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Subjunctive forms in Spanish

Many European languages, including Spanish, have special verb forms called subjunctive forms.

Subjunctive forms generally take a snapshot of an imagined situation rather than saying that something actually takes place.

It's a bit like when in English we say use such as the following:

him doing the washing up
Daniel arriving late
the TV breaking down
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In these phrases, it's as though we're not actually stating that something happened or will happen, but we're "imagining" or "taking a snapshot" of it happening1. Technically, we might say that we are using a verb phrase in place of a noun phrase. In languages such as Spanish, instead of using a construction like these, a special form of the verb is used.

Example: what does the subjunctive look like?

In Spanish, this "snapshotting" function is generally carried out by using a subjunctive verb form. As an example in Spanish, let's look at how to say "I'm worried about the TV breaking down". (For simplicity, we will stick to the present subjunctive here. Spanish actually distinguishes between present and past subjunctive.) In English, the TV breaking down is one of those "snapshot" phrases. In Spanish, we'd use the verb meaning to break down, but in the subjunctive. A common Spanish verb for to break down is descomponerse. Here is what the sentence looks like:

tengomiedodequese descompongala tele
I havefearofthatbreak-down-SUBJUNCTIVEthe TV

"I'm worried about the TV breaking down"

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Notice the verb form se descomponga. The verb descomponer(se) works like poner. So the normal present tense would have been se descompone (like pone "he/she puts"). Here, we see at least three features of the subjunctive:

  • the word que is placed before the subjunctive verb (and any preceding pronoun such as se);
  • normally, the form with ng, would be the yo form (compare pongo), but here the he/she/it form is based on the stem of the yo form;
  • normally, -a is the ending for an -ar verb, but the subjunctive form uses it even though (descom)poner isn't an -ar verb.

As we'll see later, these features turn out to be fairly typical.

English doesn't have subjunctive verb forms (though Old English did). Instead, English has developed other constructions that carry out this "snapshot" function, such as the X -ing Y construction.

Do you need to learn the subjunctive?

The subjunctive is a very ordinary verb form used in lots of everyday sentences. The subjunctive in itself is not an "advanced" or "formal" construction. Subjunctive verb forms generally come naturally to native Spanish speakers, and even speakers who might not be considered very "literate" use subjunctives in all sorts of boring, everyday sentences. For example, subjunctive verb forms would typically be used in Spanish to express the underlined parts of these sentences:

I asked him to do it
he wants Juan to come
I'll do it when he gets back
do you think he's coming?
don't interrupt!
I hope he's OK
hope you have a good time!
I brought it so you could see it
we need a book that explains it better
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As you can see, these are really quite ordinary sentences that occur fairly frequently in day-to-day conversation. If you don't learn the subjunctive, that means you won't be able to express (correctly) these and other very common types of sentence.

That said, before starting to learn the subjunctive forms, it is recommended that you make sure you're quite familiar with the ordinary (indicative) present tense forms, because the subjunctive is based on these.

How to start learning the subjunctive

On the following pages, you'll be able to start learning and practising the subjunctive as follows:

1. In technical terms, linguists sometimes say that the subjunctive lacks assertive force: compared to non-subjunctive verb forms, it serves less to assert that something happens. Non-assertion also includes presupposing that a situation occurs. For example if we say "Daniel arriving late annoyed me", we presuppose (i.e. assume it is shared knowledge between speaker and listener) that Daniel actually did arrive late.

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