: Habla bien porque es experto. (He speaks well because he's an expert.)
      • Subjunctive: Habla como si fuera experto. (He speaks as if he were expert.)
      • Explanation: The subjunctive is used in the second example because it's irrelevant to the sentence whether he's an expert.
      • 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, the indicative to emphasize certainty. Note how the Spanish verb form is used to indicate an attitude that might need further explanation in English.
      • 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.
      • 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 his car isn't working. In the second sentence, the speaker doesn't know whether it is running, so the subjunctive is used.

        A note about English use of the subjunctive

        The subjunctive was once used in English more than it is today, and today it is used more frequently in formal speech than in everyday use. 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.