Lesson 1: What is the Subjunctive?
The Spanish subjunctive is the nemesis of Spanish students the world over. Especially English speaking students, (somewhat because we don’t have a good reference to understanding what it is).
Let us tell you in layman’s terms what it is here:
A set of Spanish tenses (known as a mood) used to express uncertainty, non-factual sentiments, feelings etc. and (importantly) usually references more than 1 subject
How to think about the subjunctive (two visualization exercises)
The first key to learning the subjunctive is understanding why you would ever use it in the first place. Beyond learning how to conjugate or specific rules, first we want you to have a good general understanding of the entire point of the subjunctive. It can help you if, eventually, intuitively you understand why you would use the subjunctive in one situation vs another.
Here’s the first exercise to get you in the mindset of how to use the subjunctive:
The Scientist vs The Dreamer/Hippy
In this dramatization, imagine a kind of stereotype of a scientist. This scientist cares about cold, hard facts. She also cares about observable things in nature, things as they actually are and how we can describe them. She will talk about the things they can be (relatively) certain, things not really in doubt and that are rooted in reality. When doing her experiments she measures things and talks about what she sees, objectively. Now, she may describe things that happened the past, or are happening now, or will (certainly) happen in the future. Here are some examples of ‘sciency’ talk.
Every morning I eat breakfast
She has brown hair and blue eyes
They like to read
He wasn’t home when we stopped by his house
The shirt is too big
I will go to Spain in July
I went to New York last year
On the contrary, now imagine what we might refer to as a dreamer. A dreamer is all about feelings, emotions and hypothetical or imaginary situations. Maybe you picture a hippy type or a mystic. Someone who deals in hypotheticals and imagination or prognosticates or predicts an uncertain future. He cares about things that would, could or might happen, as well as wishes, hopes and dreams for the future or what could have been in the past.
I will try to eat breakfast every morning
I wish that she had red hair and green eyes
I would have like to read more as a child
When I stop by, he probably won’t be home
We’re not saying one way is better than the other, and these are clearly over dramatazations of characatures of people to make a point. But this should help you intuitively understand, when you talk ‘like a scientist’, you’ll use the indicative. When you talk ‘like a dreamer’, you’ll use the subjunctive.
The Land of the Real World vs The Land of Make Believe
Alternatively, study the image below. Seeing a similar drawing to this is what first clicked for me what the subjunctive was about. It’s almost like living in two different worlds. The first world is the one of certainty, stability, seriousness. The other is sort-of the land of make-believe. And when you’re in the first world, you use the indicative (present tense, past tense, conditional tense, future tense etc).
When you’re in the land of make believe, you use the subjuncitve (the subjuntive present tense, subjunctive past tense, subjunctive conditional, subjunctive future etc.
Express facts / objective statements
To give orders/commands
Vives in españa
¡Vivas en españa! Es bonita.
Dudo que vivas en españa. No vives en Francia?
The subjunctive in English
The subjunctive in English exists, but it’s not quite the same as how it’s used in Spanish and other romance languages. While the English uses the subjunctive, most native speakers don’t notice it since the conjugation is almost imperceptible. English indicative: She lives in Spain Subjunctive: They suggested that she live in Spain