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The past subjunctive of -er, -ir and irregular verbs

Spanish verbs that aren't regular -ar verbs don't form their past subjunctive based on the -ara ending. Instead, their form is based on the ending -iera, as follows:

  • use the stem that you would use for the él/ella form of the preterite;
  • add the ending -iera;
  • add regular person endings (giving -ieras, -ierais etc).

Why specifically the third-person (él/ella) form of the stem? Well, it turns out that the past subjunctive always includes alterations that can occur in the stem of the preterite, such as e changing to i:

seguir >  siguió (preterite) > siguiera (past subjunctive).
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In other words, to correctly form the past subjunctive, it is important to be completely familiar with how to form the preterite!

Example past subjunctive forms

The following table spells out in full the past subjunctive forms of various Spanish verbs. For reference, the first line shows the yo and él/ella forms of the preterite. The irregularities underlined are carried through to the past subjunctive. Viz:

  • if the stem is irregular per se (e.g. poner > puse), then the past subjunctive is based on that irregular stem;
  • if the stem has a (semi-)irregularity in the third person form (seguir > siguió), then that is also carried through to the past subjunctive.

Past subjunctive forms of various non-ar verbs
(preterite forms) (yo) comí
(él/ella) comió
(yo) partí
(él/ella) partió
(yo) seguí
(él/ella) siguió
(yo) tuve
(él/ella) tuvo
(yo) puse
(él/ella) puso
nosotros, -ascomiéramospartiéramossiguiéramostuviéramospusiéramos
vosotros, -ascomieraispartieraissiguieraistuvieraispusierais

Preterites with no i in the ending (produjo, oyó etc)

A handful of verbs have a further slight irregularity in the él/ella form of the preterite, in that the ending does not start with i. Depending on whether it is stressed, the ending can be -o (as in produjo) or (as in oír > oyó)1. And the verb ser has -e as in fue.

In general, this irregularity is carried over into the past subjunctive:

When the 3rd person preterite ending has no i, neither does the past subjunctive: the ending becomes era, eras etc.

So this gives past subjunctive forms such as the following:

oír :oyera, oyeras etc
producir :produjera, produjeras etc
ser :fuera, fueras etc
ceñir:ciñera, ciñeras etc

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Next: when to use the past subjunctive?

On the next page, we look at when to use the past subjunctive in Spanish.

1. Technical note: of course, I'm presenting things slightly from the point of view of the spelling here, and some of the "irregularities" we see are arguably just artefacts of the spelling system. Taking a fairly derivational view of Spanish phonology, and positing that ñ is /nj/ underlyingly, then we can argue that a form such as ciñera comes about from the elimination of the duplicate /j/ in /sinj/ + /jera/. Similarly, we can argue that oyó and oyera underlyingly regular: /o/ + /jo/, /o/ + /jera/, so are completely regular.

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