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When To Use the Subjunctive Mood

Subjunctive Contrasts With the Indicative

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Parque Nacional del Teide

Te doy mi chaqueta para que no tengas frío. (I'm giving you my coat so you won't be cold.) Scene is from el Parque Nacional del Teide in Spain.

Photo by Santiago Atienza; licensed via Creative Commons.

Learning when to use the subjunctive mood can be particularly challenging for English-speakers learning Spanish. That's probably because the subjunctive mood is distinguished from the indicative mood so infrequently in English.

Subjunctive? Indicative? Mood? What in the world do those mean?

OK, 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 the 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. 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 expresses facts that are contrary to reality. It expresses doubt that something is or will be a fact. It expresses how a person feels about a possible action or state of being. It expresses a wish, intent or command for a possible action or state of being. It is usually used in subordinate clauses that begin with que or si, although in some sentences (such as simple sentences expressing doubt), a subjunctive verb can be the main verb in the sentence.

How the subjunctive is used can best be seen through examples of various uses:

  • 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 reality.
  • Siento que tengas frío. (I'm sorry you're 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.) Expresses a command or wish of the speaker.
  • No hay nadie que tenga frío. (Nobody is cold.) Expression of 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.

Here are some examples of sentences showing differences between the indicative and subjunctive.

  • Indicative: Es cierto que sale tarde. (It is definitely leaving late.)
  • Subjunctive: Es imposible que salga tarde. Es probable que salga tarde. It is impossible that it is leaving late. It is likely that it will leave late.
  • Explanation: The indicative is used to express perceived reality, while the subjunctive is used to express doubt, negation or mere probability.
  • 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 es ella. (I believe it is she.)
  • Subjunctive: No creo que sea ella. (I don't believe it's she.)
  • 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 certainly. 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.

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