Indicative vs. Subjunctive
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A Guide to the Spanish Indicative vs. Subjunctive

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Indicative vs. Subjunctive TW

At a certain point in your Spanish-learning journey, you come across the words ‘indicative’ and ‘subjunctive.’ In this lesson, we’ll investigate the difference between them!

Moods vs. Tenses

Okay, so when we’re learning languages, we often learn about tenses. Tenses tell you when something happens, e.g. present, future, past.

There’s another language concept to know about, and it’s called ‘mood.’ Mood is different from tense, because it’s less about time and more about the speaker’s attitude toward what they’re saying.

Spanish has three moods:

1. The indicative

There are lots of ways to use the indicative. The following is a list of all the tenses (when something happens) that we can use in the indicative.

You’ve probably seen most of them before, and we have learning materials for all of them!

2. The Spanish Subjunctive. This is split into two main forms:

  • Present subjunctive
  • Imperfect subjunctive

(There is a future subjunctive but it’s now pretty much extinct so don’t worry about it!)

3. Imperative. This is the mood used when giving commands.

The Spanish Indicative

Let’s start with the indicative, as it’s simpler than the subjunctive. A really simple rule is this: always use the indicative unless you spot a subjunctive trigger (which we’ll look at later). 

We use the indicative for facts, and things that are certain from the speaker’s point of view.

This could include:

  • Something that happened in the past.
  • An objective description of something (not an emotionally fuelled opinion of it).
  • An event that’s been scheduled and we know it will happen.

Don’t freak out; the indicative is the mood that you normally use without even thinking about it. Here are some examples using a variety of tenses, which you may well already know!

Bebo agua. (Present)I drink water.
Comiste mucho chocolate. (Preterite)You ate a lot of chocolate.
El concierto tendrá lugar mañana. (Future)The concert will take place tomorrow.
Hoy hemos visto dos leones y una cebra. (Perfect)Today we’ve seen two lions and a zebra.
Cocinábamos cuando sonó el teléfono. (Imperfect, preterite)We were cooking when the phone rang.
Tus padres harían cualquier cosa para ti. (Conditional)Your parents would do anything for you.

The Spanish Subjunctive

The subjunctive can be harder to get your head around, but it doesn’t have to be feared or avoided! To start with, you just need to know that there are certain situations and phrases that trigger it! 

If you’re new to this whole subjunctive thing, it’s best to learn the triggers, and practice often! If you’re more advanced, you might find that you’re sometimes able to just ~feel~ when the subjunctive is needed.

We use the subjunctive when we’re not talking about facts. It’s for passing subjective opinions, or talking about things that are possible but not certain. There’s a great acronym to help you remember the kinds of situations that require the subjunctive: UWEIRDO! 

Uuncertainty/possibility
Wwishes
Eemotions
Iimpersonal expressions
Rrecommendations
Ddoubts
Oojalá

For each letter, we’ve given you some examples. The bold word in each case is the verb that’s been put in the subjunctive.

Note that these phrases usually require:

  1. 1
    Two subjects.
  2. 2
    Two verbs.
  3. 3
    A relative pronoun, e.g. ‘que.’
  • Uncertainty/possibility

This applies when something is possible but not certain.

Es posible que no llegue la carta hoy.It’s possible that the letter won’t arrive today.
Es probable que Juan te pueda prestar dinero.It’s likely that Juan can lend you money.

One form of uncertainty is when the existence of something isn’t definite.

Busco a un chico que tiene ojos azules. (Indicative)I’m looking for a guy who has blue eyes. (A specific guy, e.g. a friend who definitely exists. He happens to have blue eyes.)
Busco un chico que tenga ojos azules. (Subjunctive)I’m looking for a guy who has blue eyes. (There may or may not exist an appropriate guy with blue eyes, but I want a guy and I want him to have blue eyes.)

No estoy de acuerdo con los que dicen eso. (Indicative)
I don’t agree with those who say that. (There are definitely people who say that. I don’t agree with them.)
No estoy de acuerdo con los que digan eso. (Subjunctive)I don’t agree with those who may say that. (There might be some people who say that. If there are, then I don’t agree with them.)

Another way we often use the subjunctive is when we’re talking about a hypothetical situation in the future. Even if we expect it to happen, there is still a level of uncertainty.

The word ‘cuando’ is a big clue that we might need the subjunctive.

Te daré un abrazo cuando vengas a mi fiesta.I’ll give you a hug when you come to my party. (I’m expecting you to come to the party, but I can’t be certain that you won’t change your plans.)
Salgo cuando haya terminado mis deberes.I’ll come out once I’ve finished my homework. (It’s unlikely but possible that I won’t get my homework done!)
  • Wishes

Use the subjunctive when talking about wishes, wants, and desires.

Quiero que vivas conmigo.I want you to live with me.
Espero que sepas lo especial que eres.I hope you know how special you are.

The exception to this is if the subject of both parts of the sentence is the same person. You don’t have to say, ‘Quiero que yo cocine.’ You can simply use the infinitive, and say, ‘Quiero cocinar.’

  • Emotions

The subjunctive is a great way to express when something makes you feel an emotion, for example when something annoys you, or makes you happy.

Me molesta que mastiques con la boca abierta.It annoys me that you chew with your mouth open.
Siento que no te pueda ayudar.*I’m sorry that I can’t help you.

*The construction ‘sentir que + subjunctive’ is a way of expressing apology.

  • Impersonal expressions

Impersonal expressions are for stating an observation or opinion. Instead of starting with any old verb conjugated to a specific person, we start with the verb ser in the third person singular.

Usually the sentence structure is: ‘es + adjective + que + subjunctive.’

Es malo que robes.It’s bad that you steal.
Es raro que Miguel no esté en clase.It’s weird that Miguel isn’t in class.
  • Recommendations

Often, when we recommend or suggest something, we’ll need the subjunctive.

Recomendamos que nuestros alumnos tomen tiempo para relajarse después de tanto estudiar.We recommend that our students take time to relax after so much studying.
El médico sugirió que yo comiera menos comida rápida.My doctor suggested that I eat less fast food.
  • Doubts

When you’re doubting, disbelieving, or denying something, you can use the subjunctive.

Dudo que Marco tenga tantos problemas que yo.I doubt that Marco has as many problems as me.
No creo que tu madre me acepte como yerno.I don’t think your mother accepts me as a son-in-law.
  • Ojalá

‘Ojalá’ is an interesting word that has its roots in Arabic. It would originally have meant something along the lines of ‘God willing’ but the religious connotation has now been more or less lost.

A decent translation for ‘ojalá’ is ‘hopefully.’

Ojalá aprueben sus exámenes.Hopefully they pass their exams.
¡Ojalá me toque la lotería!I hope I win the lottery!

Quiz

Time to see if you’ve started to wrap your head around this indicative/subjunctive business! For each sentence, simply decide whether we’ll need the indicative or subjunctive!

  1. I hate that I can’t get over you.

Click to Reveal Answer

Subjunctive—EMOTION.

    Odio que no pueda superarte.

  2. I went to the shop.

Click to Reveal Answer

    Answer: Indicative (preterite)

    Fui a la tienda.

  3. We’ll be able to go anywhere once I have my new car.

Click to Reveal Answer

    Answer: Subjunctive—UNCERTAINTY

    Podremos ir a cualquier lugar cuando tenga mi nuevo coche.

  4. I don’t think the rumors are true.

Click to Reveal Answer

    Answer: Subjunctive—DOUBT

    No creo que los rumores sean verdaderos.

  5. I have two dogs.

Click to Reveal Answer

    Answer: Indicative (present)

    Tengo dos perros.

  6. It’s good that Wendy is by your side.

Click to Reveal Answer

    Answer: Subjunctive—IMPERSONAL EXPRESSION

    Es bueno que Wendy esté a tu lado.

  7. I would call Flavia.

Click to Reveal Answer

    Answer: Indicative (conditional)

    Llamaría a Flavia.

  8. I hope that Julieta will marry me

Click to Reveal Answer

    Answer: Subjunctive—WISHES

    Espero que Julieta se case conmigo.

Phew!

If you’re new to the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive, then congrats for making it this far. If you’ve seen it before, then hopefully this has been valuable practice for you (¡ojalá!).

About the Author Annabel Beilby

Annabel is a language-enthusiast from the UK. She studied Spanish and French at the University of Southampton (with an Erasmus study year in Madrid!) and recently graduated. She has interests across the Spanish-speaking world, and is a fan of language in general.

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