El subjuntivo y el futuro

¡Feliz año nuevo! Last post, we explored some of the ethereal purposes of the Spanish subjunctive. We fairly well established that it is used whenever the speaker will not or cannot commit to a fact. Whenever doubt, desire, uncertainty or the imposition of one’s will over another come into play, the subjunctive appears.

Until now, we’ve used the subjunctive exclusively as part of the formula subject + verb (ind) + que + subject + verb (subj). In other words, we’ve seen the subjunctive follow que in every example so far. Today we’re going to see uses of the subjunctive that don’t necessarily follow this pattern. Moreover, we’re going to distort the space-time continuum and travel into the future to see what happens when the subjunctive is used to describe future realities… which may or may not, in fact, be real at all.

To make sense of all of this, remember that the subjunctive deals with the uncertain and the unknowable. The past, of course, is fairly knowable, as is the present. The future, however, is forever relegated to a realm of maybes, what ifs, let’s hope that, etc. The subjunctive helps us refer to things that haven’t happened and maybe never will. Let’s look at some examples…

  • Preparo la cena cuando mi esposo llegue.
  • Vamos a trabajar hasta que el proyecto quede completo.
  • Tomaremos una decisión después de que él nos su opinión.

Let’s break this down a bit. In the first example, the speaker is saying that she will prepare dinner when her husband arrives. The word “arrives” – llegue – is used in the subjunctive because it refers to an event which has yet to occur and maybe never will. The speaker is subconsciously allowing for the possibility that her husband will be delayed, distracted by an amante or even killed in an accident (not trying to be morbid). There is no guarantee that he will ever show up for dinner, even though the hope and presumption is that he will. We do not use the indicative here because his arrival is not an established fact… it’s in the future and remains unknowable until it happens.

In the second example, we have committed to work until the project is finished, but will it ever really be finished? Think about it… what if this were a government project? Would you be willing to risk the indicative on it ever being completed? It is altogether possible that it will remain incomplete forever, but we cannot know for sure in the moment of speaking. Thus, we use quede in the subjunctive.

In the final example, we are saying that we’ll make a decision when he gives us his opinion. Who’s to say, however, that he will get around to it? Maybe he doesn’t want to give us his opinion. How presumptuous of the English language to assume that he will do what we want. Spanish gives our man an out… we say después de que él nos ” to avoid committing him to an action he may, in fact, never take. We may have to make a decision without his opinion, but only time will tell…

Now wait, you say, isn’t the subjunctive we’re using to refer to the future conjugated in the present tense? Yes, but that’s only because Spanish long since dispensed with a separate set of conjugations to describe the future (this is actually a good thing since it means there are less forms to learn). The very same conjugations we use to express doubts and desires in the present, such as in “Quiero que él me llame,” are used to express uncertainty in the future: “Iré cuando él me llame.”

There are a number of future-oriented words and phrases which call for the subjunctive. These can replace the que we’ve been working with thus far in our formula.

  • cuando = when
  • hasta que = until
  • en cuanto = as soon as
  • tan pronto como = as soon as
  • después de que = after

A sentence such as “Te llamo en cuanto me desocupe” (I’ll call you when I stop being busy) leaves open the possibility that I will never stop being busy and, therefore, will never call you. That, of course, may not be my intention, but I cannot know the future or what may crop up that prevents me from calling. When used to refer to what may or may not happen, these words and phrases always call for the subjunctive. You will, however, see sentences like this: “Llamo a mi tía cuando terminamos de cenar” (I call my aunt when we finish dinner). Contrast this, however, with “Llamo a mi tía cuando terminemos de cenar” (I’ll call my aunt when we finish dinner).

Quick breath…

In example #1, I’m saying that I regularly, ritually and habitually call my aunt after we finish dinner. I’m not necessarily referring to what I’m going to do after tonight’s dinner. I’m just saying that I have this tendency to call my aunt after dinner, something I’ve presumably done many times before and will likely do again.

In example #2, however, I’m saying that I will call my aunt but only after we have finished eating dinner. We could change “llamo” to “llamaré” to clearly indicate that our action is to be completed in the future, but only after the condition of finishing dinner is met. We’re referring to a single event which may or may not occur in the nebulous, unknowable future which lies before us. Will we actually finish dinner? Will grandma choke on a chicken leg and force me to postpone my long-dreaded telephone conference with Aunt Matilda? The subjunctive leaves open these possibilities. Here’s another example:

  • Llevo mi toalla cuando voy a la playa.
  • Llevaré mi toalla cuando vaya a la playa.

Now, before we dissect these sentences, let me clarify something I mentioned in my previous post. I stated that, when we use the subjunctive, usually the subject in the second clause is different from that of the first clause. This is mostly true, but as you can see from this example, it isn’t always true. Welcome to the agujero negro that is grammar. The subject of the first and second clauses of these sentences is “yo”, and much to the narcissist’s delight, it is perfectly acceptable to speak about “yo” in both clauses. As I mentioned previously, we wouldn’t say something like “Yo quiero que yo vaya a la playa” when we can as well say “Yo quiero ir a la playa,” but when we can’t simplify the sentence or use a shortcut, it is then acceptable to use the subjective in single subject sentences. If this paragraph sounds too confusing, go grab some tequila and forget that I wrote it.

Anyhow, back to the examples as it relates to the future. In the first sentence, I am saying that I take my towel whenever I go to the beach. I’m not saying that I’m planning on going to the beach soon, but rather insinuating that I’ve gone before and that I have just have this crazy habit of taking a towel each time I go. The second sentence, however, refers to the future. I am going to the beach (or so I intend) and, when I do so, I will take my towel. I may, however, get abducted by aliens before I ever get there, which will negate my ability to take my towel and thus render unfactual the action I proposed to carry out. The subjunctive is needed because the future is uncertain.

There is one major exception to everything I just wrote, and it has to do with sentences containing si (meaning “if”). In the present tense, the word “si” is usually (I said usually) followed by the indicative even when there is doubt or uncertainty concerning the future. Let me demonstrate:

  • No sé si él viene a la fiesta.
  • No sé si él vendrá a la fiesta.

I don’t know if he’ll come to the party. I’ve got doubt, uncertainty, confusion, existential problems… everything that would ordinarily call for the subjunctive. That said, the word si (“if”) is usually not a trigger for the subjunctive in the present tense (we’ll get into more convoluted situations another time). Why is this the case? I have no freaking idea and I’ll leave that question to academics who have more knowledge than me. That said, the thing to remember is that si is usually followed by the indicative… except when Spanish speakers want to say “No sé si él venga a la fiesta,” which they do say and get away with perfectly fine. Thus, the choice of the indicative vs subjunctive here depends on just how intense our lack of confidence in “él” is, but generally the indicative is preferred.

To sum up, the future is basically just another manifestation of the sort of uncertainty the subjunctive exists to convey. It’s right there with desire, doubt, emotion and all the other “non-factuals” which we discussed in earlier posts. The subjunctive, as it relates to the future, is essentially the condition upon which a stated event will occur… I will call my aunt when we finish dinner (if we ever do), I will take my towel when I go to the beach (if I ever do), etc. If the condition is not met, the event will not occur. And only God, the Virgen de Guadalupe and possibly the crazy psychic lady with the office on Turnip Street can know the future with enough certainty to claim that any conditions we place upon it will be fulfilled.

I realize that there’s a lot of philosophy and psychology involved in this whole subjunctive thing. My hope is that, after reading these posts, you’ll understand the purpose of it rather than merely the rules which call for its use. Too many textbooks explain the subjunctive in an overly formulaic way and, as you can see, it all has to do with the subconscious thoughts and intentions of the speaker. I’ve spent more time discussing why it exists than how to form it, but I think that you must understand the former before you can apply the latter.

I’m open to questions, suggestions, feedback and corrections wherever called for. As I said, this is an experiment to help you as best I can. I’ll write a few more articles on this subject cuando tenga tiempo. Meanwhile, espero que pases un muy buen fin de semana. Hasta la próxima…





2 comments on El subjuntivo y el futuro

  1. Great explanation of everything. The only question that remains unanswered is who exactly is this crazy psychic lady with an office on Turnip Street? Is it your mom? Because yo mama so crazy not even Google could translate her.

  2. The best explanation I read so far on the subject. Thank you.

    There is one other aspect of subjuntivo. Sometimes it is used as could, would, were. Subjuntivo es una putah locura

    Examples (from tatoeba)

    No hay ningún documento de civilización que no sea al mismo tiempo un documento de barbarismo.
    (That wouldn’t be at same time)

    No tengo a nadie que viaje conmigo
    (Who would travel with me)

    Yo no uso taxis, a menos que sea absolutamente necesario.

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