El subjuntivo y frases que lo requieren

Hola… I’m back after recovering from my last case of subjunctivitis, a grammatical condition which causes frequent brain freeze and has impeded me from completing an effective post in the last two weeks. The thing is, I want to be totalmente seguro about what I’m writing before I submit it to the world, so I’ve spent a bit more time than usual researching and formulating drafts (as well as watching Mexican soaps… if you haven’t seen Mañana es para siempre you’re really missing out… that Barbera Greco is a real zorra descarada). Today I want to continue our study of the subjunctive and expand a bit on our discussion from last time.

To begin with, we’ve already established that the subjunctive is used to express desire, doubt, uncertainty about a fact or future event, or an emotional response to a situation (I discussed all this in my last three posts, so be sure to read them before continuing with this one). I mentioned that the subjunctive most often appears in the construction: subject + verb (ind) + que + subject + verb (subj), but last post I presented a series of words and phrases other than “que” which can also trigger its use (“cuando,” “después de que,” “hasta que,” etc.). Today we’ll examine more words and phrases which replace que and, to round off, we’ll look at a few set phrases that dispense with this formula altogether.

I want to revisit the notion that, when referring to the future, the subjunctive is the condition upon which a stated event will occur. Here are a few of the examples I presented in the last post:

  • Llamo a mi tía cuando terminemos de cenar.
  • Llevaré mi toalla cuando vaya a la playa.

In the first example, I’m saying that “I’ll call my aunt when we finish dinner”, but only Cristo and his santos know if dinner will ever be finished and, as such, if I will actually telephone my aunt afterwards. The condition of finishing dinner, an uncertainty in the present, is the condition whereupon I will call my Aunt Matilda and put up with her chismes about Uncle Roberto.

In the second example, I’m saying that “I’ll take my towel when I go to the beach.” That said, if global warming accelerates and sea levels rise beforehand, I may not actually get to the beach and therefore will not be taking my towel there. The subjunctive “cuando vaya a la playa” is establishing the condition which must be met in order for me to “llevar mi toalla.” It remains an uncertainty, an ephemeral idea of what may or may not actually occur in the future.

In these examples, the subjunctive establishes conditions to be met at some future time, but not every phrase which triggers the subjunctive necessarily refers to the future. Before I lose you completely, take a look at the following examples:

  • a menos que = unless 
  • a fin de que = in order that
  • con tal de que = provided that
  • para que = so that
  • sin que = without

These phrases always, always, siempre take the subjunctive and, like their counterparts above, establish conditions which refer to the indicative part of our formula. These conditions, however, can refer to the present or the future, depending on the context. Check out these examples:

  • Le compramos este regalo a Brenda a menos que tengas otro en mente. = Let’s buy this gift for Brenda unless you have another in mind.
  • Te animo a conseguir un trabajo a fin de que te independices un poco. = I encourage you to get a job in order to become a bit more independent.
  • Te presto dinero con tal de que me lo devuelvas con intereses. = I’ll loan you money provided that you pay it back with interest.
  • Les estoy explicando el uso del subjuntivo para que lo entiendan mejor. = I’m explaining the use of the subjunctive to you so that you understand it better.
  • Siempre salgo de noche sin que mis padres se den cuenta. = I always go out at night without my parents realizing it.

Ok, so these aren’t the most amazing sentences I’ve ever come up with, but they illustrate the point. Let’s look at each in turn:

  • The subjunctive in “a menos que tengas otro en mente” places a condition upon the phrase “le compramos este regalo a Brenda.” We’ll buy this particular gift unless you happen to have another one in mind. If you do, we won’t buy this particular gift but, because I am not a mind reader, I cannot know if you have something else in mind until you say so. I am expressing an uncertainty with respect to what you may or may not be thinking. If you had told me on the way to the store that you had a certain gift in mind, I wouldn’t be suggesting we get this one and I wouldn’t have had to break out the subjunctive to try and psychoanalyze your gift-buying intentions, or lack thereof. The phrase “a menos que,” which translates in English as unless, always takes the subjunctive because it presents a condition which cannot readily be affirmed as a fact in the speaker’s mind.
  • In the phrase “a fin de que te independices un poco” we are establishing the reason for which “te animo a conseguir un trabajo.” This purpose, however, may not actually be realized even if you get a job. You may still be a deadbeat living in your parent’s basement long after the indicative portion of this sentence is fulfilled. Again, the subjunctive is establishing a condition: I’m telling you to get a job in order to become more independent… and not merely for the sake of getting a job. The act of getting a job, however, may not satisfy the reason for which I encouraged you to do so and thus the subjunctive is used to express this uncertainty.
  • “Te presto dinero” but only if you pay it back “con intereses.” The condition is established by the phrase “con tal de que,” meaning provided that. In this instance, of course, we’re referring to the future, but “con tal de que” can refer to present as well. Check out this sentence: “Te perdono con tal de que estés arrepentido.” I forgive you… but you had better be truly sorry. If this condition is met in the present, then my forgiveness is yours as of this moment.
  • With the phrase “para que lo entiendan mejor,” I am stating the reason for which “les estoy explicando el uso del subjuntivo.” Now I know what you’re thinking… how is the subjunctive establishing a condition when it’s a fact that I’m explaining the subjunctive to you? The indicative portion of this sentence is already happening and does not depend on whether we understand your explanation or not. The subjunctive, however, is expressing the purpose for which I am doing this, the condition upon which this action is taking place. I cannot know if you will understand what I’m explaining and, as such, the purpose for which I’m doing it remains uncertain and requires the subjunctive. You may tell me that “No entendimos ni madre” (we didn’t understand $%#^) and thus render useless the intention expressed by “para que.”
  • This last one is a bit trickier: “sin que mis padres se den cuenta” is the condition upon which “yo siempre salgo de noche.” When I go out, the act of my parent’s noticing does not occur and therefore is not real. The subjunctive encompasses that which is unknown and contrary-to-fact and, until my parents someday catch me sneaking out, we can’t properly say that they “se dan cuenta.” The phrase “sin que,” meaning without, must take the subjunctive because it refers to actions which are not real or factual.

I realize that my attempt to explain these concepts is perhaps a little convoluted, but if you can get it around your head that these phrases, by nature, always take the subjunctive, you’ll be in good shape. I mentioned earlier that there are some uses of the subjunctive which do not follow the formula we’ve been working with thus far. Here are a few very common phrases which usually stand alone:

  • Como quieras. = However you want.
  • Como sea. = However it may be.
  • Cuando quieras. = Whenever you want.
  • Lo que desees. = Whatever you desire.

These are typically responses to demands or suggestions made by others and, as you can imagine, there are many such examples. What I want you to comprehend, however, is why they take the subjunctive. Let’s look at these examples.

  • “¿Cuándo quieres volver a vernos?” … “Cuando quieras está bien.”
  • “¿Podemos vernos esta noche a las seis? … “Cuando quieres está bien.”

In the first example, we are saying that whenever you want to meet is fine. That may be tonight, tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. The subjunctive leaves open the possibility that anytime can work. In the second example, the indicative is affirming that 6:00 tonight is OK. It refers to a concrete time, a fixed reality established by the interlocutor, and does not leave other options open.

When the subjunctive is used to respond to a demand or suggestion made by another person, it corresponds roughly to the “-ever” part of “however,” “wherever,” “whatever,” “whenever,” etc. It does not commit to times, places, means or facts. Here’s another example:

  • “¡Jamás voy a volver a hablar contigo!” … “Como tú quieras.”

However you want things, honey, is fine with me. I don’t care whether you speak to me again or not. The subjunctive leaves all this up to you. In English, we could respond to such a mean-spirited statement with “Whatever!” and thereby insinuate that we really don’t care. That’s basically how the subjunctive is used in these instances… to say that whatever, however, whenever is just fine with us.

Well, at this point, your brain is probably full and my hand is falling off from typing. I hope that this explanation has helped somewhat. There’s always more to say about the subjunctive and there are almost certainly better ways to say it. That said, if you have thoughts or want to offer corrections or clarifications, I very much welcome your comments below.

While researching all this, I came across the Spanish hit Cuando Quieras by Nicky Jam. If all this grammar talk is driving you loco, I suggest you pump up this song and accompany with a giant cerveza.

Hasta la próxima…





1 comment on El subjuntivo y frases que lo requieren

  1. As always, great explanations and an entertaining description of the topic at hand. Thanks for dropping your seriously legit Spanish knowledge on us. And the dude in the first of the Cuando Quieras video with the fedora and white shirt and black jacket reminds me of the guy who officiated my wedding, minus the tats and bling.

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