Spanish Subjunctive Simplified For Beginners
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Hearing the two words “Spanish subjunctive” is something that strikes fear in many Spanish students.
But mastering the subjunctive is not that hard.
Once you get used to it, it can be quite fun to use.
In this post, you will learn what the Spanish subjunctive is, and when to use its various forms.
Once you understand this, you’re ready to start learning and applying the Spanish subjunctive conjugation in your speech and writing!
The subjunctive mood is not a verbal tense
Let’s begin by clearing up the most common misconception that many students have: the Spanish subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. Remember, this distinction is crucial!
What’s the difference between a Spanish mood and tense?
- A tense is used to indicate an action that is connected to a certain timeframe (past, present, future).
- A mood indicates the speaker’s thoughts or intention behind an action, and how they want to frame what they are saying.
In Spanish, there are three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive.
1. Indicative mood Spanish
- Ella es agradable. – She is nice.
2. Imperative mood Spanish
- ¡Sé agradable! – Be nice!
3. Subjunctive mood Spanish
- Desearía que ella fuera más amable. – I wish she were nicer.
The imperative mood is strictly for giving commands, so it only exists in present tense Spanish. (When giving negative commands though, we use the present subjunctive rather than the imperative! We’ll go into this detail further down in the section on the Spanish present subjunctive tense.)
For both the indicative mood and the subjunctive mood, however, we have Spanish tenses in the past, present, and future. The timeframe determines if the verb is conjugated in a past, present, or future tense, while it’s the intent of what the speaker is saying that determines its mood.
Once you think about the Spanish subjunctive as a mood, it becomes much easier to understand this grammar concept.
Don’t worry if it’s still fuzzy.
This post will break down the Spanish subjunctive in simple terms.
Let’s start by exploring when and how it’s used.
When and how to use the Spanish subjunctive
The subjunctive is used to express a lack of certainty in a statement.
Of course, some statements are subjective, so certainty or uncertainty will depend on how the speaker perceives the action that they’re referring to.
- When we are certain, we often use the indicative mood.
- When we’re not sure, we often use the subjunctive mood.
Let’s look at the most basic example of this:
- Indicative: Veo que estás bien – I see you’re well.
- Subjunctive: Espero que estés bien – I hope you’re well.
In the first example, we use the indicative mood, as we are certain that the person who we are talking to is well because we can see it. Even if it’s not true, we frame this sentence as a fact using the indicative mood because that’s the perception of what we see.
In the second example, we don’t actually know if the person is well. We express our desire and expectation by saying that we hope this person is well – but it’s not a fact, so we use the subjunctive mood.
Quick review: When to use the subjunctive mood in Spanish
To sum up what we’ve seen so far, remember these key points to avoid confusing the subjunctive vs the indicative mood:
- The indicative mood is used when something is true, or a fact.
- The subjunctive mood is used to speak about something that isn’t a fact. It indicates some uncertainty and can be a desire, a possibility, or a probability.
It’s important to remember that in many cases, both moods are interchangeable, depending on how you want to frame your sentence.
Ok, so far so good. It should now be clear to you that the subjunctive is a mood.
How to use the Spanish subjunctive: Dependent clauses
So far we’ve seen a number of examples of the Spanish subjunctive in use, so now it’s time to be clear on how we use the subjunctive mood in a sentence.
The main concept here is that we can usually break these sentences down into dependent clauses. Clauses are component parts of the sentence that rely on each other to convey the whole idea. A given clause can be made up of one or more words.
The subjunctive mood cannot usually function on its own. It needs to be triggered by an initial clause that introduces the hypothetical aspect. These introductions can take the form of indicative clauses, conditional clauses, or even simple words like “if,” each of which then leads to a subjunctive clause.
Most subjunctive clauses are considered to be subordinate clauses, since they are entirely dependent on the initial clause for their existence in the subjunctive mood.
In present tenses, a tell-tale clue is when two clauses are linked with the word “que.” Sometimes this linking word appears as “that” in English, though often it doesn’t appear at all in translation. Keep in mind though, that it’s not simply “que” which defines whether the subjunctive will follow, but rather the idea of uncertainty expressed by the verb in the initial clause.
As you continue with this lesson and read all of our example sentences, try to take note of the indicative clauses that trigger the subsequent subjunctive clauses. The key point to remember here that most of our sentences are made up of at least two dependent clauses: in most uses, subjunctive clauses can’t exist on their own without being triggered by another clause that introduces the uncertainty.
Which Spanish tenses use the subjunctive mood?
The subjunctive mood can be applied to six different tenses, allowing us to use it when referring to the the present, past, or future. Let’s have a quick overview of these tenses before going deep into each one in the following sections.
1. Present Subjunctive
- Quiero que vengas. – I want you to come.
2. Present Perfect Subjunctive
- Espero que hayas tenido un buen día. – I hope you’ve had a good day.
3. Imperfect Subjunctive
- Si fuera tú, estudiaría más. – If I were you, I would study more.
4. Past Perfect Subjunctive
- No creía que hubieras hecho la tarea antes de ir a clase. – She didn’t think that you would have done the homework before going to class.
5. Future Subjunctive*
- Aquellos que durmieren en horario de trabajo, serán sancionados. – Those sleeping during working hours will be punished.
6. Future Perfect Subjunctive*
- Si para el próximo fin de semana hubiere tenido que llevar a mis hijos en carro a todas partes, no podré descansar. – If by next weekend I may have to drive my kids everywhere, I won’t be able to rest.
*Note that the future subjunctive and future present subjunctive are no longer really used. We nonetheless include them here for completeness, but we’re not going to spend much time on them. Neither has a direct translation to English as the equivalent doesn’t exist.
The four Spanish subjunctive tenses used by native speakers
Now that we’ve mentioned all six of the Spanish subjunctive tenses, we can start going deeper into the four subjunctive verb forms that native speakers actually use. Let’s start with some examples of each one before we dive into each subjunctive tense in the next sections.
- Present subjunctive: No creo que hoy hable con mi jefe. – I don’t think I’ll talk to my boss today.
- Present perfect subjunctive: Espero que hayas hablado con tu jefe. – I hope you’ve talked to your boss.
- Imperfect subjunctive: Si hablara con mi jefe, las cosas serían mejores. – If I talked to my boss, things would be better.
- Past perfect subjunctive (pluperfect): Si yo hubiera hablado con mi jefe, no tendría este problema. – If I had talked to my boss, I would not have this problem.
In these examples, each subjunctive form describes a similar idea, with subtle differences depending on the tense. The one consistent thing is that each sentence is expressing a desire, an expectation, a possibility, or in general, something uncertain.
Even when the subjunctive refers to an action that happened in the past, we wish for a different ending in the present (If I had talked to my boss, things would be better).
So far, we’ve been skimming the surface of the Spanish subjunctive with very basic examples. In the following sections, we’re going to go deep on when and where to use each subjunctive form.
Buckle up, estudiantes!
1. Present subjunctive
The present subjunctive is used for hypothetical situations. This tense is also used to give negative commands.
We use present subjunctive Spanish to express desires, give orders, make requests, make suggestions, prohibit, invite, or advise. In each of these cases, when we ask for something, the statement remains hypothetical, since we don’t know what the other person will say or do.
Let’s see these uses of the Spanish present subjunctive tense through a few examples:
- Cuando ahorremos más dinero, compraremos una casa. – When we save more money, we will buy a house.
I’ll buy a house when I save money, which as we all know is hypothetical since it may never happen.
- No vengas mañana. Quiero que vengas la próxima semana. – Don’t come tomorrow. I want you to come next week.
In this example we start with a negative command where I don’t want the person to come tomorrow, but it’s not certain whether they still will or not. In the following statement I say that I want the person to come, but I don’t know if they’ll show up.
- No comas mi comida. Come tu propia comida. – Don’t eat my food. Eat your own food.
This is another example of the present subjunctive being used for giving a negative command. The second sentence, in the affirmative, uses the imperative mood. Check out our dedicated post for more detail on forming commands with the imperative mood in Spanish.
For an even deeper explanation of the Spanish present subjunctive tense, including conjugations for regular and irregular verbs, check out our detailed post on present subjunctive Spanish.
Present indicative vs present subjunctive
Often, the easiest way to quickly understand the subjunctive in Spanish is by comparing it with similar examples in the indicative mood. Check out the following four pairs of example sentences to compare the Spanish present indicative vs the present subjunctive.
- Indicative: Yo soy doctora. – I am a doctor.
- Subjunctive: Mi mamá quiere que yo sea doctora. – My mom wants me to be a doctor.
- Indicative: No vas a ninguna parte. – You’re not going anywhere.
- Subjunctive: ¡No vayas! – Don’t go!
- Indicative: Yo nunca pongo mis pies sobre la mesa. – I never put my feet on the table.
- Sujunctive: No pongas los pies sobre la mesa. – Don’t put your feet on the table.
- Indicative (simple past): Mi abuela vivió 95 años. – My grandmother lived 95 years.
- Subjunctive: No sé si yo viva 95 años. – I don’t know if I’ll live 95 years.
Again, the unifying theme here is that the indicative states facts, while the subjunctive remains hypothetical.
2. Present perfect subjunctive
Before we dive in, let’s just do a quick review of the basics of all Spanish perfect tense conjugation: regardless of the mood or tense, the conjugation relies on the auxiliary verb “haber” along with the past participle of the verb in question. The participle remains constant, while “haber” is conjugated to reflect the mood and tense.
In the case of present perfect subjunctive Spanish, conjugation therefore follows the structure: [“haber” in present subjunctive] + [past participle of the action verb].
We’ll leave it at that for now regarding the Spanish present perfect conjugation. We go into more detail on the various verb forms and more in our dedicated post on present perfect subjunctive Spanish. We also have a specific post on the Spanish past participle.
How is the Spanish present perfect subjunctive used?
This subjunctive tense is used when the action we are talking about begins in the past, but somehow affects the present or the future.
Don’t worry, this sounds more confusing than it is. Let’s see this concept in action through a couple of examples:
- Espero que tu viaje de negocios haya sido un éxito. – I hope your business trip has been a success.
- Cuando hayas terminado tu tarea, puedes salir a jugar. – When you have finished your homework, you can go out and play.
Indicative vs present perfect subjunctive
Once again, the easiest way to understand present perfect subjunctive Spanish is by comparing it with similar sentences in the indicative mood.
- Indicative: Mi viaje a Perú fue aburrido. – My trip to Peru was boring.
- Subjunctive: No creo que tu viaje a Perú haya sido aburrido. – I don’t think your trip to Peru was boring.
- Indicative: Estoy feliz por tu visita. – I’m happy about your visit.
- Subjunctive: Me alegra mucho que nos hayas visitado el otro día. – I’m very glad that you visited us the other day.
- Indicative: Voy a terminar mi tarea. – I’m going to finish my homework.
- Subjunctive: Espero que hayas terminado la tarea. – I hope that you’ve finished the homework.
- Indicative: Voy a leer este libro que me recomendó mi amiga. – I am going to read this book that my friend recommended to me.
- Subjunctive: Cuando haya leído el libro, puedo prestártelo. – Once I’ve read the book, I can lend it to you.
3. Imperfect subjunctive
The imperfect subjunctive tense can be used to talk about something that takes place in the past, present, or future, depending on the context of the initial clause. Like we saw with the present subjunctive, the imperfect subjunctive tense is also used when talking about desires, expectations, feelings, or situations that are uncertain.
- Past: Le dije que dejara de pensar en su ex novio. – I told her to stop thinking about her ex-boyfriend.
- Present: Le pedí a mi jefe que me diera hoy mi pago. – I asked my boss to give me my paycheck today.
- Future: Les dije que vinieran mañana a la fiesta. – I told them to come to the party tomorrow.
If you want to compare it with something familiar to English speakers, the Spanish imperfect subjunctive is used in similar contexts to conditional “if” sentences. As a result, the imperfect subjunctive often used in the subordinate clause of the commonly asked question “what would you do if…?”
- ¿Qué harías si tuvieras superpoderes? – What would you do if you had superpowers?
In addition, the Spanish imperfect subjunctive is also used to express courtesy. This use of the subjunctive still has an underlying element of uncertainty since it’s possible that the speaker may be denied the courtesy. It also switches the dependent clauses around, in contrast with the examples we’ve seen thus far.
- Quisiera hablar con el gerente, por favor. – I would like to speak with the manager, please.
Note that there are actually two correct forms to every imperfect subjunctive conjugation. In our examples we’ve been using the form that’s more common in Latin America, but both are correct. To learn more on how to conjugate the imperfect subjunctive in Spanish, along with more examples of each use we’ve covered here, check out our detailed post on imperfect subjunctive Spanish.
Indicative vs imperfect subjunctive
Once again, let’s review the differences between the indicative vs imperfect subjunctive by looking at several pairs of sentences in each of the two moods.
- Indicative: Mi abuelo me dice que debo estudiar más. – My grandfather tells me that I should study more.
- Subjunctive: Mi abuelo quería que estudiara medicina. – My grandfather wanted me to study medicine.
- Indicative: Yo no tengo mucho dinero. – I don’t have much money.
- Subjunctive: Si yo tuviera más dinero, viajaría por el mundo. – If I had more money, I would travel around the world.
- Indicative: Mi hermana quiere pasar el verano conmigo. – My sister wants to spend the summer with me.
- Subjunctive: Mi hermana quería que pasáramos el verano juntas. – My sister wanted us to spend the summer together.
- Indicative: Ella quiere vivir 95 años, para contar sus historias a todos. – She wants to live 95 years, to tell her stories to everyone.
- Subjunctive: Si yo viviera 95 años, tendría muchas historias para contar. – If I lived 95 years, I would have many stories to tell.
4. Past perfect subjunctive (Pluperfect)
Remember the simple rule we saw earlier when we introduced the present perfect subjunctive? Once again, the past perfect subjunctive, also known as the pluperfect, has a perfect structure, so its conjugation is based around the auxiliary verb “haber.”
So how to conjugate past perfect subjunctive Spanish? It’s based on the imperfect subjunctive conjugation of haber: [“haber” in imperfect subjunctive] + [past participle of the action verb].
For more on the Spanish pluperfect conjugation, along with additional explanations and practice exercises, check out our dedicated post on the past perfect subjunctive in Spanish. Remember that since this tense is based on the imperfect subjunctive that we saw in the last section, there are two correct forms to each conjugation.
When do we use the Spanish past perfect subjunctive?
This tense is used to express regret about things that didn’t happen. We use it to talk about actions in the past which were not completed, and which we regret not having done.
- Yo hubiera bailado, si no hubiera estado tan cansada. – I would have danced if I had not been so tired.
- Yo hubiera ido al gimnasio contigo, pero me quedé dormida. – I would have gone to the gym with you, but I fell asleep.
Indicative vs past perfect subjunctive
As we’ve done with the other subjunctive tenses, let’s see the Spanish past perfect subjunctive in action alongside similar sentences using the indicative.
- Indicative: Yo no fui al concierto. – I didn’t go to the concert.
- Subjunctive: Me hubiera encantado ir al concierto, pero tenía que trabajar. – I would have loved to go to the concert, but I had to work.
- Indicative: Ya reservamos los asientos de la opera. – We already booked the opera seats.
- Subjunctive: Hubiéramos reservado asientos mejores si no se hubieran agotado. – We would have booked better seats if they weren’t already sold out.
- Indicative: Yo iré al doctor contigo. – I will go to the doctor with you.
- Subjunctive: Yo hubiera ido contigo al doctor, si me lo hubieras pedido. – I would have gone with you to the doctor if you had asked me.
- Indicative: Ya aprendí la lección del subjuntivo. – I already learned the subjunctive lesson.
- Subjunctive: Si tan solo hubiera aprendido como usar el subjuntivo antes. – If only I had learned how to use the subjunctive before.
5. Future subjunctive
We should start by saying that the future subjunctive tense in Spanish is no longer used in regular conversation between native speakers.
If you wish, feel free to skip this section.
Still here? Ok, we like your dedication. Let’s continue.
As we already mentioned, most native speakers will tell you they never use this tense, hence the reason we won’t spend too much time on it.
If you’re unlucky enough to stumble on the future subjunctive form, then it’s likely that you are:
a. reading a legal document (for example a contract agreement).
b. found it in extremely old literature (as in many centuries old).
c. heard it used in a really old saying.
So why should you pay attention to this subjunctive grammar? Honestly, the only reason we’re including it here is so that you know it exists, and that you know that there’s no need to use it.
Here’s an example using the Spanish future subjunctive:
- Future subjunctive: Quien encontrare alguna falla en el sistema, deberá comunicarse con el equipo técnico. – Whoever may find some fault in the system should contact the technical team.
The best way that we can explain this use is that the subjunctive clause indicates that the action (to find) is not a fact, since it’s possible that no fault may be found. In this day and age, this sort of wording is really only used by lawyers.
Outside the realm of legal Spanish, however, 99.9% of Spanish speakers would never use the future subjunctive to express this idea. Instead, an easier way to say the same thing is by using the present subjunctive:
- Present subjunctive: Quien encuentre alguna falla en el sistema deberá comunicarse con el equipo técnico – Whoever finds some fault in the system should contact the technical team.
6. Future perfect subjunctive
Once again, we won’t dedicate too much time to the Spanish future perfect subjunctive, as it’s another tense that is rarely used. It is used to describe hypothetical actions that are supposed to be finished in a hypothetical future.
Fortunately, the conjugation is simple as the tense follows the same perfect structure that we saw earlier. Can you guess how to conjugate future perfect subjunctive Spanish? This compound form is based on the conjugation of haber in the future subjunctive tense we saw in the last section: [“haber” in future subjunctive] + [past participle of the action verb].
Here’s an example using the Spanish future perfect subjunctive:
- Future perfect subjunctive: Quien hubiere cometido el delito deberá ser juzgado ante la corte. – Whoever may have committed the crime should be tried before the court.
As was the case for the future subjunctive, however, this sort of wording is pretty much just the domain of Spanish-speaking lawyers. Most native speakers would instead use a different subjunctive form to express the same idea:
- Present perfect subjunctive: Quien haya cometido el delito, deberá ser juzgado – Whoever has committed the crime should be judged.
- Present subjunctive: Quien cometa el delito deberá ser juzgado. – Whoever commits the crime should be judged.
Conclusion: The Spanish subjunctive mood
Whew! We’ve certainly covered a lot of ground in this post!
We started off with the basics of the Spanish subjunctive, underlining the importance of understanding it as a mood reflecting a speaker’s level of uncertainty regarding an action. To put it broadly, the subjunctive mood is employed to denote uncertainty, as opposed to the implicit factual nature of the indicative mood.
We also took a look at subjunctive sentence structure in Spanish. Usually comprised of two dependent clauses, these sentences begin with an initial clause introducing the uncertainty, triggering the subjunctive clause that follows.
Then we really dove deep into each of the six Spanish verb tenses that fall under the subjunctive mood. We spent more time on the present and past tenses, going over their uses and particularities, and comparing subjunctive vs indicative examples in each tense. We even introduced the two subjunctive future tenses for completeness, with the caveat that native speakers don’t really use them these days outside of Spanish legalese.
While this post was rather a big-picture introduction to the Spanish subjunctive, remember that we’ve included crosslinks to each of our specific posts on the four common subjunctive tenses. Along with providing additional details of each one, you can also refer to those posts to learn each tense’s conjugation patterns. If you’re looking for any other tenses, we recommend our massive post on all the Spanish verb tenses.
If you like this post we recommend bookmarking it as a reference or sharing it. As always, we’re certainly pleased to help our Spanish learners here at BaseLang!
Exercises: Spanish subjunctive practice
If you’ve made it this far, then why not try a few exercises to practice using the Spanish subjunctive? Fill in the blank by choosing between the two choices we propose in parentheses. The correct answers are provided below.
1. No creo que _____ a la fiesta. (vaya – fui) – I do not think I’m going to the party.
2. El jefe pidió que todos _____ a buscar su cheque de pago. (van – vayan) – The boss asked everyone to look for their paycheck.
3. El trabaja como si _____ un robot. (es – fuera) – He works as if he were a robot.
4. Estamos felices de que _____ el trabajo que querías. (encuentres – encontraras) – We are happy that you found the job you wanted.
5. Podrás salir con tus amigos cuando _____ de estudiar. (hayas terminado – hayas terminaste) – You can go out with your friends when you have finished studying.
6. Espero que ella _____ bien de la cirugía. (haya salió – haya salido) – I hope her surgery went well.
7. Si yo _____ dinero, habría comprado ese vestido. (he tenido – hubiera tenido) – If I had had money, I would have bought that dress.
8. Si la escuela _____ que no habían clases, no habríamos venido. (había avisado – hubiera avisado) – If the school had warned that there were no classes, we wouldn’t have come.
9. En las noticias dijeron que tal vez mañana _____ a llover. (vaya – fue) – They said on the news that maybe it’s going to rain tomorrow.
10. Si tú ______ más, podrías tener mejores notas. (estudiarías – estudiaras) – If you studied more, you could have better grades.
1. No creo que vaya a la fiesta
2. El jefe pidió que todos vayan a buscar su cheque de pago.
3. El trabaja como si fuera una robot.
4. Estamos felices de que encontraras el trabajo que querías.
5. Podrás salir con tus amigos, cuando hayas terminado de estudiar.
6. Espero que haya salido bien de la cirugía
7. Si yo hubiera tenido dinero, habría comprado ese vestido.
8. Si la escuela hubiera avisado que no habían clases, no habríamos venido.
9. En las noticias dijeron que tal vez mañana vaya a llover.
10. Si tu estudiaras más, podrías tener mejores notas.