Today I want to touch on a subject which often confounds students of Spanish, even advanced ones. The infamous subjunctive, while not entirely absent from the English language, can present all sorts of headaches to non-native speakers, whereas native speakers are rarely conscious that they’re even using it. Most students are taught that the indicative is used for “factual” situations, whereas the subjunctive is used to express doubt, volition or uncertainty. Some phrases always trigger the indicative (such as “Estoy seguro de que…” and “No hay duda que…”), whereas others trigger the subjunctive (“No creo que…”, “No quiero que…”, etc.). Today I want to explore one phrase which can trigger either, depending upon the level of certainty which the speakers wishes to convey: “No sabía que…” Let’s dissect the following two sentences:
- No sabía que Marta era tan buena bailadora.
- No sabía que Marta fuera tan buena bailadora.
BOTH of these sentences are correct, but one expresses absolute certainty whereas the other is merely conjecture. Let’s build a conversation around these sentences to see how they’re used:
- “¿Oíste que tu amiga Marta agarró el primer lugar en el concurso de baile?” – “Sí, la vi en la tele… no sabía que era tan buena bailadora.”
In this instance, it’s evident that Marta is a good dancer. She won first place in the competition, everyone saw her and the speaker is merely expressing surprise at a fact that he has no reason or desire to question. Now compare it to this conversation:
- “Mira, ya se está haciendo muy tarde y hay que irnos” … “Sí, pero no puedo desprender a Marta de la pista de baile… ahora está bailando con Ricardo” … “Uf, no sabía que fuera tan buena bailadora.”
The speaker has no real evidence that Marta is a good dancer and is only making a conjecture. He doesn’t want to commit himself to the idea that Marta is a good dancer, but is only insinuating that she is because she won’t get off the dance floor. There’s even a slight shade of contempt in the statement because he’s annoyed that she won’t leave.
Let’s say your friend serves you a delicious meal… you could politely say: “No sabía que eras tan buen cocinero.” He would likely take this statement as a compliment. If you say, however, “No sabía que fueras tan buen cocinero”, you’re leaving open the possibility that he’s actually a lousy cook.
The difference in meaning between this two sentences is subtle. We’d probably use intonation and tone, rather than grammatical changes, to express these ideas in English: “I didn’t know that you were such a good cook!” (said with pleasant surprise) vs. “I didn’t know that you were such a good cook!!??” (said with shock, sarcasm or indifference). In the former statement, we are asserting a fact, whereas in the latter we leave open the door of doubt.
Naturally, these shades of meaning can overlap a bit and will vary from speaker to speaker. If you want to stump a native speaker (one who doesn’t have linguistics as their college major), ask him or her which one is correct. Some will say one or the other, but you can rest assured you can use BOTH. It just depends on what you want to say.
If you wish to explore the contrast between the indicative and subjunctive more thoroughly, allow me to recommend the following book by Joseph J. Keenan: Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish (see link below). Nowhere else have I read such an excellent explanation of when to use one or the other… consider it $16 well spent.