El subjuntivo – la continuación

Last week, we entered the nebulous world of the subjunctive and I attempted to make sense of its somewhat subjective purpose. Today I want to delve deeper. We’ll look at sentences which I call bi-subjunctual (that’s not a real word, BTW). That is, sentences which can take either the subjunctive or the indicative and which change meaning depending on which one is used. We’ll also dig a little into the mechanics of the subjunctive and some of the patterns which will help us remember how to form it. Again, I remind you that this is an experiment on my part and I’d love to know if these explanations are making sense to you. After reading the article, please leave me a comment with your thoughts, questions and ideas for improvement.

I mentioned previously that, most often, the subjunctive appears in sentences which follow this formula: subject + verb + que + subject + verb (as a clarification, let me say that the two subjects in such a sentence are usually different… one would never say, for example, “Yo quiero que yo vaya a la playa”… one would simply say “Yo quiero ir a la playa.” One can say, however, “Yo quiero que él vaya a la playa”). With the exception of a handful of phrases which trigger the indicative (“Yo creo”, “Es cierto que,” etc), this formula generally calls for the subjunctive. There are times, however, when we can use either the subjunctive or the indicative in the same sentence. Behold:

  • Estamos buscando un libro que explica las reglas gramáticales del inglés. = indicative
  • Estamos buscando un libro que explique las reglas gramáticales del inglés. = subjunctive

The only thing different in these two sentences is what we do with the verb explicar. In the first sentence, we are looking for a specific book which we know exists and have presumably misplaced somewhere, or perhaps saw on the store shelf last week and are now wanting to find again. We have already identified which book we have in mind. We could even switch the article before “libro” to definite, as in “Estamos buscando el libro que explica las reglas gramáticales del inglés.” In either case, we are simply searching for a certain, pre-determined book that, at the present moment, is merely eluding us. The use of the indicative in this instance refers to a concrete reality… the book is real and just has yet to be located.

With the second example, however, we do not know if such a book exists. If you walk into a store and say, “Estoy buscando un libro que explique las reglas gramáticales del inglés,” you are leaving open the possibility that the vendor does not have a book which explains English grammar rules. We cannot take “un libro” and change it to “el libro,” because we do not have a definite book in mind. We are basically looking for any book which meets our stated criteria. Here’s another example:

  • “Quiero hablar con alguien que habla inglés.” = indicative
  • “Quiero hablar con alguien que hable inglés.” = subjunctive

Suppose you arrive at a hotel reception desk and you use the indicative version of this phrase with the person on duty. With “alguien que habla inglés,” you are saying you know exactly with whom you wish to speak. By adding the “habla inglés” part, you are just giving the receptionist information which will help him or her identify the subject in question. Presumably, there aren’t that many folks around who speak English and the one you wish to speak with can be easily identified by this particular trait. There is no question of this person’s existence… it’s just that “I simply want to speak with him”. Don’t stand there, tonto… call him for me!

With “alguien que hable inglés,” all of a sudden the focus becomes finding someone… anyone… with this particular linguistic skill. I don’t know if anyone around here speaks English, but I need, if at all possible, to speak with someone who can. The existence of such a person is not certain, therefore I must use the subjunctive.

In each of these examples, there is a difference in what it is we’re emphasizing. With “estoy buscando un libro que explica las reglas gramáticales del inglés,” the emphasis is on the book itself. The fact that said book explains English grammar rules is incidental information which I provide simply so that my listener can help me locate it. The same can be said of “alguien que habla inglés”. The “alguien” is already a known quantity to me… I’m simply telling you that said person speaks English so you know which one I wish to speak with.

With the subjunctive, I’m looking for a book… any book… which can help me understand English grammar. I want to talk to someone… anyone… who can speak English. Whether I find such a book or such a person depends on whether they actually exist, something I am not sure of upon making these pronouncements. These statements can be formatted into questions, but they still use the subjunctive because they convey uncertainty:

  • “¿Tiene usted un libro que explique las reglas gramáticales del inglés?”
  • “¿Hay alguien aquí que hable inglés?”

Once again, the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive boils down to the speaker’s willingness to commit to a fact. The grammar merely adjusts to the speaker’s perception of reality (i.e. whether the thing looked for exists for certain, or whether there really is a guy who speaks English standing in the hallway). In a way, Spanish is far less ambiguous than English in this area. If you say, “I’m looking for someone who speaks English,” you may be referring specifically to your friend John or to just anyone who can help you with the language… as angloparlantes, we have a subjunctive-tense-deficit problem (STD… ok, so the subjunctive is not technically a tense, but you have to admit that the acronym is pretty funny).

I don’t wish to belabor this subject, but I want to be absolutely certain that you understand the essence of the subjunctive before we get into its mechanics. There are other uses which deviate from the subject + verb + que + subject + verb formula we’ve examined thus far, but I’ll save these for another post (don’t worry, it’s nothing unrelated to what we’ve seen already).

For now, let’s take a brief look at how the subjunctive is created. I’ll present three very common, regular verbs in both their indicative and subjunctive versions (everything in the present tense to keep it simple):

                       Hablar                                                 Comer                                               Vivir

Yo                  hablo          hable                                como           coma                            vivo         viva

Tú                  hablas        hables                              comes         comas                           vives       vivas

El, ella, ud    habla          hable                                come           coma                             vive         viva

Nosotros      hablamos  hablemos                        comemos   comamos                     vivimos   vivamos

Ellos, uds     hablan        hablen                              comen        coman                           viven       vivan


I don’t expect you to memorize this table, but I want you to take a close look at it. Do you notice any patterns? With verbs that end in -AR, the subjunctive endings are pretty much the same as the indicative endings for -ER  verbs. With verbs that end in -ER and -IR, the subjunctive endings are almost the same as the indicative endings for -AR verbs. To form the subjunctive, we are basically reversing these conjugations (yes, I know the “yo” form is different, but even so we are putting an “e” on an -AR verb and an “a” on -ER and -IR verbs, the opposite of what their stems indicate). In basic terms, -AR verbs behave like -ER and -IR verbs in the subjunctive, and vice versa.

There are some weird things that happen, of course, and things can’t be this simple all the time. There are a number of irregularities in forming the subjunctive, the most glaring of which occur with the following verbs:


                                 Estar                Saber                 Ser                 Haber               Dar                 Ir

Yo                             esté                 sepa                    sea                 haya                 dé                    vaya
Tú                             estés               sepas                  seas                hayas               des                  vayas
El, ella, ud               esté                 sepa                    sea                 haya                 dé                    vaya
Nosotros                estemos          sepamos           seamos          hayamos         demos             vayamos
Ellos, uds               estén                sepan                 sean               hayan              den                   vayan


In an earlier post, I alluded to the fact that verbs which get used a lot tend to get a little “damaged” over time. It’s kind of analogous to the condition of a book you handle every day and one which hasn’t left your shelf in years… the former will be a little beat up, whereas the other will likely be in perfect shape. This is the case with frequently used verbs in most any language, hence the reason that irregular verbs seem to be so common. Most of the above verbs have whacky conjugations to begin with and one can’t expect that the subjunctive of verbs that have been produced from the mouths of speakers a zillion times a day, every day for centuries, will come out looking like Don Limpio. We can be thankful that most verbs in Spanish follow the pattern I outlined above (with occasional variances to account for pronunciation rules, as in explique), whereas the few exceptions do require some memorizing.

Apart from these six verbs, you can pretty much form the present subjunctive of any verb by following these guidelines:

1) Take the “yo” form of any verb.

2) Chop off the ending.

3) Add the following for -AR verbs: -e, – es, -e, -emos, -en. For -ER and -IR verbs add: -a, -as, -a, -amos, -an.

Let’s see how it works with a verb that has an irregularity in its “yo” form: tener. I’ll give both the indicative and subjunctive forms so you can see how it works:

Yo                              tengo           tenga

Tú                              tienes          tengas

El, ella, ud                tiene            tenga

Nosotros                 tenemos      tengamos

Ellos, uds                 tienen          tengan

Tener is a -ER verb, so its subjunctive endings are going to have a lot of a’s in them. The “yo” form is tengo. We simply lop off the “o” and add the appropriate endings to each person. That is our subjunctive.

If you know how to use the present indicative “yo” form of any verb, then you simply need to know the right endings and voilà (not a Spanish word), you have your subjunctive (ok, so there are, as I mentioned, a few spelling irregularities here and there and even a few stem-changing verbs, but let’s not get into the weeds now). Here’s one more example with salir to reinforce the point that forming the subjunctive is a mostly simple affair:

Yo                              salgo           salga

Tú                              sales           salgas

El, ella, ud                sale             salga

Nosotros                 salimos       salgamos

Ellos, uds                 salen           salgan

There are plenty of websites to practice creating the subjunctive, my favorite of which is www.studyspanish.com, the site I mentioned last week. It takes a little bit of drilling and practice to master, but if you can internalize the concept that -AR verbs generally act like -ER verbs and -ER and -IR verbs act like -AR verbs, that they basically do the reverse of what you learned in Spanish 101 class, and then apply the “yo” rules above, then you are well on your way to being able to produce the subjunctive anytime doubt, desire, uncertainty or an existential crisis strike.

We’ll continue with the subjunctive in another post, as there’s more to discuss. I’ll leave things here for now to ensure that I don’t overwhelm you or, conversely, that I don’t miss some important point which occurs to me later (the word occurs in this sentence would be subjunctive in Spanish… I’ll explain after Christmas sometime). Meanwhile, espero que tengan todos una sana, bendita y muy feliz Navidad. Nos vemos aquí muy pronto…


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