The phrase “por más que + verbo” is part of a two clause construction and means “As much as…” or “No matter how much…”. Examples in English include “As much as I try, I can’t seem to find the problem” / “No matter how much I tell her, she doesn’t want to understand.” These sentences in Spanish would be rendered as follows:
- Por más que intento, no logro encontrar el problema. / Por más que intente, no logro encontrar el problema.
- Por más que le digo, no quiere entender. / Por más que le diga, no quiere entender.
You’ll notice that BOTH the indicative and the subjunctive can follow “por más que” but, like all things in Spanish, there are subtle nuances behind their meanings. In the first example, “por más que intento“, we are basically saying “despite the many times I try”, thereby affirming that all attempts to this point have not succeeded. In the second example, however, we are saying “however many times I might try”, implying that an infinite amount of effort would not be enough to “encontrar el problema.” Use of the subjunctive casts an additional layer of doubt on the situation… it’s like throwing the word “may” into the sentence: “No matter how I may try.”
Although this may seem confusing at first, “por más que” offers the speaker a rare opportunity in Spanish. You can generally use either the indicative or the subjunctive and you will be correct. The shades in meaning are compounded a bit by the fact that, in Spain, native speakers tend to use the subjunctive exclusively, whereas in Latin America both forms are common.
Here are a few examples from my personal notes:
- No se le quita la sed por más que tome agua. (He keeps being thirsty no matter how much water he drinks)
- Por más que intento, no se me apaga el coraje. (No matter how much I try, I can’t stop being angry)
- Por más que intento, no logro pasar bocado. (No matter how I try, I can’t take a bite)
In each of these examples, it is possible to swap the indicative with the subjunctive and vice versa. The indicative implies that the verb is quantifiable… in other words, if pressed, I could tell you how many times I’ve tried to “apagar el coraje” or “pasar bocado.” The subjunctive throws these statements into an infinite realm: “His thirst isn’t going away no matter how much water he drinks (whatever amount that may be).”
In practice, native speakers will not make much distinction between use of indicative or the subjunctive (with the previously mentioned caveat that, in Spain, the subjunctive is preferred in all cases). You’ll also find that there is some variance with the phrase itself: “por más que” is commonly said “por mucho que” and, in Spain, it is often rendered “por muy +adj+ que…”:
- Por mucho que lo ame, no acepto su traición. (As much as I love him, I can’t accept his betrayal)
- Por mucho que sean inteligentes, nunca toman buenas decisiones. (As intelligent as they may be, they never make good decisions)
- Por muy inteligentes que sean, nunca toman buenas decisiones. (As intelligent as they may be, they never make good decisions)
For our purposes, it is enough to remember the phrase “por más que” and know that, whether you use the indicative or subjunctive, you will be understood. Try it out in your next conversation!