San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

In the Mood: Getting the Feel of the Subjunctive

Part one of a two-part series.

“Let’s see,” you may say to yourself about three-quarters through the typical first-year Spanish course, “how many verb tenses have we studied? 1. Present Indicative; 2. Imperfect Indicative; 3. Preterit Indicative; 4. Future Indicative; 5. Conditional; 6. Present Perfect; 7. Past Imperfect; 8. Preterit Perfect; 9. Future Perfect; 10. Conditional Perfect; 11. Imperative.”

¡Parece mentira! It’s incredible. You have looked at, if not learned, 11 verb tenses. This has included two kinds of past tenses (imperfect and preterit), an assortment of irregular verbs, and forms that change according to who is talking. This is not at all like comfy old English.

Then comes the killer blow: the subjunctive. Suddenly, someone, usually a teacher, is saying that now you have to learn four of these tenses, the most commonly used ones, all over again in a somewhat modified form to use under certain circumstances for nuances or changes of meaning – what? “Oh, no!” you say. “Thanks, but I’ll pass. I’ll just stick with the absolute hell of the ordinary verbs.”

I’m sorry to be the bearer of such black news, but if you want to learn to say what you really mean in Spanish, you can’t just say, “I’ll pass,” to the subjunctive.

For one thing, the Spanish subjunctive is not just a finishing touch, not just a form used in university halls and upper-class circles, but one used by people on the street and in the fields. If you decide to just disregard the subjunctive, you may change the meaning of your sentence, convey an unintended attitude, say something that doesn’t make sense or, at best, just sound very odd.

Just what, you may wonder, is the subjunctive? I cannot pretend here to provide an extensive explanation of it. All I can do is give you an idea of what it is and, more important, provide some suggestions on how to stop fearing it and start mastering it.

All conjugated verbs in the Romance languages (of which Spanish is one) express something grammarians call “mood.” Two moods concern us here: indicative and subjunctive.

Supposedly, the straight forward and truthful indicative states facts and asks questions. The subjunctive, on the other hand, represents uncertainty, opinion, something that exists in the mind of the speaker rather than in the “real” world.

The subjunctive, unlike the indicative, appears almost always in dependent clauses.

The meaning of a dependent clause, such as “If it rains…” depends on that of the main clause, “…we’ll stay home,” to which it is connected. In Spanish, to express uncertainty or opinion in the dependent clause, the ending of the verb changes to the subjunctive ending.

This is bewildering when it comes to judging whether what you are going to express is true or false, opinion or fact. It is also true, however, that there are a great number of expressions and conjunctions you can count on to trigger the subjunctive, which means that you can memorize these and get part of it down. Nonetheless, like any other grammatical description, there are gray areas.

I hate to go mystical on you again, but you’re just going to have to get the FEEL of this thing.

I have two suggestions to help you with this difficult task. I am going to give one to you now and the other later.

One of the things that can help you most with the subjunctive in Spanish is to be aware that the subjunctive exists in English.

It’s not nearly as extensive or complex as the subjunctive in Spanish, although, as students of Shakespeare know, it used to be more so. It is really a remnant of a former system and, therefore, is inconsistent. What is important here is that understanding the existence of the subjunctive in English can help you get that all-important feel for the subjunctive in Spanish.

In some cases, the present English subjunctive is expressed with a past-tense verb.

Note the following examples:

Oh that I had the wings of a dove.

I wish bungee jumping weren’t so boring. This includes the hypothetical “if” clauses, which combine with the present conditional tense:

If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his butt every time he hopped.

If I were you, I wouldn’t eat that cookie.

In other cases, the English subjunctive uses the stem of the infinitive (to be, to try, etc.). This is only noticeable with the verb “to be” and, because the final -s is missing, with third person singular, “he,” “she” and “it,” in the present tense:

I insist that you be perfect.

May your days be merry and bright.

His doctors recommend that he eat lots of dead chicken.

The court respectfully requests that the defendant rise.

After a past tense, the subjunctive also uses the stem of the infinitive, and, here, it is obvious in all persons:

It was imperative that there be a thousand clowns.

Fedonia insisted that we try the papaya pizza.

Papa suggested that they have a shotgun wedding.

He requested that you dance on the table.

It required that I speak Sicilian dialect.

Other than these rather erratic forms, the subjunctive feeling in English is often expressed with the auxiliaries “may” and “might”:

Though he may be telling the truth, I don’t trust him.

However pretty she might be, she’s not the person to play the role.

I hope this gives you, at least, a better awareness of the nature of the subjunctive. Next time, we’ll look at it in Spanish.


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