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The Subjunctive Mode and Your “Bubble”

Most textbooks break the subjunctive into lots of boring categories:

  • Noun Clauses
    • Volition
    • Emotion
    • Doubt
  • Adverbial Clauses
    • conjunctions which always introduce the subjunctive
    • conjunctions which introduce the:
      • subjunctive when there is indication of future, incomplete action
      • indicative when there is indication of habitual or completed action
      • variable depending upon speaker’s intent
  • Adjective clauses
    • negative antecedents, etc
  • If clauses contrary to fact

Nobody really wants to memorize all that stuff, and native speakers of Spanish don’t think about it all when they’re speaking. They just speak, but they do have reasons for saying the things they say and the way they say them.

The subjunctive is about feelings

happyThe Subjunctive is often feared and it’s definitely misunderstood–even by most Spanish teachers. So, all that stuff above? Forget it. The Subjunctive is largely about feelings. Let’s talk about feelings.

You know how you feel about the things around, right? You might not share your feelings, but you have them.

If you think about it, you probably also realize that as you move around the school and hang out with your friends, that you have a “bubble” around you that defines your comfort zone. Everyone has a “bubble” and most kids your age are very conscious of their bubble. It grows and shrinks depending upon a bunch of things.

For example, think about how you feel when you walk into a room or a party where you know everyone and all the people there are your friends–imagine the feeling you have in that situation. Think about the size of your “bubble” in that situation and I think you’ll recognize that it “grows” in these situations–your comfort zone is bigger.

angryNow think about how you feel when you walk into a room where you don’t know anyone. What happens to your bubble? Does it shrink? Most people feel like their bubble shrinks in around them.

So feelings and fears are pretty important and the way we feel affects a lot of how we act. Let’s talk about the feelings you might have for members of the opposite sex as an example. (I’m going to write as if you’re a girl who likes guys below. If that’s not you, just substitute the correct gender pronouns for your case.)

So think about how you felt before you had your first boyfriend.

“I want a boyfriend who will be nice to me.”

Where is the “wanting”? Is it inside your bubble? Do you “own” your wanting? Is it part of your experience?

How about whether or not there is a boy out there who will be nice to you? Is that inside your bubble, or outside your bubble? The existence of said boy is a potential future action and the way teens feel about potential future actions is something they’re typically highly aware of in their daily life.

It makes most people uncomfortable to think about the fact that there may not be anyone out there for them, so that’s pretty clearly outside your comfort zone bubble, right? Finding that right person is a potential future action.

So, you’re talking to a girlfriend about wanting a boyfriend. All of you have at least one of those “friends” who’s a little “snipey” (with a “b”), and yet she’s still your friend (maybe she’s more popular, or prettier, or something, whatever. If you don’t have such a friend, then be careful—you might be her! Just kidding…!)

Anyway, she says:

“I doubt there’s a boy out there who will like you. In fact, there is no boy out there who will like you.”

Now think like the snipey friend and about her bubble. Why is she saying this? Does she really know that or is she just trying to yank your chain?

You think:

“I still hope that there’s a boy out there for me. Oh if only I could meet one!”

Now, imagine that you’ve got your eye on a boy who you really like, but he’s kind of in a different clique. You think:

“I want him to like me.”

There’s going to be a party this weekend at the house of the “leader” of that “other” clique. You think:

“We’re going to go to that party so that I can meet him and talk to him.”

You get to the party and he’s talking to a bunch of his friends with whom you don’t hang out with very much, so you’re a little reluctant to walk right up to him. And then he starts to talk to some other girl! You’re talking to one of your own friends, sharing your feelings. She says

“If I were you, I’d go over there and just start talking to him.”

Then she says:

“Come on! Go over there and talk to him!”

Think about your bubble again and look back at each of these sentences. Which part of each sentence falls inside your (or your friend’s) bubble and which part falls outside your bubble? Which action is part of your direct experience and which action is the potential future one?

Let’s look at the Spanish versions of each of the sentences above:

I want a boyfriend who will be nice to me.
Quiero un novio que me trate bien.

You know you “want.” That’s inside your bubble. It’s part of your experience. But, do you know that there’s a boy out there who will like you? Probably, but you really don’t know, so that part of the sentence falls outside your bubble—it’s a potential future action. And, if you notice, the form of tratar is different that you would expect. It ends in an e and not an a. Let’s continue:

I doubt there’s a boy out there who will like you. In fact, there is no boy out there who will like you.
Dudo que haya un chico en el mundo que te guste. De hecho, no hay un chico que te guste en el mundo.

So, where’s your girlfriend’s doubt? She may really doubt, but does she really know if there is a boy out there for you? Isn’t that ouside her bubble? Note too that the form of hay in the first sentence is different as well as the form of gustar. Look at the second sentence as well. What part is inside her bubble and which part is outside? Is there something different about the verb in the second part that falls outside her bubble?

Now look at the rest of the sentences in their Spanish versions and figure out which parts are inside (part of your direct experience) and which are outside (a potential future action). Are the verb forms different?

I still hope that there’s a boy out there for me. Oh if only I could meet one!
Todavía espero que haya un chico en el mundo para mí. ¡Ojalá que pueda conocerme a uno!

I want him to like me.
Quiero que me guste.

We’re going to go to that party so that I can meet him and we can talk.
Vamos a esa fiesta para que pueda conocerle y para que hablemos.

If I were you, I’d go over there and just start talking to him.
Si fuera tú, iría allí y empezaría hablarle.

Come on! Go over there and talk to him!
¡Vaya! ¡Ve allí y háblele.

All of the examples above contain forms of the subjunctive. All of the verb forms that are a bit different than you would expect–the parts of the sentences that fall outside your bubble describing a potential future action–are examples of the subjunctive mood. They’re also pretty common things in the life of a teen.

Now think about the actions in that part of the sentences which fall outside your bubble. Has anything in those parts of the sentences got anything to do with time? No. they have nothing to do with time, but rather with feelings, with mood. Some of the things clearly fall inside your bubble–that place where you’re secure and confident and experienced. The other things fall outside your bubble where you’re not so secure or you don’t know what the results of your actions will be.

So, if you’ve basically understood any of this, you’ve essentially “got” the subjunctive.

Now you just need to know how to form it and a few of the common irregular forms.