The subjunctive vs. indicative in Spanish and how to get them right

The subjunctive vs. indicative in Spanish and how to get them right

by Maria Inês Teixeira

Updated November 4, 2022

All of us know languages can be moody. Take Spanish, for instance. The language has three moods: imperative, subjunctive and indicative. And we bet you didn’t know that some languages – like the Nenets, spoken in Northern Russia – can even have ten different moods. Wow!

By now you might be asking yourself: “What on earth are moods and why are we discussing my morning crankiness right now?! I came here for Spanish!!!” 

Glad you asked.

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What are moods anyway?

Simply put, grammatical moods are features in a language that tell us what type of intention the speaker has when they say something. Is he asking for something? Is she stating a fact? Are they fairly sure of what they are saying or are they confused, uncertain or hopeful? Yes – grammar can tell us everything about what’s going on inside your heart! 

We bet you didn’t think grammar could be this romantic! Now…how does this help with Spanish moods?

How to finally get the Spanish moods right

1) Pay attention to the intention.

Moods directly relate to the intention somebody has when they say something. Since we are focusing on two of them, what you need to ask yourself is what type of intentions require what mood.

Indicative mood: when do we use it?

We use the indicative in Spanish in the following situations:

  • To talk about facts; 
  • To describe someone or their actions;
  • To express belief or certainty that something will happen; 
  • To talk about past events; and
  • To talk about future events.

Feeling like this could apply to pretty much anything? That’s because you’re right. Indeed, most of the verb tenses you have already learned or seen in Spanish will apply to the indicative mood, such as the present simple, the imperfect, the past simple and the future. 

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Subjunctive mood: when do we use it?

We use the subjunctive in Spanish in the following situations:

  • To make wishes or express desires;
  • To talk about emotions and subjectivity;
  • To recommend something;
  • To describe people’s thoughts;
  • To express doubt or uncertainty, and
  • To express hope.

Struggling to understand how this applies? We have good news! The subjunctive will actually be pretty easy to identify once you get to know some key expressions, phrases and verbs that automatically request it. Which takes us to…

2) Recognise some of the triggers!

There are certain verbs and expressions that almost always use the same mood – or, as we like to say it, they “trigger” the mood. Your mission is to recognise them. Here are some verbs and expressions that always request the indicative and the subjunctive:

Indicative moodSubjunctive mood
“Estoy seguro(a) que…” (I am sure that…)“Es cierto que…” (It is certain that…)“Yo creo que…” (I believe that…)“Está claro que…” (It is clear that…)“Me ha dicho que…” (He/she told me that…)“Es evidente que…” (It is evident that…)“Yo sé que…” (I know that…)“Yo quiero que” (I want that…) “Te recomiendo que” (I recommend that…)“Es necesario que” (it is necessary that…)“Esperamos que” (we hope that…)“Ojalá que” (I hope that…)“No creo que” (I don’t believe that…)“No es cierto que…” (It isn’t certain that…)“Es importante que…” (It is important that…)

Notice how all of these expressions are related to certainty or expressing facts, while subjunctive expressions heavily relate to recommendations, doubts or expressing wishes. Once again…it’s all about the intention!

3) Know that sometimes we can use both.

We wish it would be as simple as identifying a couple of expressions and knowing your moods, but there are many words that can be found in combination with both. For instance, keywords like cuando (when), hasta que (until) or mientras (while, meanwhile) can be part of both indicative and subjunctive depending on the intention behind the sentence. In this situation, always go for the degree of certainty: if something has already happened or happens regularly, we use the indicative. If something might happen (but not for sure) in the future or you are trying to express wishes, doubts and hopes, choose the subjunctive. 

4) Become more aware of verb conjugations…

Thankfully, the internet already provides several lists of handy verbs for both the indicative and subjunctive moods. Once you recognise the mood you should be using and what verbs usually appear with each, the tricky part is conjugating them correctly. Notice the differences between these tenses:

Indicative mood tenses to look out for(1st person singular – “yo”)Subjunctive mood tenses to look out for(1st person singular – “yo”)
Present Simple (hablo inglés)Present Continuous (estoy hablando inglés)Present Perfect (he hablado inglés)Simple Past (hablé inglés)Imperfect (hablaba inglés)Past Perfect (había hablado inglés)Future (voy a hablar inglés / hablaré inglés)Future Perfect (habré hablado inglés)Conditionals (hablaría / habría hablado inglés)Present Subjunctive (…hable inglés)Present Perfect Subjunctive (…haya hablado inglés)Imperfect Subjunctive (…hablara inglés)Past Perfect Subjunctive (…hubiera hablado)Future Subjunctive (…hablare)Future Perfect Subjunctive (…hubiere hablado)

5) …but don’t memorise them all at once!

Did you notice that the previous table only includes verbs related to yourself (1st person singular)? That’s because all other pronouns will have their very own conjugation for each tense. Exactly – that’s a lot to digest! For this reason, one of the most unproductive things you can do with your time is trying to memorise entire lists of verbs and tenses. Our advice? Start with the tenses you are more likely to use first, and only about 10 verbs you are likely to use more often. It’s a great starting point to avoid feeling overwhelmed!

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