El subjuntivo – “¡qué miedo!”

Hola y bienvenidos nuevamente a JT’s Spanish. I’ve had several requests to go deeper into certain grammatical concepts that are the bane of our angloparlante existence and today, I’m going to try and darles gusto by exploring the most confusing of all grammatical aspects in Spanish: the “subjunctive” (I wanted to write this in some scary font but WordPress won’t let me). I figure that if I can explain this most amorphous (didn’t think you’d learn something in English, did you?) and convoluted features of the lengua de Dios to your liking, then I can explain anything and we’ll attempt to expand our grammatical horizons in future articles. Claro, this will have to be a multi-part series, as there are many more uses of this ethereal mood than I can cover in a single punch…

First off, I ask you to turn off your anglo-germanic brains and set logic aside for a bit. We’re learning a romance language, known for its depth of feeling and expression. The whole concept of the subjunctive is rooted in a vast spectrum of desire, doubt, disbelief, uncertainty and emotion which Spanish conveys with a degree of passion and precision hardly matched by our own tongue. The very presence of these elements in the speaker’s mind changes the grammatical structure of the language, whereas this is not so true with our language (although English does have the subjunctive, sort of). The good news is, if you can grasp the subjunctive in Spanish, you’re well on your way to mastering it in French, Italian, Portuguese or any other Latinate language you care to learn.

To start off easy, let’s look at some simple sentences in Spanish which don’t use the subjunctive:

  • Creo que mi hermana viene a la fiesta.
  • Estoy seguro de que Juan quiere ir con nosotros.
  • Es evidente que Roberto y Mario se llevan muy bien.

What can we observe about these sentences? First of all, they are made up of two subjects and two verbs. In the first example, “I” am expressing my belief that “my sister” is coming to the party. We have two distinct clauses which are linked, in this instance, by the word que (which translates as “that,” a word we occasionally omit in English but never in Spanish).

What else do we see? All of these sentences express a certain degree of certainty. I’d be willing to put money on the fact that my sister is coming to the party or that Juan wants to go with us. These sorts of sentences are safe bets. The speaker, subject #1, is expressing confidence in the actions of subject(s) #2. Such sentences are said to be in the “indicative” mood, which is fancy grammatical way of saying that you could gamble on them and make a profit.

Let’s take a look at what happens when the specter of doubt or uncertainty enters a Spanish speaker’s brain:

  • No creo que mi hermana venga a la fiesta.
  • No estoy seguro de que Juan quiera ir con nosotros.
  • No es evidente que Roberto y Mario se lleven muy bien.

The structure of these sentences is very much the same as the previous ones. One subject is expressing a thought or making an observation about the other, but this time there is a tinge of uncertainty present. All of a sudden, I no longer believe that my sister is coming to the party. Would I, however, want to put money on her not showing up? If I was quite certain that she wasn’t coming, I would say “Creo que mi hermana no viene a la fiesta,” but now I am expressing doubt by stating “No creo…” In these examples, I am also casting doubt on Juan’s desire to go with us and questioning the evidence that “Roberto y Mario” get along. There is something nagging in my head which can neither confirm nor deny what actions my sister, Juan or Roberto y Mario may take or are taking. I am not willing to commit to what they may or may not do and leave these things to whims of fate, destiny and the subjunctive.

Think of the subjunctive as a switch which, when turned on, allows you to question a fact or a preconceived notion. If I say, for instance, “Es obvio que esa mujer es mala,” I am asserting something that is true in my mind and upon which I could stake my reputation, finances, or even my life (OK, so I’m being a little dramatic). In other words, when I use the indicative, I am stating something that is true from my point of view. If I change this sentence to the subjunctive, “No es obvio que esa mujer sea mala,” I am no longer saying whether this woman is bad or not, but simply that it isn’t obvious to me what is true about her. I am casting doubt on what may be an established fact for someone else.

In the previous examples, the subjunctive was triggered by phrases such as “No creo que,” “No estoy seguro de que,” and “No es evidente que.” All of these phrases lend an air of uncertainty to whatever the speaker is about to say. Other phrases which do the same are “No pienso que,” “No parece que,” “No es cierto que,” and “Dudo que,” among others. The subjunctive, however, also expresses desires, wishes or recommendations which may or may not materialize. Take a look at these sentences:

  • Quiero que mi hermana venga a la fiesta.
  • Necesito que Juan vaya con nosotros.
  • Es importante que Roberto y Mario se lleven bien.

Again I ask, would you want to put money on my sister’s coming to the party or on Juan’s coming with us from these statements? Would you bet $1000 on Roberto and Mario getting along simply because I said it was important that they do so? Claro que no. The subjunctive leaves open the possibility that none of these things I want to occur or think are important will actually happen. This, of course, has much to do with the fact that I can’t control what my sister, Juan, or Roberto y Mario may or may not do… I can only project my desires and opinions upon them. Once more, I am not stating that which is factual to me, but rather that which I wish were factual (notice that were” is a rare instance of the subjunctive in English).

When it comes to wanting or suggesting something, there are a multitude of phrases which trigger the subjunctive. Among the more common ones are “Deseo que,” “Espero que,” “Exijo que,” “Prefiero que,” “Recomiendo que,” “Sugiero que,” “Aconsejo que,” “Insisto que,” etc. Let’s dig into these just a bit deeper:

  • Deseo que tú vengas a mi fiesta.
  • Espero que arregles el problema con tu marido.
  • Sugiero que tú hables con tu suegra.
  • Recomiendo que los niños no se acerquen al precipicio.

All of the sentences express things I want or hope for, or things which I suggest or recommend that someone does. Now just because I want something doesn’t mean that I’m going to get it, and just because I suggest you do something doesn’t mean you will. Therefore, I cannot treat the actions I’m referring to as established facts, but rather as actions which may not ever come to pass. This dubiousness, mis amigos, is the essence of the subjunctive.

You may have noticed that, thus far, the subjunctive has followed the relative pronoun que in every example I’ve presented. Almost invariably, when you have the formula subject + verb + que + subject + verb, the verb of the second clause will go into the subjunctive. In other words, there are very few phrases or expressions which trigger the indicative, upon which we can stake “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Among these are “Es cierto que,” “Es seguro que,” “Estoy seguro de que,” “Es evidente que”, “Es obvio que,” “Sé que,” and “Aseguro que.” When you use these expressions, you follow up with indicative because you are asserting a truth which leaves no room for questioning: “Es evidente que María es la mujer más fea sobre la faz de la tierra.” You may pick fights with such assertions, but they won’t be with your own brain. You are convinced of the “truth” you state. Most of the time, however, where you see two subjects, two verbs and que in between, you’ll need the subjunctive.

Not every phrase which triggers the subjunctive is about one’s desire to assert his/her will over another or unwillingness to commit to reality. There are a number of phrases which are designed to express innocuous opinions but still require the subjunctive, as what they present cannot rightly be called facts. These include, among others, “Es fantástico que,” “Me alegro de que” (or “Me alegra que”), “Lamento que,” “Me enoja que,” “Me encanta que,” and “Me sorprende que.” With these, we are talking about emotions which, as any psychologist or kindergarten teacher will confirm, are fickle, changeable and hard to pin down. They naturally require the subjunctive:

  • Es fantástico que mi hermana haya venido a la fiesta.
  • Lamento que Juan no pueda ir con nosotros.
  • Me enoja que Roberto y Mario no se lleven bien.

Now, you may be wondering, am I not establishing as a fact that my sister came to the party, that Juan didn’t go with us, and that Roberto and Mario aren’t getting along? Well, I am in fact insinuating these things as true, but the subjunctive is used because I am describing the emotional effect that these actions have on me. I am not questioning whether my sister came to the party, but rather stating that “it is fantastic” that she did so. Now, was it really fantastic she came? Perhaps I still don’t know about the $1000 she stole while she was there (the same money I used to bet on the indicative earlier). Perhaps my brothers and their spouses hate her guts. How can I say such a thing “is fantastic” and thereby force it down the throats of others as though they must accept my reality, which in of itself will change as soon I discover the money gone? The subjunctive gives me an out. By using it, I tacitly acknowledge that the actions committed by my sister, Juan, Roberto and Mario have had such-and-such an effect on me, but that my feelings are just that… feelings. Spanish does not admit the indicative in these instances, as it would be arrogant (don’t you think?) to state opinions and feelings as though they were true for everyone.

So is it this simple? Indicative for real things and subjunctive for nebulous, wishy-washy things? Well, sort of. There are, however, other instances of the subjunctive and they don’t always follow que as in the formula I outlined above. These, however, can be a topic for another day.

Also, I have yet to discuss the mechanics of forming the subjunctive. If you’re not especially familiar with it, just accept for the moment that the differences between viene and venga, va and vaya, lleva and llevue are the differences which separate truth from an ethereal world where doubt, desire and disbelief reign. The subjunctive, as we’ve seen, is used to express the subjective, and grasping this concept is far more important than simply knowing how to conjugate verbs. That said, we’ll get to this topic too at some point, but for now head over to studyspanish.com for a preview and some in-depth practice.

In the meanwhile, espero que esto les haya ayudado y que nos veamos aquí la semana entrante. ¡Hasta la próxima!

P.D. (P.S. in Spanish): I’ve recommended this book before, but can’t say enough about it. It contains an outstanding explanation of how and when to use the subjunctive… and makes a great Christmas gift (and no, I don’t know the author, but I just really like his book):

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