San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

In the Mood: The Subjunctive, Part 2

In my last column, I wrote about the importance of the subjunctive in Spanish and provided one way to help you understand it (TT,May 25).

I suggested that you become aware that the subjunctive exists in English in a kind of remnant form. Then, I gave you some examples of the use of the subjunctive in English.

Now I’m going to give you another suggestion, but first, I have something I want you to consider. Sometimes our idea of how we should learn and how, in fact, we do  learn are two different things, and this misinformation can get in our way.

Imagine you are talking to a 5-year-old girl, and she asks you what “honesty” is.How would you answer her? You might, for instance, tell her, “Honesty is the quality of truthfulness and integrity,” but I hope not. I hope you would have the sense to say something like, “Honesty is when you find someone else’s money and you give it back to him.” In other words, knowing that a 5-year-old cannot understand an abstract idea, you would give her an example.

As we get older, we begin to be able to understand abstract ideas, at first only if they’re backed up by a series of examples, then later by themselves. It remains true throughout our lives, however, that nothing succeeds so well in explaining a difficult concept as a good example.

At some point, you must delve in and study the rules and four forms of the subjunctive and go over the long list of conjunctions and expressions it follows. Perhaps you have already done so, or perhaps you have decided to wait and get a feel for it before you study it in depth. At whatever point you may be, it is helpful to get the feel of the subjunctive as an attitude, a mood, by keeping in mind a series of contrastive examples that reflect one attitude in the indicative and another in the subjunctive.

In the following sentences, (I) denotes indicative and (S) denotes subjunctive. Sometimes the subjunctive alters the very meaning of a sentence:

(I) Voy a la fiesta aunque llueve. (I am going to the party even though it is raining.)

(S) Voy a la fiesta aunque llueva. (I am going to the party even if it rains.)

(I) A pesar de que no quieres, tienes que hacerlo. (Despite the fact you don’t want to, you have to do it.)

(S) A pesar de que no quieras, tienes que hacerlo. (Despite the fact you may not want to, you have to do it.)

(I) Le dije que había cambiado mucho. (I told him he had changed a lot.)

(S) Le dije que cambiara su actitud. (I told him to change his attitude.)

Sometimes the subjunctive expresses doubt or untruth:

(I) Yo sabía que estabas molesto. (I knew you were upset.)

(S) Yo no sabía que estuvieras molesto. (I didn’t know you were upset.)

(I) Es verdad que mi amiga es húngara. (It is true that my friend is Hungarian.)

(S) No es verdad que mi amiga sea húngara. (It is not true that my friend is Hungarian.)

Sometimes the subjunctive expresses that someone or something is only theoretical:

(I) Ud. conoce a un muchacho que estudia medicina. (You know a boy who is studying medicine.)

(S) ¿Conoce Ud. a un muchacho que estudie medicina? (Do you know of some boy who is studying medicine?)

(I) Tengo un carro que no gasta mucha gasolina. (I have a car that doesn’t use much gas.)

(S) Busco un carro que no gaste mucha gasolina. (I am looking for a car that doesn’t use much gas.)

Sometimes the subjunctive expresses an action that has not been completed:

(I) Todos se alegraron cuando llegó Papi. (Everyone was happy when Dad came home.)

(S) Todos van a alegrarse cuando llegue Papi. (Everyone will be happy when Dad comes home.)

After si (if), in combination with the conditional tense, the subjunctive expresses an act that is completely hypothetical (this is also true in English):

(I) Si me acuesto temprano, me levanto temprano. (If I go to bed early, I get up early.)

(S) Si fuera a dormir temprano, me levantaría temprano. (If I went to bed early, I would get up early.)

(I) Si estás aquí, todo saldrá bien. (If you are here, everything will turn out all right.)

(S) Si estuvieras aquí, todo saldría bien. (If you were here, everything would turn out all right.)

Sometimes the subjunctive just expresses more doubt than the indicative:

(I) Quizás tienes razón. (Perhaps you are right.)

(S) Quizás tengas razón. (Perhaps you are right [more doubtful].)

These represent only a very few of the possible examples and cases, as I said, just to help you get a feel for the kind of uncertainty and mental state the subjunctive expresses.

One last interesting note: The subjunctive is always used after the expression Ojalá que: Ojalá que ganes la carrera. (Oh that you might win the race.)

Ojalá que estuvieras aquí conmigo. (Oh that you were here with me.) It turns out that ojalá comes from the Arabic insha’llah (Allah grant…).

Now tell me: What can more eloquently explain the subjunctive than a prayer?


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