Subjunctive Explained or what the heck is subjunctive?

A series of articles designed to explain and provide exercises about Spanish subjunctive mood

It is often regarded as a strange word and in some cases, some foreigners who travel abroad to Spanish speaking countries prefer not to make use of subjunctive at all. But, do they really know what subjunctive is? What do we use it for in the first place? Do other languages have a subjunctive mood? These and some other questions will be explained briefly.

The practical definition is that subjunctive is an especial form of the verb, which is used when we want to express that a situation is unreal, imaginary, hypothetical or uncorroborated. We resort to subjunctive when we want to talk about something that we cannot call a fact. Take a look at the following pair of sentences:

James has two brothers and sisters.

There’s a possibility that he has two brothers and sisters.

He has been travelling the world for ten years.

I don’t want my son to travel the world for the rest of his life.

Which sentences talk about hypothetical/imaginary situations and which about facts? In case you haven’t noticed, the second sentence in each pair are hypothetical and they will make use of subjunctive: Existe la posibilidad de que tenga dos hermanos y hermanas; no quiero que mi hijo recorra el mundo por el resto de su vida.

So, we can relate the idea of unreality to the notions of desire, sentiment, volition, cause, demand request, doubt, necessity and so forth. Of course, the subjunctive version of the verb will not be present in the main verb, but in the verb inside the “que” clause (subordinate clause).

Spanish is by no means alone in the subjunctive universe. All Latin languages have this distinctive form of the verb so, if you’re planning to study French, Italian or Portuguese, be ready to meet again this old friend.

Subjunctive it’s less common in English than in other languages, but there are still some cases in which it’s used. Take for example these sentences:

It’s vital that he should come to this meeting.

It is very important that she be/should be at the doctor’s office at ten o’clock.

May God save the Queen.

In fact, all these sentences, when translated into Spanish, make use of subjunctive!

Now look at these sentences and comment whether they are facts or whether they denote emotions, probability or nonexistence. Can you suggest any translation into English?

Es necesario que encuentre mi libro para la próxima clase.

Espero que ganemos el partido de fútbol mañana.

Me dijeron que España tiene el mejor vino del mundo.

Me parte el corazón que nadie haga nada por el cambio climático.

Es sabido por todo el mundo que los pingüinos no viven en el polo norte.

El oficial de policía me indicó que no se pueden sacar fotos en esta parte del pueblo.

Existe la posibilidad de que llueva mañana, pero nadie lo sabe con certeza.

Further doubts? Please, write a comment and we’ll post a blog entry with an answer!

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