Spanish Subjunctive Mood

Somewhere along the line I developed a fear of the Spanish subjunctive, and I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it was a well-meaning teacher who indicated that the subjunctive would be too difficult for me to learn (at least at that point), or perhaps it was fellow Spanish learners who had ventured into the subjunctive mood and came away feeling bloodied and confused, or it could be that I developed this fear through a combination of factors. After that my fear morphed into rejection, and I rationalized my rejection of the subjunctive by believing that I could get along fine without it, and besides, I still had a long way to go before I mastered the tenses in the indicative mood so why should I muddy up the waters with the subjunctive mood?

However, while studying the subjunctive mood recently I experienced a revelation. It occurred to me that one of the main reasons I was resisting this aspect of Spanish is because I considered it an aberration, that the real world is the world of the indicative mood, and that somebody, somewhere, at sometime bastardized the Spanish language by adding the subjunctive in order to confuse us Spanish language learners. Moreover, instead of really thinking through how this new subjunctive mood could be properly represented in the language, these unknown Spanish language creators took a bad shortcut and just flipped around the verb endings … thus the ER/IR verbs would be given AR verb endings in the subjunctive mood, and the AR verbs would be given ER/IR verb endings in the subjunctive mood. As a result, it’s a miracle that anyone continued speaking Spanish, for surely the Spanish language should have died through its penchant for creating confusion.

But then I thought … what if the subjunctive mood came first? I mean, how much certainty (indicative mood) is there really in this transitory world (subjunctive mood)? In fact, the older I get, the less I make definitive statements about what is (indicative mood) … and instead I find myself talking more about hopes and feelings and possibilities (subjunctive mood). So, I no longer think of the subjunctive mood as an aberration, as an afterthought, as something I HAVE to force myself to learn, but instead I think of it as an integral and genius dimension of the language, as something that will allow me to better express myself and to better color the world. How’s that for a change of attitude?

Think of the subjunctive as the last frontier, and the best way to learn the subjunctive mood is to begin by believing that it is the richest part of the language, and then endeavor to spend as much time as possible living in this rich subjunctive world. No more indicative!!! The indicative is bland, elementary, limited, factual … I am richer than that! I AM the subjunctive!!!!!!!!!!!

Okay, enough hyperbole for today … below are some things to consider when wading into the subjunctive.

Most Spanish teachers and resources lead you into the subjunctive by teaching you the command forms of the imperative mood, and I agree with this approach because you learn the subjunctive endings without having to worry about tenses and the element of time. The only time frame in a command is NOW, as in “Run!” or “Sit down!” or “Tell us!” right now. However, this is where the sense of overwhelm can begin that discourages Spanish learners from moving on to the subjunctive, and what I am referring to is the challenge of learning ALL of the command forms. It’s a lot to have to learn that verb endings in the command forms are the opposite of what you learned up to this point in the tenses of the indicative mood, for example the statement “él habla” (he speaks) becomes the command “¡Hable!” when you are telling him to “¡Speak!” An AR verb such as hablar takes the ER/IR verb endings in the imperative mood — how confusing! As a result, I have some suggestions for limiting the confusion and reducing the amount of new endings to learn — you can always go back later and learn what you skipped — and here are my suggestions:

Skip the affirmative tú commands (which don’t follow the pattern of the other commands) but learn the negative tú commands. Thus … ¡No hables! … ¡No comas! … ¡No escribas! … ¡No abras la puerta!

Skip both the affirmative and negative vosotros commands since you probably won’t be issuing any commands to close friends of yours from Spain any time soon, and because these commands also don’t follow the pattern of the other commands.

Okay, here is another suggestion I have for learning the subjunctive. Don’t try to memorize the 8 categories that Spanish grammarians use to describe situations where the subjunctive is used, but instead focus on the verbs and words that trigger the use of the subjunctive. (I remember trying like hell to learn the accent rules for Spanish, but they never stuck in my head, and eventually I realized that I learned how to say Spanish words simply by hearing them and saying them). Thus, the arbitrary categories of Desire, Ignorance, Emotional Statement, Impersonal Opinion, Uncompleted Action, Indefinite Antecedent (whatever the hell that means), etc., never stuck in my head and don’t do me any good. Instead, learn the verbs and words and feelings that trigger the subjunctive, such as:

I hope that … He prefers that … You think that … We suggest that … They doubt that … I don’t suppose that … María is not sure that … It doesn’t seem possible that … It’s fantastic that … It is better that … It may be that … It’s ridiculous that … Unless that (a menos que) … So that (para que) … Before (antes de que) … After (despues de que) … In case (en caso de que) … While (mientras que) … Even if (aunque) … and any way you say Perhaps and Maybe (tal vez, quizás, etc.).

Que is King in the subjunctive. Notice that the word “that” is that which appears throughout that paragraph that is just above the one that I am writing now. Often times you can leave the word “that” out of an English sentence and still say the same thing, for example “I hope that you speak Spanish” can just as easily be said “I hope you speak Spanish.” However, the Spanish word Que as “that” is not optional in Spanish … it must be used when expressing the subjunctive mood. Thus, in Spanish when you have a main clause in the indicative mood which expresses uncertainly followed by Que (e.g., Espero que, Él prefiere que, María no está segura de que, Es preferible que, etc.), you should immediately expect to see a verb in the subjunctive. Espero que ellos hablen español. Es fantástico que usted coma vegetales. Ella quiere que vivamos en una isla. Remember, Que is King in the subjunctive … and THAT is no bull.

This email message is not intended to be a thorough review of the subjunctive, but instead I simply want to share with you a few things I have distilled thus far in the hope that they are helpful. “Distilled” is the key word here since just about every Spanish resource you will find will necessarily be compelled to cover the entire topic. With that in mind, I have one last tip I will share related to the Spanish subjunctive … and that is, memorize the following 3 “if” scenarios:

Present tense, future tense.
Past tense, conditional tense.
Past perfect tense, conditional perfect tense.

Now I will give you some examples of these … and I am giving you these in English to keep it as simple as possible, and because when you are starting to learn the subjunctive it is essential that you are clear on which tenses you should use in these 3 scenarios. These are combinations of tenses that we use all the time while speaking English without even thinking about it, and the great news is that the Spanish subjunctive is identical grammatically to English in this regard. Just trust me on this and memorize these 3 combinations of tenses.

If John comes, she will tell him the truth.
If John came, she would tell him the truth.
If John had come, she would have told him the truth.

If you make cakes, my friends will eat them.
If you made cakes, my friends would eat them.
If you had made cakes, my friends would have eaten them.

If she sees a fish, she will scream.
If she saw a fish, she would scream.
If she had seen a fish, she would have screamed.

The first scenario is a present tense clause followed by a future tense clause. (Note – there is no subjunctive in this first scenario, but it sets up the next two scenarios which do contain the subjunctive).

The second scenario is a past tense clause followed by a conditional tense clause. I got confused on this one because often we don’t speak proper English (and who would have thunk that?) … so just remember that the first part is indeed a PAST tense clause. Thus, in English we should say “If she saw a fish (past tense), she would scream (conditional tense).”

The third scenario is a past perfect clause followed by a conditional perfect clause. The past perfect is action that starts in the past AND ends in the past, and it is formed with the helping verb “to have” followed by the past participle, for example: I had studied. We had eaten. They had washed. So, it is common for us to talk about if something had happened (past perfect) then what we would have done (conditional perfect).

If you are still reading this message — congratulations! — and if so, I expect that you are (1) a serious Spanish student, (2) a good friend of mine, or (3) someone that doesn’t have much else to do. I sure hope I am keeping this grammar straight. In any case, I would like to conclude this message by sharing a video with you.

This video is probably the MOST PITIFUL DISPLAY OF THE SPANISH SUBJUNCTIVE YOU WILL EVER SEE. One way to improve your Spanish is to record a video of yourself speaking Spanish at your current level, and then announce a specific language goal to be achieved by a certain date. Then you record another video on the target date to show the world that you achieved your goal. This is a great exercise in transparency and accountability. Currently I am at level B1 or B2 on the widely used CEFR scale, which means that I have reached the intermediate level in my understanding of Spanish. My goal for 2013 is to reach the C1 level, which will mean that I will be considered an advanced learner of Spanish. (The scale tops out at C2, and when you master the C2 level you can be considered “fluent,” whatever that means). In order to reach the C1 level, I have to master the Spanish subjunctive. This is an area of Spanish that intimidates many Spanish learners, and many give up on progressing into the subjunctive mood because they think it is too hard, or they reason that they have learned enough Spanish to get by … and it’s true, as an intermediate Spanish speaker you can go into a Spanish speaking country and do all sorts of things and have lots of wonderful conversations in Spanish, however you will never experience the richest and most profound aspects of the language and culture if you are content to stay at intermediate level. Besides, there is nothing about the Spanish subjunctive mood that is too gnarly or scary or whatever, for it is just one more thing that can be learned with study and practice. So, I have recorded this video to make myself accountable to you, to me, and to the world. Dr. Tom Regele, excelente Spanish professor at Montana State University (Billings), kindly sat with me to do this video and test me on my current ability to use the Spanish subjunctive. I am almost too embarrassed to show you this … I was busy with other things and did not prepare properly … I got on camera and my mind froze … I was hesitant and confused and grasping for the correct Spanish to say, and with nowhere to hide I kept repeating myself and losing track of what Dr. Tom had asked me … I think I may have used the subjunctive mood correctly only one time during the video, that being at the very end. BITCH. MOAN. COMPLAIN. EXCUSES. The nice thing about this video is that my Spanish performance is so bad that you will be AMAZED when you see the follow-up video that we record sometime in 2014. So here I am, naked and confused for all the world to see … but I’ll be BACK!