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Tense and the Subjunctive Mood

Four Tenses in Common Use

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tacos

Espero que comas. (I hope you eat.)

Photo by Evan P. Cordes; licensed via Creative Commons.

Learning not only when to use the subjunctive mood, but which form of the subjunctive to use, can be one of the most difficult parts of learning Spanish verb usage. The rules can appear quite complicated at first, partly because the subjunctive mood is nearly absent in English. But learning the tenses — either in the traditional way of memorizing rules and then applying them, or by becoming familiar enough with the language to know what sounds right — is essential to gaining fluency.

In the lesson linked to above, we learned the principles that determine when to use the indicative and when to use the subjunctive. In this lesson, we will look at which tense to use, and in the lesson on conjugating the subjunctive, we'll look at the basic rules of forming the subjunctive. The goal here isn't to convey a complete understanding of the subjunctive tenses, but to supplement other study materials you have and to help you gain a basic understanding of how the verbs in a sentence work together.

The subjunctive has four tenses in everyday use:

  • Present subjunctive
  • Present perfect subjunctive
  • Imperfect subjunctive
  • Past perfect (or pluperfect) subjunctive

Remember that, generally speaking, the subjunctive is used in dependent clauses. Which form of the subjunctive is used depends on two factors:

  • The tense of the verb in the main clause
  • The time relationship between the subjunctive verb in the dependent clause and the main verb

Although there are exceptions, and the rules of grammar in real life are more fluid than is suggested here, the following list shows the most common (but not only) ways in which the tenses are differentiated:

  • If the main verb is in the present, future, or present perfect tense or the imperative mood, and the dependent (subjunctive) verb refers to action that takes place (whether in actuality or not) at the same time or after the main verb, then the dependent verb should be in the present subjunctive. Example: Espero que comas. (I hope you eat.)
  • If the main verb is in the present, future or present perfect tense or imperative mood, and the dependent (subjunctive) verb refers to action that has been completed (whether in actuality or not), then the dependent verb should be in the present perfect subjunctive. Example: Espero que hayas comido. (I hope you have eaten.)
  • If the main verb is in the preterite, imperfect, past perfect or conditional tense, and the dependent (subjunctive) verb refers to action that takes place (whether in actuality or not) at the same time or after the action of the main verb, then the imperfect subjunctive is used. Example: Esperé que comieras. (I hoped you ate.)
  • If the main verb is in the preterite, imperfect, past perfect or conditional tense, and the dependent verb refers to action that has been completed (whether in actuality or not), then the past perfect subjunctive (also called pluperfect subjunctive) is used. Example: Esperé que hubieras comido. (I hoped you had eaten.)

Note that in many cases there are various ways of translating the sentence to English. For example, espero que comes also could be translated as "I hope that you will eat." Because there is no future subjunctive in everyday use, verbs in the present subjunctive form often are translated into English using the future tense. Dudo que me compres recuerdos, I doubt you will buy souvenirs for me.

Here's another way to look at the sequence of verb tenses:

  • If the main verb is in a present or future tense, use either the present subjunctive or present perfect subjunctive, depending on whether the subjunctive verb refers to action (or presumed action) that has been completed.
  • If the main verb is in a past or conditional tense, use either the imperfect or past perfect subjunctive, depending on whether the subjunctive verb refers to action has has been completed (or presumably completed) at the time of the action in the main verb.

These tenses can seem quite confusing at first. But as you learn the language they will become second nature. To learn more about this topic explained in a different way, see the lesson on the sequence of tenses.

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