The difference between subjunctive versus indicative in Spanish

The difference between subjunctive versus indicative in Spanish

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated November 4, 2022

Spanish language learners often have trouble using the subjunctive in Spanish. It’s because native English speakers taking online Spanish lessons don’t naturally know when to use the subjunctive “mood” or conjugate verbs in the subjunctive tense. We aren’t used to hearing the subjunctive mood in English. When we start learning Spanish, we default to the indicative in Spanish because we are often just translating. Read more to learn the difference between subjunctive versus indicative in Spanish.

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Understanding Spanish moods 

There are three moods that you need to understand when learning Spanish: 

These three moods change how to properly conjugate verbs whenever you talk. We will discuss imperative (commands) another time. Today our focus will be on learning the difference between subjunctive and indicative in Spanish.

The indicative in Spanish explained

The indicative mood is the baseline, neutral mood. If you are learning Spanish online or in a classroom, you have already used the indicative mood.

All the normal verb conjugations are taught in the present tense indicative. This mood is used to talk about accepted facts, or things we believe to be true.

El cielo es azul. El globo es redondo. La cita famosa de René Descartes: Pienso, luego existo. (The sky is blue. The globe is round. The famous quote from René Descartes: I think therefore I am.)

The statements above are true without question. We use the indicative mood, meaning verbs conjugated in the indicative, to express obviously concrete statements. When something just is we use pienso, existo, es, and other indicative verb conjugations.

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The subjunctive in Spanish explained

When we are sure, we use the indicative mood in Spanish. The subjunctive mood is used whenever we are unsure.

The subjunctive in Spanish is used to talk about doubts, desires, wishes, possibilities, and conjectures. Whenever the topic of discussion is up in the air, Spanish speakers must switch to subjunctive conjugations.

Let’s copy the statements above and change them into subjunctive statements. Instead of the indicative third person conjugation of the verb to be ser, es, we use the subjunctive conjugation sea.

Quiero que el cielo sea verde. Dudo que el globo sea plano. (I want the sky to be green. I doubt that the globe is flat. )

The first phrase expresses a desire. The second phrase expresses doubt. Remember for anything besides what is objectively true, we have to use the subjunctive. We have talked about the 4 common mistakes with subjuntivo in Spanish before. 

  1. poor conjugation of the subjunctive
  2. using indicative when you should use subjunctive
  3. forgetting the 6 irregular verbs of subjunctive in Spanish
  4. knowing when to use subjuntivo 

If you can avoid these mistakes, you will speak Spanish in the proper mood and sound much more like a native speaker.

Indicative and subjunctive in Spanish

Making this switch is difficult for beginners. Since the difference between subjunctive and indicative in Spanish is famously difficult for native-English speakers to master, learning this distinction counts for a lot. As soon as you understand when to use the subjunctive, your fluency in conversations will take off.

Remember that the mood (indicative, subjunctive, or imperative) can be applied to any tense. For example, using the subjunctive mood in the present tense has a different conjugation than using the subjunctive mood in the imperfect tense.

We will get into these applications in another blog. For today, focus on learning the proper context. One way to help yourself hear subjunctive vs. indicative is to listen to regular usage such as Spanish podcasts. Over time, your ear will be tuned to make the switch naturally and comfortably. 

If you are taking online Spanish lessons, have you found the subjunctive vs. indicative mood to be hard at first?  

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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