Using the Imperfect Subjunctive in Spanish

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  • 0:02 When To Use the…
  • 3:51 Un Viaje A Santiago, Chile
  • 7:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Travis

Chris has a Ph.D in Hispanic Literature.

This lesson presents the use of a very important verb form, the imperfect or past subjunctive. While it's very similar, in many ways, to the present subjunctive, the imperfect form also has some interesting, unique uses.

When to Use the Imperfect Subjunctive

While the imperfect subjunctive can be very complex and used in very unique ways, we will begin this lesson by thinking of it simply as a past tense form of the subjunctive, something you have probably already had some experience with in your Spanish studies. However, whether in the past or present, it will always be useful to continue practicing the subjunctive.

Let's look at a useful mnemonic device to remember some of the most basic uses of the subjunctive in the present and the past. Does this tense seem weird to you at all? Well, maybe that's good! Let's use the word WEIRDO to build our basic categories.

  • W: Will, wish, or desire. Verbs like querer, desear, esperar, but also like prohibir, permitir, or dejar.
  • E: Emotional reactions. When we have a strong opinion about whether something occurs or not, it brings a certain level of uncertainty, even if it is a known fact! Es bueno que..., no me gusta que..., me alegro de que..., me preocupa mucho que… These are some examples.
  • I: Impersonal expressions. These expressions, like 'it is important that...' or 'it is necessary that...,' might express one of the other causes (such as desire, doubt, etc.), but not from a personal perspective: Es importante que.., es necesario que.., es urgente que....
  • R: Requests: Pedir que..., necesitar que… etc.
  • D: Doubt: When we call something into question, Yo dudo que..., yo no creo que..., no es verdad que…, we clearly create a feeling of uncertainty regarding the verb.
  • The O stands for Ojalá. Originally meaning 'may Allah grant that,' this Arabic expression is now part of everyday vernacular, meaning 'I hope.' It does not conjugate. So, Ojalá que termines la tarea a tiempo.

Please understand that this does not provide a comprehensive coverage of the subjunctive, but that is not our objective. Instead, this is simply an introduction to some of the principal functions. We teach you how to form the imperfect subjunctive in a separate lesson.

Perhaps you'd like to review that a little. Recall that we must first start with the ellos form of the preterite, whether it is regular or irregular, then changing the endings. So, for example, the yo form of tener in the present subjunctive is tenga, but in the past it would be tuviera. Saber? Sepa and supiera. Hablar? Hable and hablara.

Let's look at some more. Once you have become familiar with the most common form of the imperfect subjunctive, then you can produce many forms. Please conjugate them with me:

  • Llegar goes to llegara, llegaras, llegara, llegáramos, llegarais, llegaran.
  • Vivir goes to viviera, vivieras, viviera, viviéramos, vivierais, vivieran.

We'll do the rest in the form to move more efficiently:

  • Poder: pudieras
  • Leer: leyeras
  • Querer: quisieras
  • Entrar: entraras
  • Ir goes to fueras

Un Viaje A Santiago, Chile

Let's listen to a dialogue between David, a young student who recently returned to his native country of Chile, and Anthony, his friend in Chicago. You will hear verbs in the present and past subjunctive. See if you can recognize the difference between the verbs and understand the basic conversation. When we review the dialogue, we will also try to confirm if the subjunctive form fits one of the WEIRDO categories, so please be observant (please see the video starting at 04:18 to hear the conversation):

Anthony: Oye amigo, David, qué tal? Martina me dijo que regresaste ayer de Chile. Lo pasaste bien? Quiero que me expliques todo! Necesito que me digas todo!

  • Here, Anthony greets his friend and asks about the trip. He uses the present subjunctive twice: expliques comes from explicar and digas comes from decir. Both of these indicate W: Will, wish, or desire.

David: Hola Anthony, cómo estás? Mi viaje fue excelente. Primero, fui a Santiago, la capital. Mi mamá quería que yo conociera a todos mis primos y tíos chilenos. Después, ellos querían que yo fuera con ellos a los museos, las montañas, y la costa. Yo les pedí que me llevaran a la casa del poeta famoso, Pablo Neruda.

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