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Gerald Erichsen

Past Requests Often Referred To in Subjunctive Mood

By January 20, 2013

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Until you get used to it, the imperfect subjunctive might not "look right." A reader of this site recently wrote to ask me if the final verb in this sample sentence in a lesson via email was correct: El presidente, Jorge Bush, me telefoneó para pedirme que aceptara la asignación. (The president, George Bush, phone to ask me to accept the assignment.)

Indeed, that is correct. The imperfect subjunctive isn't the most common verb form, but a good rule to remember is that one situation where the imperfect subjunctive is used is when requests or commands made in the past follow que.

  • Mi amigo me pidió que saliera. My friend asked me to leave.
  • La ley mandó que bajáramos la música. The law required that we turn down the music.
  • Insistí que nos llamaren. I insisted that they call us.

Of course, requests made in the present can be referred to in the present-tense subjunctive: Prefiero que vengas conmigo. I prefer that you come with me.


January 20, 2013 at 6:00 pm
(1) Nards Barley says:

I was recently confused by a sentence with a ain clause in the present with a subordinate clause in the imperfect subjunctive. However, I found the following exception in a Verb book I own.

“When the main clause is in the present tense and requires the subjunctive, but the verb in the main clause refers to an action in the past, the subordinate clause is in the imperfect

Ex. Ella espera que yo no gastara todo el dinero. She hopes that I didn’t spend all the money”

January 20, 2013 at 7:09 pm
(2) Rebeca says:

No me parece correcta esta oracion:
Ella espera que yo no gastara todo el dinero.

Ella espera que no no GASTE todo el dinero (Presente subjuntivo)

Ella ESPERABA que yo no gastara todo el dinero. (Imperfecto de Sub)

January 20, 2013 at 7:16 pm
(3) sfree says:

Maybe I’m wrong. This is how I see it.

The tense (time frame) was established by “telefoneó ” — in preterit.

The verb pedir (infinitive ) governs the dependent verb ‘aceptar’.

The subjunctive is called for because when one asks for (pedir’ ) something, there is doubt (no matter how small the chance) that what is asked for may not be granted. This doubt calls for the subjunctive in the dependent verb (aceptar).

Also ‘que’ cues you (pun not intended) that a subjunctive verb may be in the offing.

Now, we are in the past tense; there is doubt; and ‘que’ says watch for a subjunctive. So it is.

The ‘sequence of tenses’ requires that the governing verb (pedir ) which is in the preterit tense calls for the governed verb (dependent : aceptar) to be in the imperfect subjunctive (aceptara).

Were I allowed to rewrite the sentence, I would hazard this snippet.

Por teléfono, … Jorge Bush me pidió que (yo) aceptara …

By telephone … George Bush requested that I accept …
or ‘ … asked if I would accept …’

What flaws are there in this line of reasoning?

— A Student

January 20, 2013 at 9:14 pm
(4) Nards Barley says:


That quote I gave comes from page 236 of the book Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tenses by Dorothy Richmond.

Ella espera que no no GASTE todo el dinero.
That translates to “She hopes that I don’t spend all the money.

Ella ESPERABA que yo no gastara todo el dinero. She hoped that I wouldn’t spend alll the money.

Neither one of those work imo:

Maybe: Ella espera que no haya gastado todo el dinero.

That said, there are many people who think what Dorothy Redmond stated is correct. Look at this thread:

or this thread:

I would like to recommend that Gerald address this issue in a blog post.

January 20, 2013 at 9:30 pm
(5) Nards Barely says:

I see its use from time to time.

That quote came from page 236 of Practice Makes Perfect Verb Tenses by Dorothy Richmond. Here were all of the examples she provided.

Ella espera que yo no gastara todo el dinero. She hopes that I didn’t spend all the money.
Siento que no conociéramos a Felipe. I’m sorry that we didn’t meet Philip.
Estoy contento de que él estudiara. I’m happy that he studied.
Es absurdo que tuvieran que pagar. It’s absurd that they had to pay.

While there are people who disagree, many think it is correct:

I would like to suggest that Gerald address the issue.

January 21, 2013 at 12:47 pm
(6) sfree says:

RE: Nards & Rebecca’s discussion.

My scant resources do not provide ample evidence that the use of imperfect subjunctive with the present tense ‘esperar’ is valid (or not valid). Yet when I paraphrased the sentence into English, it did make sense.

On a long shot, I thought about the three meanings of ‘esperar’. Could someone look into these meanings? There seems to be some inklings of evidence to support the use of the imperfect subjunctive.

— A Student

January 22, 2013 at 10:54 am
(7) Nards Barley says:

I saw this example on a website:

“No es que estuviera triste. It’s not that I was sad.”

Obviously “es” is present tense of the verb ser.


January 22, 2013 at 11:05 am
(8) Nards Barley says:

I also found the following explanation on the following spanish learning website:


However, if the logic of the sentence requires, it’s perfectly possible to have a main clause in the present tense and still have the subordinate clause in the imperfect subjunctive:

dudo que lo hiciera tan rápido “I doubt he did it so quickly”

Indeed, on rare occasions it’s just about possible to have te main verb in the future or at least periphrastic future (the ir a + infinitive construction) and have the subordinate verb in the past subjunctive:

?no le va a gustar que no quisieras venir
“he won’t like the fact that you didn’t want to come”

These examples show that in general, the choice of present vs past subjunctive follows the logic of the sentence. There’s certainly no requirement for “subjunctive tense X because the main verb is tense Y” as is sometimes dictated in sequence of tenses analyses.

January 22, 2013 at 11:20 am
(9) sfree says:

Nards and Rebecca,

The general principle is that:

1) If the main verb is in the present tense family, the subordinate verb will generally be in the present or present subjunctive (present tense family);

2) If the main verb is in the past tense family, the subordinate verb will usually be in the imperfect or pluperfect subjunctive (past tense family;

Under number 1, present tense family, the subordinate verb may express time in a)subsequent, b) simultaneous, and c) prior to the main verb.

Here is an example of “c)’.
Me extraña que no haya completado el trabajo. => third person present perfect.

Here is the clincher. In South America, the imperfect subjunctive “completara” may be used.

These notes came from “Bilingual …” section 20.11 page 799 ff.

I do no have the complete title, but if you search for my posts, you may find it.

I hope this helps.

— A Student

January 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm
(10) Nards Barley says:

According to Sfree’s citation it may be a regional thing, used in South American and (possibly Mexico and Central America?), but shunned in Spain. This would seem to explain why there seems to be differing opinions on this on some of the forums I read.

And I did search your posts and found a reference to this title:

Sam Hill and William Bradford in their Bilingual Grammar of English-Spanish Syntax

And if it is not used in Spain, does this mean the Real Academia Española would say its usage is wrong?

January 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm
(11) sfree says:


You have the full title.

Basing on “1) (c)”, and in my opinion, A present tense main verb can have a subordinate subjunctive verb in a prior time frame means that past subjunctive is valid and the imperfect subjunctive is one.
Furthermore, I believe that language constructs follow popular usage. Their function is to communicate with a reasonable degree of clarity. As long as the people involved understand what is being said, they fulfill that function.
Take for example the word data in English. It used to be strictly plural. Nowadays, one can see it used in the singular (strictly speaking, datum). Readers understand the meaning. I do, though it bothers me somewhat when the context is not clear.
I do not recall Sam Hill saying that the imperfect subjunctive usage is regionalism or is shunned in Spain. Just to be sure, I’m getting a copy of it to double check.

But please read on.


“haya completado” is preterito perfecto — past perfect (NOT present perfect).
It looks like it’s a matter of choice of which past subjunctive constructs.

Remember too, that the GENERAL RULE (guide) is present main verb : present subjunctive; past main verb: past subjunctive

— A Student

January 22, 2013 at 2:18 pm
(12) Nards Barely says:

I disagree with your correction.

The present perfect subjunctive (el [presente] perfecto de subjuntivo): haya completado.

The The past perfect subjunctive (el pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo): hubiera comletado

The problem is consistency. As a student of Spanish, I don’t want to read grammar rules in different books and sources that contradict each other, which is sometimes the case.

January 22, 2013 at 3:04 pm
(13) Spanish Guide says:

Just a quick comment, and I may say more later (or not). There is no strict “sequence of tenses” in the sense that tense alone in the first part of the sentence will dictate what follows, but there are some patterns that usually occur. And, yes, there are regional variations in all sorts of things, some of which may be recognized by the Academy, some not. Pick almost any grammar rule, and chances are you’ll find a legitimate exception somewhere.

January 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm
(14) Nards Barley says:

Yes, but I my guess is most students of Spanish believe there is a strict sequence of tenses. It seems to be taught that way in many a spanish grammar book, class or website.

And it is not just the examples being discussed on this comment thread. As I mentioned in your forum, with regularity I see in newspapaer articles using main verbs in the preterite followed by the present subjunctive in the dependent clauses. It would be nice to know what their reasoning is since presumably as journalists, they know the general rule regarding sequence of tenses.

January 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm
(15) sfree says:


You are right and I stand corrected as regards ‘present perfect’ and past perfect. Being sloppy, I put my foot in my mouth.

What I really meant was that the subordinate verb’s action is just completed (immediate past) in the first place (as one meaning intended of the present perfect) which In other words,
“to express a past action or event that is contained in an unfinished period of time, or that has effects in the present.”

Thinking in both languages, I got the perfect(ion) wrong, in relation to the word ‘preterito’ and the words ‘perfecto’.

After sending the post, I realized my mistake.
Bless your sharp wit and eyes.

I vow to be more careful in the future.

Regarding your comment (14), I’ll wait til I get the book to check upon a ‘past tense main verb and a present tense subordinate subjunctive verb.

— A Student

January 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm
(16) Scott says:

Although it is often said you can’t have the present tense in the opening clause, and the imperfect subjunctive in the dependent clause, there are plenty of exceptions. Using the earlier example,

Ella espera que yo no gastara todo el dinero.

Here the hoping continues into the present moment although the spending of the money happened in the past. Another possible English translation, which is often overlooked with the imperfect, is “would” or in this case “wouldn’t”. So the translation could also be:

She hopes that I wouldn’t spend all the money. (She currently hopes, but doesn’t know, if I would or wouldn’t)

The conditional in English can be expressed in the imperfect subjunctive.

Other common verbs that can be present in the opening clause are ones that express doubt or uncertainty, because these things can continue into the present moment.

If the doubt or uncertainty is completed and is no longer there, then the past tense would be used in the opening clause.

Ella esperaba que yo no gastara todo el dinero.
She was hoping I didn’t spend all the money. (During a period of time which is completed)

January 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm
(17) fred wanger says:

Rebecca is correct. If the verb in the main clause requires the subjunctive and is in the past you use the imperfect subjunctive! Federico

January 23, 2013 at 8:22 pm
(18) sfree says:

RE: tense in the subjunctive subordinate clause.

I believe everyone is right, in his or her own way.

When Rebecca invoked the general rule, she is right.
Frederico too, has the general rule guiding his choice.

When Nards called upon empirical and real life experience, he is right.

I also agree with Scott’s logic. I have been harboring that same idea for a while.

The conclusion:

“… lack of positive knowledge or experience can be relevant to what has or what has not happened, or to what is going on, and to what is anticipated. Only logic and life situation determine the tense of the dependent verb”, (which in this case is subjunctive: phrase inside the parentheses are mine).
“No creo que estuviera allí entonces.”
“Dudo que se vaya mañana.”
“Es imposible que ya hubiera llegado.”
Source: Spanish for Teachers Applied Linguistics by William E. Bull p. 182 ff. Phrase inside the parentheses are mine.

I hope this helps settle it. We have a lively discussion and find it invigorating.

— A Student

January 24, 2013 at 11:14 am
(19) Nards Barley says:

I was thumbing through the book Nueva Grammatica de la lengua española published by Real Academia Española. While I didn’t find the issue addressed directly, I did find them using the imperative subjunctive with present tense verbs in one of their examples below.

“Cabe añadir un grupo reducido de nombres temporales (la hora de que nos vayamos, el momento de que paremos, la ocasión de que nos conozcamos), así como otrosque expresan contingencia (el riesgo de que nos sorprenda una tormenta). Algunos de los predicados agrupados arriba (como los de afección y los de valoración) son factivos y presuponen, por tanto, la certeza de su complemento. Así pues, tanto Me alegro de que ocurriera como No me alegro de que ocurriera implican ‘Ocurrió’. La información nueva no es, en estos casos, la aportada por la subordinada, que se da por supuesta, sino su valoración emotiva.”

January 24, 2013 at 11:30 am
(20) Nards Barley says:

Also, the fact they equate the preterite tense “Ocurrió” with the imperfect subjunctive tense “ocurriera”, makes it clear that the action in the dependent clause occurs before the expression of happiness happening in present time translating it it English “I am glad that it happened.”

January 24, 2013 at 12:22 pm
(21) Nards Barley says:

I see myself using this construct of present tense followed by imperfect subjunctive all the time.

Name a sports fan who doesn’t say from time to time,

“I am glad they won” or “I am glad they lost”?
Me alegro que (ellos) ganaran/perdieran.

Or who doesn’t say time to time in English,

“I am glad he went.”
Me alegro que fuera.

January 24, 2013 at 3:26 pm
(22) sfree says:


I believe in what you said and quoted. I also agree with the opinions of the others who did make a post.

Given the different situations and limited context wherein the examples were given, it really isn’t clear cut what strictly applies.

If one could be omniscient as to be able to reveal and apply the precise context to all these different examples one can say unequivocally which one ‘fits the bill’.

Taking a broad context (and if this context is the precise one), you and I agree that the use of the imperfect subjunctive in a subordinate clause is correct. Let me give you an analogy of what I meant.

Looking down from an airplane, our view of earth would be different from that of an astronaut in space. But if both of us are at the same place, at the same time and looking at the same thing, we would pretty much agree about the view we would see.

I admire the way you pursue your point; and I can almost guarantee that many of us benefited from each other’s posts in this blog, myself included.

Thanks to all.

– A Student

January 24, 2013 at 3:59 pm
(23) Nards Barley says:


You presume that Rebeca continues to believe her original answer is correct. How do you know that she has not been influenced by the references cited above? Let her speak for herself.

As for me, I too assumed their were rigid rules regarding verb sequences until I started challenging that notion based on how verbs were being conjugated in the Novels and articles I was reading.

January 25, 2013 at 10:16 am
(24) sfree says:


I am an optimist and I believe in the ability of humans to make changes and adapt, in the presence of a preponderance of evidence challenging current beliefs.

I noticed that contributors in this blog are epitomes of the best that define us humans and my belief is unshakable that sooner or later we all embrace the truth and see the light, one way or the other.

Take yourself for example. You changed your conviction and you’re all the better for it!

To be clear, I do not presume, in any manner whatsoever, that Rebecca changed, has changed, or will change; nor am I speaking for her. I will, however, bet my bottom dollar that when she convinces herself and comes to terms, she will do what she thinks is right.

Let’s focus on the matter at hand, which is learning Spanish. I enjoy this blog because I believe. Just as Emerson once said (I believe it was Emerson) — each man is better than I in some way; in that I learn from him.

— I remain simply A Student

January 25, 2013 at 12:32 pm
(25) Nards Barley says:


Please keep in mind that when I leave a comment on a blog, I am generally responding to the topic that was posted. Please refrain from thinking you need to weigh in on everything that is said, including the comment I am leaving below. I think the forum is a more appropriate venue for tit for tat, back and forth discussions

Today I was thumbing through Spanish Demystified, Chapter 19 on Imperfect Subjunctive. As is typical of most Spanish learning books and websites, the author shows a chart divided into two columns: Main Clause and Dependent Clause. In the main clause column he lists imperfect, preterite and conditional. In the depending clause column he lists imperfect sujunctive.

Further down, he states the following:

“The verbs and expressions that cue the present subjunctive also cue the imperfect subjunctive. In the main clause, however, they always appear in the past or the conditional.”

Next paragraph he states the following:

“When doubt or uncertainty is expressed in the past or conditional, it is followed by a subordinate clause in the imperfect subjunctive.”

Then he provides three examples including the following sentence:

“Es imposible que fuera a la India. It’s impossible that she went to India.”

So the author, just violated everything he said above by using “Es impossible” which is in the present tense.

All I can do is shake my head. They try and teach this subject like a mathematical formula, and they end up looking like idiots.

January 25, 2013 at 12:55 pm
(26) sfree says:


So be it and I reserve my right to speak.

Now, could you tell me which page of RAE publication you’re referring to? My dictionary does not have an entry for ‘factivos’.


— A Student

January 25, 2013 at 1:07 pm
(27) Nards Barley says:

The RAE quote a couple comments up was

paragraph 25.3.2 titled Contextos que imponen el modo sujuntivo.

January 25, 2013 at 9:14 pm
(28) sfree says:


Thank you for the information on RAE.

Just so we are clear.

I do not think there is a need nor is there any compulsion.

What I can promise you is that I will refrain, henceforth, from having to do with your post, which is only fair.

Your request, which in my opinion is personal, will be respected.
You’re the only one who have asked me to refrain.

Spanish.about.com is the only site I religiously follow, to the exclusion of others. It’s the one site that I feel all views are respected. I think your request is up to the owner of the site to ask.

Notwithstanding what I said, I respect your position just as I expect you to do the same with my position.

And I thank you for being so frank. I learned from you.

— A Student

January 25, 2013 at 9:21 pm
(29) Nards Barley says:

Here is another confusing topic related to the imperative subjunctive that I started in the forum. I welcome anyone researching the issue and replying.


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