This is actually the extended version of my explanation of the subjunctive that was going to go into that guest post I did over on Benny’s blog that had to be cut out because the post was already really long as it was and putting this in there would’ve made it ridiculous. I couldn’t find a picture that related to what I was writing about (the Spanish subjunctive), so here’s a picture of my idea for an anti-gravity device based on a cat with some buttered toast on its head – what do you think?
The subjunctive is one of two other moods besides the ‘normal’ Spanish mood (and it is a mood, not a tense) that you’re used to, which is called the indicative mood, and the other one is the imperative mood which is solely used to give commands. In Spanish, the subjunctive is used with impersonal expressions and expressions of emotion, opinion, doubt, disagreement, denial or volition–essentially, it’s used for anything uncertain or emotional. The indicative is used for expressing things that are objective, truthful, unemotional, and not in doubt.
If you wanted to say that the cat is on top the refrigerator, you would just use the regular indicative: “El gato está encima de la nevera”, however, if you wanted to say that the cat would prefer that you not put him on top of the refrigerator, you would use the subjunctive and say: “El gato desea que no lo pongas encima de la nevera”, where “pongas” is the present subjunctive form of “poner“. You’ll notice that the first verb is in the normal indicative mood, whereas it’s the second verb that’s in the subjunctive and that’s how it always is, which brings me to…
There are three requirements that usually must be met for the subjunctive to be needed. These are not always necessary, they’re more like “characteristics that are present 95% of the time”, but as this is an introductory article for people who have never delved into the subjunctive before, that’s good enough for our purposes. They are:
1. 2 different subjects
2. a relative pronoun (“que”, “como”, “cual”, “donde”, or “quien”)
3. 2 different verbs – the first will always be in the indicative and the second will always be in the subjunctive. The first verb will signal that the second verb needs to be in the subjunctive by the very nature of that first verb and the context it’s used in (it expresses emotion, doubt, etc.).
Clauses, there must be two of them (this is an automatic consequence of requiring 2 subjects).
Thank you, SpanishDict, for this; this is a brilliant little system they came up with for figuring out when you need to use the subjunctive. Like I said above in the third requirement: the first verb, which is almost always in the indicative, will tell you if the second verb needs to be in the subjunctive or not. As you already know, you’re looking for verbs that express emotion, uncertainty, desire, etc. Well, there’s a nifty little acronym you can use to help you remember all of these with ease. All you have to do is remember to look for W.E.I.R.D.O. verbs:
Wishes: This includes all wishes, wants, demands, desires, orders, expectations, and preferences. Examples include things like “Espero que me llame” which means “I hope that he calls me”, or “Todos quieren que vengas” which means “Everyone wants you to come.”
(note: all subjunctive verbs in these example sentences are bolded)
Verbs in this category that commonly indicate the need for the subjunctive to follow include mandar (to order), insistir (to insist), necesitar (to need), preferir (to prefer), querer (to want), desear (to wish or desire), pedir (to request), etc.
Emotions: Any time someone is expressing the fact that they’re annoyed, angry, happy, sad, scared, surprised, etc. you will almost always see the subjunctive used due to this being considered an expression of emotion. Examples include the above example I gave with the angry cat, or something like: “A Benny le molesta que la gente coma animales aunque ellos son muy sabrosos.” which means “It annoys Benny that people eat animals even though they are very tasty.”
Verbs that commonly fall into this category are alegrarse (to be glad), gustar (to like), encantar (to love in the sense of really liking something), lamentar (to regret), enojar (to be angry), sorprender (to surprise), temer (to fear), quejarse (to complain), and molestar (to annoy).
Impersonal expressions: These express someone’s opinion or judgment on something and are subjective in nature. Examples include things like “Es extraño que el gato esté volando” which means “It’s strange that the cat is flying”, or “Es bueno que hayas decidido darme todo tu dinero” which means “It’s good that you’ve decided to give me all your money.”
Common expressions in this category are things like “es agradable” (it’s nice), “es necesario” (it’s necessary), “es raro” (it’s rare), “no es cierto” (it’s not certain), “es increíble” (it’s incredible), “es malo” (it’s bad), etc.
Recommendations: Whenever someone is recommended, suggested, or told to do something, this falls into the recommendation category. Things like: “Mi doctor recomienda que no beba tanto vodka” which means “My doctor recommends that I not drink so much vodka”, or “Ellos sugieren que no juegues en el tráfico” which means “They suggest that you not play in traffic.”
Verbs commonly seen in this category include aconsejar (to advise), sugerir (to suggest), recomendar (to recommend), rogar (to beg), ordenar (to order), and proponer (to suggest or propose).
Doubt/Denial: Whenever someone wants to express doubt or denial, they use the subjunctive. Examples include things like: “Dudo que tengas un burro morado” which means “I doubt that you have a purple donkey” or perhaps “No creo que él diga la verdad sobre su coleccíon de arbolitos” which means “I don’t believe he’s telling the truth about his shrubbery collection.”
Verbs commonly used to express doubt include dudar (to doubt), creer (to believe), pensar (to think), negar (to deny), “no estar seguro” (to not be sure), suponer (to assume or suppose), etc.
Ojalá: “Ojalá” is an interesting word you’ll hear very frequently in Spanish, particularly Latin American Spanish, that has Arabic origins (“Oh Allah”) and essentially means something like “If only…” or “I hope to God…” or, basically, “I really hope…”, so you can see why it requires the subjunctive because it’s expressing a desire in a special sort of way. Examples include things like: “Ojalá que lleguen pronto las mujeres desnudas”, meaning “I hope to God the naked women arrive soon”, or “Ojalá que no me dispare en el culo” which means “I really hope he doesn’t shoot me in the ass”.
SpanishDict also did an excellent video on the subjunctive where they go through the W.E.I.R.D.O system if you’d like to have a look at that, it’s 2 parts and about 12 minutes long in total:
Can you now recognize the subjunctive when you hear it, immediately understand the meaning, and use it correctly yourself? No? May I make a suggestion?
Check out Glossika. They make courses that are mostly audio and have you repeat aloud sentences that are very carefully constructed to teach concepts such as the proper use of the subjunctive and the most commonly spoken vocabulary. It’s far more effective, in my opinion, at teaching you how to use correct Spanish grammar and syntax in spoken conversation (actual full-speed, natural speech) than workbooks or other methods I’ve tried (except a one-on-one tutor, nothing beats that). I’ve personally purchased their French and German courses for myself and been very pleased. For Spanish they offer both Spanish from Spain and Latin American (Mexican, specifically) Spanish.