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The Subjunctive Mode: Traditional Explanation

All of the uncertainty surrounding the Subjunctive Mode is entirely unnecessary. Most of the difficulty presented by the subjunctive has to do with very poor presentation on the part of the textbooks and poor contextualization. Generations of teachers have used textbooks which delay the presentation of the subjunctive until the second or third year. Learners have by that point learned about the present tense, the imperfect tense, the preterite tense, the future tense, the conditional tense, the perfect tenses… And then suddenly the Subjunctive is introduced. It’s only natural for the learner to say to themselves, “Well, here we go with another tense.” At that point the battle is lost. I am hopeful that what follows and the links at the end of this post will help you see how simple the subjunctive actually is.

The subjunctive is used constantly in Spanish. It would be an unusual conversation indeed in which a speaker went 5 minutes without using the subjunctive mode several times. Most textbooks make the subjunctive much harder than it really is. The best textbook I have ever used presented the present indicative in chapter one, and the present subjunctive in chapter two. Students were thus quickly able to have real conversations in Spanish!


2009-04-08 – © Baldo Partners: Hector Cantú & Carlos Castellanos; Universal Press Syndicate

The Subjunctive is NOT a Tense! It is a Mode.

What’s the difference? A “tense” by it’s very nature has to do with time. The cases in which one uses the subjunctive have virtually nothing to do with time. If a student has learned only tenses for two years and only then is introduced to the subjunctive, it’s only natural they will try to categorize it by the only model they know: time. Since the subjunctive has nothing to do with time, the process will be confusing. Forget about time! The subjunctive is about “mood.” (indeed, ‘mood’ and ‘mode’ are used interchangeably when talking about the subjunctive)

The Two Verbal Modes

There are two verbal modes in Spanish: The Indicative Mode and the Subjunctive Mode. The Indicative verbal mode is used to “indicate” the speaker’s certainty of a statement, to indicate their non-subjective relationship to an idea or circumstance. When I say, “I want a cookie.” I am certain that I want the cookie. When I say “I am reading.” there is nothing subjective about that. Wanting a cookie and making a statement about what I am doing both fall within my limits of absolute certainty and control. In Spanish we use a verb in the indicative mode for these. Now that verb may be in the present indicative, or the imperfect indicative (or the preterite, future, conditional or any of the perfect indicative or progressive indicative tenses), but those time decisions are made after the mode decision.

The subjunctive mode is used to demonstrate the speakers subjective relationship to an action, or to show that an action falls outside the limit of absolute knowledge, certainty, or control. For example, if I say:

I want Judy to come to the party.

I know that I ‘want’–in Spanish I use the present indicative to indicate my certainty (quiero). But do I honestly have any control over whether or not Judy will come? Probably not. In Spanish I will express the verb “to come” (venir) in the subjunctive mode demonstrating my subjective relationship to Judy’s attendance:

Quiero que Judy venga a la fiesta.

One also uses the subjunctive mode to express one’s subjective relationship to a situation. For example, if I say:

I am sorry that you are ill.

I know that I am sorry, but to demonstrate my subjectivity towards the fact that you have said you don’t feel well, I will again use the subjunctive mode to express this:

Siento que estés enfermo.

Virtually all uses of the subjunctive can be reduced to whether or not an action falls within the speaker’s limit of absolute certainly and control, or outside that limit. limits

Most textbooks break up their presentation of the use of the subjunctive into the following discussions:

The tenses within the Subjunctive Mode

The two verbal modes in Spanish, the Subjunctive and the Indicative, each have tenses within them. It’s quite likely that all of the “tenses” you have learned so far have been indicative tenses. There are tenses within the Subjunctive as well. To learn how to form the various tenses of the subjunctive mode, see these posts: