Here’s a tricky situation which comes up often in Spanish, but which native speakers sometimes have a hard time explaining. The word “mientras”, which means while in Spanish, can take either the indicative or the subjunctive afterwards, but there are nuances of meaning which change depending which one is used. Today I’ll try to break this down in simple terms. Let’s start with the following sentence in English, which could translate into Spanish with either the indicative or subjunctive depending on what we want to say:
“We can finish the project while the boss is gone.”
The word “while” in this case can be understood in two ways; “We can finish the project during the fixed, predetermined time that the boss is gone” (perhaps while he’s at a meeting or on vacation), or “We can finish the project only as long as the boss is gone.” In Spanish, this sentence can read in the following ways:
- Podemos terminar el proyecto mientras está ausente el jefe.
- Podemos terminar el proyecto mientras esté ausente el jefe.
In the first instance, we describe two simultaneous events which do not depend upon each other. We’re essentially saying, we’ll finish the project at the same time that boss is gone, but his or her return won’t necessarily impede our progress. In the second instance, we’re saying that we can only finish the project as long as or to the extent that the boss is gone. The implication is that, if the boss returns, we won’t be able to finish the project.
You see that Spanish is very specific in these instances, whereas English is somewhat ambiguous. Let’s look at a few other examples:
- Voy a la tienda mientras tengo tiempo.
- Voy a la tienda mientras tenga tiempo.
In the first instance, I’m saying that I have some time and I’m using it to go to the store. I know how much time I have and have made a concrete, predetermined decision to spend it at the store. In the second instance, the implication is since I wound up with time or as long as I have time, I’m going to the store. My ability to go to the store is dependent upon the indeterminate period of time that I managed to break free. Here’s another example:
- Mientras siguen nuestros problemas, el jefe no hace nada.
- Mientras sigan nuestros problemas, el jefe no hará nada.
In the first example, our problems continue and the boss is doing nothing. The two events are occurring at the same time but are not necessarily dependent upon each other. We’re pretty much just saying that the boss is not intervening while our problems are going on, without saying whether this is a good or bad thing. In the second example, we are saying as long as our problems continue, the boss is not going to do anything. In this case, we’re implying that because we have problems, the boss is being a complete waste of space and will do absolutely nothing about it. Also, we have no idea how long our problems are going to last.
When you add the subjunctive to “mientras”, you are adding a shade of uncertainty to an event. In the first example, we don’t know how long our boss will be gone. In the second, we don’t necessarily know how much time we’ll have for the store. In the last example, we don’t know how long our problems will last. The indicative, on the other hand, is merely an acknowledgement that an event is, in fact, occurring at the same time as another.
This concept isn’t perfectly easy to explain nor understand, but I hope this helps. I invite you to leave examples you’ve encountered in the comment below.