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When to use the past subjunctive

As mentioned in the introduction, many uses of the past subjunctive fall into one of two categories:

  • straightforward cases of a syntactical need for a subjunctive combined with a past time frame;
  • a time reference of hypothetical rather than actual "pastness".

(1) Past subjunctive = subjunctive + past

Many uses of the past subjunctive are straightforward cases where the subjunctive is used, combined with the fact that the time frame of the subordinate clause is "logically in the past". A common, but not necessary, case is that the main clause is situated in the past. The "action" in the subordinate clause may be seen as happening at the same time or after the action in the main clause (just as is the case when both verbs are in the present tense):

no había nadie que me pudiera ayudar
"there was nobody who could help me"
dudaba que lo pudieran hacer tan rápido
"he doubted that they could do it so quickly"
tuve que salir antes de que llegara
"I had to leave before he arrived"
le presté mi máquina para que terminara1 el documento
"I lent him my computer so he could finish the document"
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However, if the logic of the sentence requires, it's perfectly possible to have a main clause in the present tense and still have the subordinate clause in the imperfect subjunctive:

dudo que lo hiciera tan rápido
"I doubt he did it so quickly"
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Indeed, on rare occasions it's just about possible to have te main verb in the future or at least periphrastic future (the ir a + infinitive construction) and have the subordinate verb in the past subjunctive:

?no le va a gustar que no quisieras venir
"he won't like the fact that you didn't want to come"
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These examples show that in general, the choice of present vs past subjunctive follows the logic of the sentence. There's certainly no requirement for "subjunctive tense X because the main verb is tense Y" as is sometimes dictated in sequence of tenses analyses.

When the main verb is in the conditional

A slight difficulty arises when the main verb is in the conditional (when it is arguably neither "present" nor "past"). In this case, there is a tendency for the past subjunctive unless the time frame is "strongly present", in which case either past or present subjunctive seem possible: For example, vengas sounds odd in the first of these cases, but is acceptable in the second:

me gustaría que ??vengas/vinieras este fin de semana
I'd like you to come this weekend
me gustaría que vengas/vinieras ahora
I'd like you to come now
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(2) Past subjunctive with a hypothetical time frame

In English, the past tense can be used to denote a "hypothetical" point in time rather than a real point in the past. In this usage, it is generally used in an if clause. For example:

if I ever won the lottery, I'd donate the money to charity
if I had more time, I'd do my shopping at the market
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As mentioned in our introduction to the past subjunctive, in Spanish, the past subjunctive generally carries this "hypothetical" role inside a si clause:

si tuviera más tiempo...
"if I had more time..."
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However, past indicative forms are used with si to describe not a "hypothetical" event, but an event that actually did occur. In this sense, if with the imperfect tense in Spanish is often interchangeable with whenever and a past tense in English. Contrast in particular the first two of these examples:

si tuviera hambre, comería este pastel
"if I was hungry, I'd eat this cake"
(talking about a hypothetical condition)
cuando era niño, si tenía hambre, comía pastel
"when I was a child, if/whenever I was hungry, I'd eat (=used to eat) cake"
(talking about an actual event that occurred in the past)
si compré esta computadora, fue para trabajar
="the reason I bought this computer was for doing work on it"
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In the last case, the usage of si is similar to English although ("although I bought this computer..."), but the most idiomatic translation is often with a phrase such as "the reason that...".

1. Although terminara appears the more usual form, the present subjunctive termine would also be possible in this case, with a slight but subtle difference in interpretation. In para que termine, the emphasis is more on the fact that the person might still be finishing the document; in para que terminara, the emphasis is more on the fact that from that moment in the past, the person was going to finish the document.

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