Subjunctive versus Indicative in Spanish

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  • 0:04 Moods Everywhere!
  • 1:09 Verbal Moods
  • 1:36 Indicative Mood
  • 2:41 Subjunctive Mood
  • 6:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Bennett

Robert has been teaching for seven years in the US, Spain, and Norway. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish language and literature and taught Spanish in grades K-6 for four years. He is a National Board Certified Spanish teacher.

This lesson will help you to understand the difference between two important moods in Spanish: the subjunctive mood and the indicative mood. All verbs can be conjugated in both moods.

Moods Everywhere!

Imagine this: you're standing in line at the grocery store and you hear a father talking to his daughter.

The father says, Marcia, quiero que escuches. This means, 'Marcia, I want you to listen to me.'

The daughter replies, &iexclSí! Te escucho, papá. Or 'Yes! I am listening to you, dad.'

He says, No, no me escuchas. Or 'No, you're not listening to me.'

You begin to think to yourself, 'I know that verb!' Escuchar means 'to listen.' You may remember that it's an -AR verb, which means that it ends with the letters -AR and has -AR endings. So. . .why did you hear the father say escuches? Is it possible he was wrong? He said it correctly the second time, when he said escuchas.

No, he wasn't wrong. What you heard was the father using the verb escuchar in both the subjunctive mood and the indicative mood in the same conversation. We use subjunctive much more in Spanish than in English, so it's very important to understand what it is and when to use it. Let's begin with an explanation of what moods are.

Verbal Moods

When talking about verbs, moods are the mental frameworks in which we can conjugate verbs. They're not the same as tenses. In fact, we can express the past, present, and future tenses in both the indicative and subjunctive moods.

Think of moods as different glasses that you can put on to see the same picture. If you wear one pair of glasses, the picture will look different than with another. It's the same picture, but it looks different and perhaps gives you a new understanding or mood.

Indicative Mood

The indicative mood is the mood that explains reality, or in other words, it indicates what has happened or is happening. Basically, it's the mood that we use to communicate about things that have really happened in the past, things that are really happening in the present, things that will really happen in the future, and things that would or could really happen if certain conditions were met.

Here are some examples of the verb comer (meaning, 'to eat') in each of the tenses (past, present, future, conditional) in the indicative mood:

  • Yo comí pizza con mis amigos. This means, 'I ate pizza with my friends.' Did it happen? Yes, so it's indicative.
  • Tú comes aquí a menudo. This means, 'You eat here often.' Does it happen? Yes. Indicative.
  • Él comerá un poco después. This means, 'He will eat a little bit afterwards.' Will it happen? Yes. Indicative.
  • Pues, ¡ella comería mucho! This means, 'Well, she would eat a lot!' Would it happen? Yes. Indicative.

The Subjunctive

While the indicative mood explains reality, the subjunctive mood helps us to speak about an ideal reality or non-reality. A helpful way to remember when to use the subjunctive is the acronym: U.W.E.I.R.D.O. Let's go through why. We use the subjunctive to express:

  • Uncertainty. Will it happen? We don't know.
  • Wishes, desires, demands, or when we want/desire/demand someone else to do something.
  • Emotions, or when an event or another person's action causes us to feel a certain emotion.
  • Impersonal expressions. When we want to judge or express our opinion about something subjectively, we can use impersonal expressions.
  • Recommendations. When we want to recommend that someone else do something.
  • Doubt or denial. When we doubt that something will happen, or refuse to allow something to happen.
  • Ojalá. When we really want something to happen. This word roughly translates to 'god willing.'

Did you notice that in all of the UWEIRDO situations above, we need another person or event to be present in order to use the subjunctive? Unlike the indicative, the subjunctive always requires at least two subjects who are performing actions.

The two clauses, or subjects with their accompanying verbs, will normally be separated by a relative pronoun, such as que. One clause will always be in the indicative mood, while the other will be in the subjunctive mood.

Let's look at some examples:

Situation 1st Clause (Indicative) Connector 2nd Clause (Subjunctive) Meaning
Uncertainty Yo espero que (ella)* coma. I hope that she eats.
Wishes, Desires Yo quiero que (ella)* coma. I want that she eats.
Emotions Me gusta que (ella)* coma. I like that she eats.
Impersonal Expressions Es malo que (ella)* coma. It's bad that she eats.
Recommendations Yo recomiendo que (ella)* coma. I recommend that she eats.
Doubt, Denial Yo dudo que (ella)* coma. I doubt that she eats.
Ojalá Ojalá que (ella)* coma. I really hope that she eats.

Note, ella is in parentheses because it's not always necessary to use the subject pronoun explicitly in Spanish.

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