No more headaches: When to use the subjunctive tense in Spanish

The subjunctive in Spanish used to give me headaches.

As I’ve shared before, I grew up functionally bilingual. I spoke Spanish and English at home with my family but I never learned proper Spanish grammar until school. When I began Spanish classes at the age of 12, I was shocked at how hard it was.

I tell Spanish learners my background because I want to reiterate: Spanish tenses can be wild.

For native English speakers, some of the language tenses common in Spanish have dropped out of everyday use in English. 

This is the case with the subjunctive tense. Sure, it exists in English. We know how to use it, but it is not part of our everyday language. Once you understand how the tense works in English, it becomes simple to master subjunctive in Spanish.

Let’s break down how and when to use the subjunctive tense.

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Subjunctive in English

The subjunctive tense is a verb form that explores conditional or imaginary situations. It also expresses wishes, demands, and suggestions. 

These sentences all use subjunctive tense. 

  • I wish for my mother to be queen so that I would be a princess.
  • I doubt that you shall inherit a lot of money and build yourself a large mansion.

Since the tense in English has dropped out of daily use in modern times, the best way to recognise it is to imagine how people spoke long ago. The phrase “that” as it is used above indicates subjunctive in English.

This is where a childhood (or let’s face it, adulthood) of watching a lot of television comes in handy. Review popular period dramas that feature British royalty, proper speaking, posh accents, and official settings. 

The Crown. The Crawley family in Downton Abbey. Even cheesy medieval-style films like The Princess Bride or Monty Python and the Knights of Ni will have characters using the subjunctive correctly.

When to use it!

Much more common in daily use, the subjunctive in Spanish talks about more than imaginary situations. It also expresses opinions, doubts, the abstract, and emotions. 

Here are the example phrases from above written in Spanish.

  • Quiero que mi mamá sea la reina para que yo sea una princesa. 
  • Dudo que heredes mucho dinero y te construyas una gran mansión.

To recognise when to use the subjunctive tense in Spanish, listen for that proper phrasing. Anytime you might use a that phrase in English is the right time. 

Subjunctive in Spanish

The basic form of a present subjunctive verb in Spanish is made by following these steps.

  1. Take the infinitive of the verb

hablar

tener

      2. Find the present indicative yo form 

hablo

tengo

      3. Remove the yo ending

habl-

teng-

      4. Add the subjunctive ending.  

hable

hables

hable

hablemos

hablen

tenga

tengas

tenga

tengamos

tengan

There are two types of endings in the subjunctive in Spanish: -ar verbs conjugate using –e endings while –er/-ir verbs use –a.

Irregular Spanish verbs in the present subjunctive tense

There are six irregular verbs in the subjunctive tense for Latin American usage. 

  • Dar – dé, des, dé, demos, den
  • Estar – esté, estés, esté, estemos, estén
  • Ser – sea, seas, sea, seamos, sean
  • Haber – haya, hayas, haya, hayamos, hayan
  • Ir – vaya, vayas, vaya, vayamos, vayan
  • Saber – sepa, sepas, sepa, sepamos, sepan

Alright, let’s try some of our own.

Still uncertain about it?

Take these two phrases:

  • “I believe” expresses certainty.
  • “I don’t believe” expresses doubt

Uncertainty is a marker of when to use the subjunctive. If you believe something, use the normal indicative form of the verb. If you don’t believe, you have uncertainty, so use the subjunctive in Spanish.

  • Creo que esta enciclopedia es el mejor libro para investigar el tema. – I believe this encyclopedia is the best book to research this topic.
  • No creo que en esta enciclopedia esté la información que busco.I don’t believe that the information I am looking for is in this encyclopedia. 

¿Verdadero o falso? Use indicative and subjunctive to express what you think is true or false. 

  • España es el principal exportador de aceite de oliva del mundo. – Spain is the world’s principal exporter of olive oil.
  • No creo que Italia sea el principal exportador de aceite de oliva del mundo. – I don’t believe that Italy is the world’s principal exporter of olive oil. 

You can mix indicative and subjunctive to point out something small. 

  • Me parece que este artículo es interesante, aunque no creo que el autor esté bien informado sobre el tema. – This article seems interesting to me but I don’t believe the author is well-informed about the topic..

happy-spanish-student-working-on-laptop

Using subjunctive based on the subject

René Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am.” He was certain about his own thoughts. The same goes for subjunctive in Spanish. When you are talking about yourself, you can be certain. Use the indicative. 

  • Quiero ser futbolista profesional. Quiero comer pasta. I want to be a professional footballer. – I want to eat pasta. 

When another person is the principal subject of your statement, you must use subjunctive. 

  • Quiero que mi novia viva en Valencia. Quiero que el perro coma. – I want/wish that my girlfriend would live in Valencia. I want/wish that the dog would eat. 

Expressing opinions in Spanish

The final major situation that we use subjunctive in Spanish is when we are expressing an opinion. Although we might be certain that our opinion is right, the essence of what we are saying is subjective, therefore we use the subjunctive. 

  • Quiero que mi equipo gane el partido esta noche. – I want my team to win the match tonight.
  • Me parece genial que haga calor. – It seems great that it’s hot outside.
  • Me parece fatal que la gente tire papeles al suelo. – It seems awful that people litter paper on the ground.

When you first start to use the subjunctive in Spanish, it can feel awkward. Especially since native English speakers aren’t adept at recognising when to use it. It can be a headache to remember all the situations that we use subjunctive and how to conjugate those six irregular verbs. 

Remember that imagining proper spoken English from long ago can help. I wish that…, I hope that they…, I am unsure that weare all phrases that use subjunctive in Spanish. 

Espero que practiques el subjuntivo para que te resulte más fácil.I hope that you practice the subjunctive so that it gets easier for you. 

If you’re interested in practising stating your opinions and using subjunctive in Spanish, visit our website and sign up for your Spanish trial with a native speaker.