The Present Subjunctive: When? (Part 1)


If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably feeling pretty good about Spanish. You’ve learned a lot of vocabulary and know how to conjugate in the past, present, and future. You can understand and speak enough Spanish to get by. But all along a grammatical nightmare has been lurking in the shadows just waiting to jump out and make your life miserable: the subjunctive.

The subjunctive can be a difficult, complicated, and non-intuitive concept for an English speaker. It’s at this point that many Spanish students decide it’s just not worth it and bail out. But stick with it. It’s an important aspect of the language. (Also, the people who make entrance exams and advanced placement exams love to test the subjunctive.)

The first thing you need to know about the subjunctive is that it is a “mood.”

Note: There are three moods (modos) in Spanish: the indicative (indicativo); the subjunctive (subjuntivo), and the imperative (imperativo).

What is a Mood?

Your teacher never bothered to tell you this, but all those verb conjugations you’ve been learning… they’ve just been one of two ways of conjugating. Everything you’ve learned about verbs to this point has been in something called the “indicative mood.” What’s a mood? A mood is a special way of conjugating a verb in order to expresses your attitude toward the situation.

As its name implies, the indicative mood indicates reality or concrete facts. You haven’t had to worry about the moods before because up until now, you’ve primarily been using simple sentences about factual situations: Me llamo Pepe. Tú cocinas bien. Tengo un coche peligroso.

But as you progress, you’ll begin using more complex sentence structures and the more likely it is you’ll need to use another mood, the subjunctive. The subjunctive mood is used to convey desire, express doubt, or discuss non-concrete situations: Espero que me llamen hoy. Dudo que tú cocines bien. Necesito un coche que sea más seguro.

While a mood may look a lot like a tense, they’re not the same thing. A tense has to do with the time frame of the verb. A mood has to do with the speaker’s attitude toward the verb. Most verb conjugations are actually a combination of tense (time) and mood (attitude).

Before you start complaining again about how needlessly complicated Spanish is, be aware that we use the subjunctive in English too. It’s not done well, or consistently, but there are situations in English in which we should use a different verb conjugation. Consider the differences in the following sentence pairs: She arrives on time. → It’s necessary that she arrive on time. I am handsome. → I wish I were handsome. He cooks dinner. → I demand that he cook dinner.

There are many situations in which the subjunctive is required but in this lesson we’ll focus on noun clauses. That will be a good start for intermediate Spanish students. Advanced Spanish students should continue on to The Present Subjunctive: When? (Part 2).

(This page only deals with when you should use the present subjunctive mood. To learn how to conjugate in the present subjunctive, see The Present Subjunctive: How?)

The Present Subjunctive in Dependent Clauses

Most of the time, the subjunctive appears in dependent clauses (sometimes called subordinate clauses). What’s a clause? Generally speaking a clause includes a subject and a predicate (verb). A clause can be a complete sentence all by itself:

He plays soccer.

Or clauses can be combined to form larger sentences:

I know that he plays soccer.

Independent clauses (also known as main clauses) are clauses which can stand on their own when removed from the larger sentence:

I think therefore I am.

Dependent clauses usually begin with conjunctions like “therefore,” “that,” “so that,” “before,” etc. Dependent clauses depend on or expand on independent clauses and don’t make sense on their own:

I think therefore I am.

Got it so far? Good. Now we’re going to look at our first type of dependent clause, the noun clause, to see when we should use the subjunctive.

The Present Subjunctive in Noun Clauses

Consider this sentence:

I demand a car!

Here, “a car” is a noun (which happens to be functioning as a direct object). Now consider this sentence:

I demand that you respect me!

This time around the clause “that you respect me” is also functioning like a noun just as “a car” did in the previous sentence. Therefore it’s known as a noun clause.

There are three reasons we would use the subjunctive in a noun clause: volition, doubt/negation, and emotion.

The Present Subjunctive in Noun Clauses: Volition

Volition is a fancy word for “willing.” It carries the idea that someone is asking, hoping, insisting, demanding, suggesting, recommending, telling, requiring, etc. someone else to do something. Any time we see an instance of volition in the independent clause, we must use the subjunctive in the dependent clause. The reason for this is that sentence is not simply stating a fact, but trying to influence an outcome (which may or may not happen). The general formula we’re looking for is:

subject + volition verb + “que” + different subject + subjunctive verb

For example:

Note: It isn’t necessary for the subject to be a person. Impersonal expressions such as es necesario, es importante, es urgente, etc. require the subjunctive too.

Yo insisto en que ella se vaya.
I insist that she leave.

Él recomienda que comamos bien.
He recommends that we eat well.

Es necesario que tú hagas tu tarea.
It is necessary that you do your homework.

Problems with Translating

Due to the fact that we take some shortcuts in English that we can’t take in Spanish, sometimes we have to rewrite or reorder a sentence before we can translate it:

I want you to clean your room.
Not: Te quiero arreglar tu cuarto.

I want that you clean your room.
Quiero que tú arregles tu cuarto.

They want us to leave.
Not: Nos quieren salir.

They want that we leave.
Quieren que salgamos.

Things to Watch Out For

Remember that there needs to be a different subject. If the subject doesn’t change from one clause to the next, use an infinitive, not a subjunctive verb:

I want to watch TV.
Not: Quiero que yo mire TV.
Quiero mirar TV.

They want to be lawyers.
Not: Quieren que sean abogadas.
Quieren ser abogadas.

And don’t get carried away and start conjugating every second verb in the subjunctive. If there is no volition, use the indicative:

Yo sé que tú haces tu tarea.
I know that you do your homework.

Issues with Decir

Decir is a tricky verb in that it can signal both the indicative and the subjunctive. Which mood to use depends on the context. If decir is used to state a fact, the dependent clause should be in the indicative:

Me dice que toco bien.
He tells me that I play well.

If decir is used more like a command, the dependent clause should be in the subjunctive:

Me dice que toque bien.
He tells me to play well.

The Present Subjunctive in Noun Clauses: Doubt / Negation

If the independent clause casts any doubt on (or negates) the dependent clause, we must use the subjunctive. We do this because the sentence isn’t stating facts, but rather suggesting that something is not true. The general formula we’re looking for is:

subject + doubt verb + “que” + different subject + subjunctive verb

For example:

Note: It isn’t necessary for the subject to be a person. Impersonal expressions such as es improbable, es imposible, es dudable, etc. require the subjunctive too.

Ella duda que yo conozca al presidente.
She doubts that I know the president.

No estoy seguro que tú digas la verdad.
I’m not sure you’re telling the truth.

Es imposible que ella pueda dormir ahora.
It is impossible that she can sleep now.

Things to Watch Out For

Note: Because neither is definite, the phrases es probable and es improbable both signal the subjunctive. Same thing with es posible and es imposible.

If there is any doubt about the dependent clause, we use the subjunctive. Even optimistic sounding phrases like es probable and es posible require the subjunctive:

Es probable que Roberto sepa la respuesta.
It’s probable that Roberto knows the answer.

If there is no doubt, use the indicative:

Está segura que conduce un coche verde.
She is sure that he drives a green car.

The verbs pensar and creer indicate certainty:

Él cree que ella canta en el coro.
He believes that she sings in the choir.

Whether or not the dependent clause is actually true is irrelevant. The independent clause tells us which mood to use:

Él piensa que el sol es un planeta.
He thinks that the sun is a planet.

The Present Subjunctive in Noun Clauses: Emotion

If the independent clause includes any emotion, use the subjunctive in the dependent clause. The reason for this is that even though the sentence may be stating a fact, it is also expressing a judgment or personal reaction to the situation. The formula is:

subject + emotion verb + “que” + different subject + subjunctive verb

For example:

Note: It isn’t necessary for the subject to be a person. Impersonal expressions such as es triste and es una lástima require the subjunctive too.

Me molesta que tú no escuches.
It bothers me that you are not listening.

Está enojada que yo esté aquí.
She is angry that I am here.

Es triste que haya tantos robos.
It’s sad that there are so many thefts.

Things to Watch Out For

Any verb that expresses a feeling, judgment, or opinion, even if it don’t necessarily sound “emotional,” requires the subjunctive. This includes gustar, sentir, sorprender, etc.:

Me gusta que no tengamos tarea esta noche.
I am pleased that we don’t have homework tonight.

Sentimos que no puedas venir.
We are sorry that you can’t come.

If there is no emotion, use the indicative:

Dijeron que ella trabaja en McDonald’s.
They said that she works at McDonald’s.

(Now that you know one of the reasons when to use the present subunctive, why not review how? See The Present Subjunctive: How?)