Spanish Grammar: How to Use Subjunctive Tenses

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  • 0:02 Subjunctive Tenses
  • 0:47 Requirements
  • 2:31 Which Subjunctive?
  • 6:04 Practica
  • 9:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Pablo Serna

Pablo has taught college Spanish at the University of Missouri and Central Methodist University, and has a master's degree in Spanish literature.

In this lesson, we will learn how to know what subjunctive tense needs to be used according to when the actions occur. We will also practice some vocabulary about social life.

The Subjunctive Tenses

The subjunctive mood in Spanish has some tenses and conjugations that allow us to express doubt, disbelief, denial, emotions, will and influence when talking about certain events or situations in the present, past and even the future. This mood is characterized by uncertain, hypothetical or non-existent situations in contrast to the indicative mood that provides certainty about those events. Now, how do we know when to use each of the subjunctive tenses in Spanish? Mainly, there are four subjunctive tenses that share most of the same requirements, but all of them talk about different situations and times.

Requirements to Use Subjunctive

Let's first review the subjunctive tenses and requirements. We need to remember that to be able to use these tenses there are four main requirements that need to be present for most of the sentences that use any of the subjunctives:

1. The word que: This word often connects the main and subordinate clauses, and it is the equivalent of the word 'that' in English as in 'I hope that you get well.'

2. A trigger: There are certain verbs and expressions that always, if other requirements are present, indicate that subjunctive is required. Some of these are verbs of will and influence like recomendar, sugerir, aconsejar, and impersonal expressions, like es bueno, es importante and es necesario. Some are verbs or expressions of doubt, disbelief and denial, such as no es cierto, no es verdad, (no) es probable/posible/imposible/improbable.

3. Two clauses: When we use subjunctive (for most of the cases) we need a main clause and a subordinate clause. Each clause must have a verb and a subject that performs the action.

4. Two subjects: Complementing the previous requirement, we need two different subjects (for most cases).

Which Subjunctive?

There are two subjunctives that require that the verb or expression (trigger) in the main clause be in the present tense (indicative):

1. Present subjunctive, as in 'Julián desea que Lucas festeje con él' (Julián wishes that Lucas celebrate with him).

When we use the present subjunctive, we are talking about a situation that doesn't provide certainty because you don't know if the action will occur or not. Julián says that he wants Lucas celebrating with him, but that doesn't mean it will happen. There we find the uncertainty that characterizes the subjunctive tenses. Notice the main clause is present tense and the subordinate clause happens simultaneously or after the main clause.

2. Present perfect subjunctive, as in 'Jacobo espera que hayan llegado a la casa' (Jacobo expects that they have arrived home).

When we use the present perfect subjunctive, we have a situation that, in contrast to present subjunctive, occurred in the past. The main clause is in the present tense and the subordinate clause refers to the past. For this tense we use a compound verb that has an auxiliary verb, haber, in the subjunctive: haya + past participle.

But, what is the difference between present perfect indicative and present perfect subjunctive? When we use the indicative form, we are talking about something that has happened or what someone has done, but in the present perfect subjunctive we talk, not only about something that has happened but also expressing uncertainty, doubt or emotions about the action described.

Now, the two other subjunctive tenses require the main clause and trigger to be in the past:

1. Past subjunctive, as in 'Fue triste que el perro de Carlos muriera' (It was sad that Carlos' dog died).

The past subjunctive talks about an action that is simultaneous or in the future when compared to the verb in the main clause. In the previous example, both occurred at the same time.

2. Past perfect subjunctive, as in 'Dudé que hubieran venido al banquete' (I doubted that they had come to the banquet).

The past perfect subjunctive talks about an action that had happened before the action expressed in the main clause. To understand the example a little better, imagine I am talking to a friend about a banquet. He said that the Rolling Stones had come. Of course, I doubted him. As you can see, the banquet occurred and later I doubted.

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