How to Make the Spanish Subjunctive a Little More Relevant
I have written before about how to teach social justice through grammar lessons. Today’s lesson is on the subjunctive in Spanish. Most English speakers groan at the mention of the dreaded “subjunctive”, that elusive mood-not-tense that doesn’t seem to translate back into our language. Well, while on the one hand it is a whole new set of verb conjugations, the use of it isn’t actually so hard to grasp, especially if your teacher can find examples that are relevant to you (I’m trying!).
Mood not Tense
What do they mean that subjunctive is not a tense, it’s a mood? They mean that a subjunctive verb is used only when the speaker first expresses doubt, possibility, desire, a recommendation, a subjective opinion, or a hypothetical situation (in other words, things that are not guaranteed). There must be two verbs in the sentence and the first verb (or clause) must express one of those feelings or ideas; a subjunctive verb cannot be used on it’s own, it always comes later in the sentences after one of these moods is expressed*. Not quite getting it? The example sentences below should do the trick.
Present Subjunctive Conjugations
I’m assuming that most readers interested in the subjunctive will already know the present tense. So here’s the formula for the Present Subjunctive (yes, there’s a Past Subjunctive too but that’s for another lesson):
Present tense yo form – o + opposite endings
(AR verbs get the E endings, ER and IR verbs get the A endings)
Hablar = hablo – o + E endings (hable, hables, hable, hablemos, hablen)
Comer = como – o + A endings (coma, comas, coma, comamos, coman)
Decir = digo – o + A endings (diga, digas, diga, digamos, digan)
Pensar = Pienso – o + E endings (piense, pienses, piense, pensemos, piensen)
And, of course, the irregulars: Haber (haya, etc), Ir (vaya, etc), Saber (sepa, etc), Ser (sea, etc)
Example Social Justice Sentences
These are some of the example sentences I use with my students who are interested in social justice themes (I believe it’s so important to tweak grammar lessons so that they are relevant for your students). In the examples below, the words in bold are in present tense but express doubt, hypotheticals, etc. and the underlined verbs are the corresponding subjunctive conjugations which must be used in such sentences:
No creemos que los maestros ganen mucho dinero.
We don’t believe that the teachers earn a lot of money.
Dudo que resolvamos los problemas del mundo en una sola reunión.
I doubt we will solve the world’s problems in just one meeting.
Es posible que Santos gane la próxima elección en Colombia.
It is possible that Santos will win the next election in Colombia.
Es probable que participen en la manifestación.
It’s likely that they will participate in the protest.
Espero que la guerra termine pronto.
I hope the war ends soon.
Ojalá que haya comida vegetariana.
I hope there’s vegetarian food.
(The phrase “ojalá” means “I hope”. It comes from an Arabic phrase for “god willing”.)
Recomiendo que no compres este café porque no es orgánico.
I recommend you don’t buy that coffee because it’s not organic.
Los ambiendalistas sugieren que usemos menos petroleo.
Environmentalists suggest we use less oil.
Es triste que no haya suficiente comida para todos.
It’s sad that there isn’t enough food for everyone.
Es fantástico que defiendan los derechos humanos.
It’s fantastic that they stand up for human rights.
Tenemos miedo de que los conservadores ganen otra vez.
We are scared that the conservatives will win again.
Nos vemos cuando llegues a la oficina.
I’ll see you when you get to the office.
(Since you cannot guarantee that the person will ever get to the office, it’s a hypothetical situation).
A key exception to the subjunctive rule is that it’s not used with pensar or creer in the affirmative:
Pienso que eres muy inteligente (but: no pienso que sepan la verdad)
I think you are very intelligent (but: I don’t think that they know the truth)
Also, the Present Subjunctive is never used in “si clauses” or “if statements” (e.g. If I have time, I will call him), even though these are hypothetical situations.
Subjunctive as Hippy?
I hope that was helpful! If you’re still confused, check out the Notes in Spanish Super-Simple Spanish Subjunctive Rule Book, where they liken the subjunctive to a “hippy, lodging happily in a world of unreality and uncertainty”!
* You might know there are some common subjunctive phrases in Spanish that simply start with “que”, for example “que tengas un buen día” / “have a good day” but this phrases is short for “espero que tengas un buen día” / “I hope that you have a good day”. This is the same pattern in the second part of the photo caption above.