Understanding the Spanish Present Subjunctive

The subjunctive in Spanish can be described as a “mood”. It is often hard for the student of Spanish to know when to use it. This article deals with the present tense, although there is commonality as to when the subjunctive is used in all its tenses.

Firstly, to explain what I mean about commonality, the subjunctive is used with certain types of verbs, of which there are seven categories:

1. Verbs that express a wish (for example, deseo que, quiero que)

2. Verbs that express doubt or uncertainty (for example, dudo que)

3. Verbs that express possibility or probability (for example, es possible que)

4. Verbs that negate facts (for example, no creo que)

5. Verbs that express feelings (for example, siento que)

6. Verbs that express necessity (for example, necesito que)

7. Verbs of advice (for example, aconsejo que)

Alternatively, it may be easier to remember the WEIRDO formula:

W – Wish, desire, E – Emotion, I – Impersonal expressions, R- Recommendations, D – Doubt, O – Ojal√° (meaning “hopefully”).

Secondly, the subjunctive is always used in the “negative imperative”. Also deemed as a “mood”, the imperative in the affirmative means, for instance, “Sit down”. In the negative, this changes rather obviously to “Don’t sit down”. The difference is that to express the imperative in the affirmative, we use the present indicative tense as our basis and change the endings to imperative ones accordingly. As the imperative is an “order”, it is generally used in the you informal forms in both the singular and the plural. If it goes into the negative, the present subjunctive is applied, as explained. Note that if you need the formal form of you (usted or ustedes), the subjunctive is used automatically.

Thirdly, the subjunctive is also used if there is a change of subject. Let me demonstrate this by example:

Yo quiero que ella haga la cena – I want her to make the dinner. This sentence includes a change of subject from “I” to “her” and thus we need the subjunctive. Note how we also have a verb of “wishing” (querer).

Compare this with:

Yo quiero hacer la cena – I want to make the dinner. There is no change of subject in this sentence, thus the conjugated verb can simply be followed by an infinitive (even though we are using a verb of “wishing”).

Fourth, there needs to be a subordinate clause followed by “que” for the subjunctive to be used (but only if we are using the type of verb out of the seven categories above).

No creo que ella sepa cocinar – I don’t believe she knows how to cook. This answers the question of “what”, i.e., you do not believe what? (Answer: that she knows how to cook). Therefore, the first part of the sentence is the subordinate clause and the second part the main clause. If, by contrast, you wanted to say that you did believe she knows how to cook, you would not use the subjunctive because no doubt is being expressed and whether or not there is a subordinate clause followed by “que” is immaterial.