Today I thought I’d take a stab at a concept which took me ages to comprehend and which, I hope, I have finally mastered in conversation. If you’re a beginning student of Spanish, this post may not be for you. If, on the other hand, you have already delved into the black hole which is the Spanish subjunctive, I hope that today’s post will clarify some of the confusion which I’m sure has resulted. Specifically, I want to look at the past subjunctive or what is called the imperfect subjunctive by grammarians.
Now take a deep breath… we’ll start with the basics:
We know already- or presumably know- that the subjunctive conveys doubt, uncertainty or subjective thinking on the part of the subject. If we take the following sentence, for example, we see that the subject has no objective facts rolling around in his head:
El espera que las cosas mejoren. = He hopes that things improve.
There is NO guarantee, of course, that things are going to improve soon. In fact, with the world the way it is, it’s very likely that things WON’T improve. The subjunctive gets used because what HE wants is a SUBJECTIVE desire, and not part of reality.
Let’s take this sentence and put it in the past:
El esperaba que las cosas mejoraran. = He hoped that things would improve.
The convoluted change in mejorar is simply the “imperfect” subjunctive rearing its cabeza grotesca. In other words, what we’ve done is change mejoren to mejoraran, present to past. So far, so good…
The confusion, however, arises in sentences like this:
Si su papá llegara, echaría a su novio de la casa. = If her father arrived, he would kick her boyfriend out of the house.
This is known as a conditional sentence. In other words, if one thing happened, another would occur by consequence. In English we use “if-then” to express this idea (although we often omit the word “then”):
If her father arrived, [then] he would kick her boyfriend out of the house.
The use of the imperfect subjunctive casts doubt on the idea that her father would arrive. In fact, “she” wouldn’t have her boyfriend over if she thought there was a chance of his getting kicked out. The hypothetical result of this action is merely hypothetical and not, as yet, part of reality. Contrast this with:
Si su papá llega, echará a su novio de la casa. = If her father arrives, he will kick her boyfriend out of the house.
There is no subjunctive here… just present and future. Here we are simply stating a fact. If her dad arrives, he will kick her boyfriend out of the house. Notice the difference of word choice, and of nuance, even in English. In most cases, we don’t readily use the imperfect subjunctive in English and you probably never heard of it in school. We simply use the past tense when we want to make a situation hypothetical.
The point is, “si” in Spanish will take the imperfect subjunctive when we wish to express a supposition and, like in English, the present indicative when we wish to state a fact. Now let’s take this one step further…
Si su papá llegaba, echaría a su novio de la casa. = If her father arrived, he would kick her boyfriend out of the house.
¡Carajo! ¿Qué pasó? Here we have llegaba instead of llegara, but the sentence translates the same in English! This is about where I once lost my mind in this language. I dug through dozens of textbooks seeking an explanation, since the concept of using the imperfect subjunctive with “si” and the conditional had been drilled into my head. If you’ve studied Spanish grammar- which I assume you have if you’ve read this far- you know that llegaba is not the subjunctive. It is simply our old friend, the imperfect indicative. ¿Qué diablos is the difference between llegara and llegaba in this sentence?
With the subjunctive, we are creating a hypothetical situation in the present. Yes, I know we are using the past or imperfect subjunctive, but hear me out… there’s a reason this thing is called the imperfect subjunctive. We are saying that in the unlikely and unfortunate event her father were to present himself at home, junior would find himself head first on the street. It remains a subjective, mysterious and unrealized possibility and will, for the sake of junior’s cranial integrity, remain that way.
With the imperfect indicative, we are essentially taking the factual statement “Si su papá llega, echará a su novio de la casa” and transferring it to the past. We are stating what the consequence was whenever junior showed up at his girlfriend’s house. We can even assume that junior probably got kicked out on occasion, as the girl’s father was disposed to react in this manner each time her boyfriend appeared. There is an element of fact, reality and repetitiveness which is absent from the subjective statement.
Spanish has the amazing ability to express these nuances with the change of a verb or, in this case, a single letter: llegara vs llegaba. This can be, for some time, the bane of every student’s existence, but it can also be a wonderful tool that allows you to change facts from suppositions and vice versa. With the subjunctive, junior’s head may stay intact, whereas the indicative increases the probability that he will suffer a concussion. One little letter, just a switch of verb tenses, makes quite a difference here… wouldn’t you agree?
Clearly, the breadth and depth of the Spanish subjunctive is far deeper than I can explore in a simple blog post. I’d like to recommend the following title to help you practice and make sense of all of it:
Let me if this explanation was clear. ¡Hasta la próxima!