Subjuntivo: Who is that WEIRDO?

By Sergio Trujillo May 12, 2023
Photo from Unsplash

El subjuntivo (the subjunctive) is an often problematic grammar point for Spanish learners. In this guide, we will help you with its most basic uses.

If you have studied Spanish long enough, you might have already heard about the subjuntivo and how difficult it can be, not only to learn it but to put it into practice, and also to get used to it. If you have not yet gotten there, you need to know that it is an alternative verbal mood that changes how verbs are conjugated and that it makes some Spanish students struggle with their learning process.

Because we know it’s not easy to understand, we have prepared this basic guide. In this article, we will share why native speakers of Spanish need to use the subjuntivo, how to conjugate it, and its most basic uses. If you already know how it works and only need a refresher, you can skip the next subtitle and go directly to our explanation of the W.E.I.R.D.O acronym; if you don’t, let us introduce you to what it is with the next metaphor.

What is the Subjuntivo for native speakers?

Imagine you are in a long hall and the only object you have in your hands is a laser pointer. You are required to complete one single task: to “poke” one of your friends with the beam of the pointer. However, there are three conditions: first, your friend is not in sight since they are around the corner of the hall; second, you are not allowed to move from where you are standing; third, you can ask for any tool to be brought in to complete your task. Think for a moment about what you would do in this situation.

Have you already figured out the answer? There can be many options, but the most useful object in this situation would be a mirror. With a mirror slightly turned on one side, you could reflect the beam to reach your friend around the corner.

This metaphor depicts how the subjuntivo works in Spanish. Normally, when we want to create a statement that is all about the same subject, we don’t need to modify anything. For example, we can say “quiero comer arepas” (I want to eat arepas) with the second verb in infinitive because the phrase is about the same person. In other words, it would be like saying “yo quiero” (I want) and “yo como arepas” (I eat arepas). Basically, we’re pointing the beam to ourselves, so we don’t need to do anything special.

But things change when we use different subjects for the two sentences of a statement, like in “I want you to eat arepas”. The beam can’t reach the other subject by itself, so we need a mirror: something that allows us to reflect the light. That mirror is the word “que”, which helps us to introduce a subordinate clause – a sentence that cannot exist by itself- just like the reflection of the beam cannot exist without the mirror. So far, we can say “(yo) quiero que…”

Now it’s time to include that subordinate clause (or the reflected beam). As everyone knows, looking at text in a mirror makes you see the letters flipped that’s the place where the Subjuntivo should be. The Subjuntivo is composed of “flipped words”: mirrored pictures of words we already know. 

“Vivas” would be the “flipped” version of “vives”. Source: AI generated on OpenAI.

How are they “flipped”? Basically, -AR verbs are conjugated like -ER verbs, and -ER and -IR verbs are conjugated like -AR verbs, thus:

PronounCaminar (indicative)Caminar (subjunctive)
PronounComer (indicative)Comer (subjunctive)

Irregular verbs follow the pattern of the ‘Yo’ conjugation. For example, in the case of the verb ‘conducir’, its ‘yo’ conjugation is “yo conduzco”, so it’s conjugation in Subjuntivo is “yo conduzca”, “tú conduzcas”, “él conduzca”, etc.

In a sentence like “I want you to eat arepas”, the translation would be “(yo) quiero que (tú) comas arepas”. The subjuntivo is used in the second part of the statement because it is a verbal mood that depends on other ideas to exist (just like the reflected beam that requires a mirror to reach its target).

This is the basic explanation we need to understand the subjunctive. Most of the time, we will use it in subordinate clauses (those that start with ‘que’) although it doesn’t happen 100% of the time because there are exceptions.

Was this explanation weird to you? Let’s use that idea to explain the 6 most basic uses of the subjuntivo with the W.E.I.R.D.O. acronym: Wishes, Emotions, Impersonal Expressions, Requests, Doubt and Denial, Ojalá [perhaps, perhaps, perhaps].

To express W: Wishes

Every time you wish for someone else to get or achieve something, two useful verbs we can use in Spanish are ‘esperar’ (to hope, to expect, or to wait), and ‘desear’ (to wish). For example:

  • Espero conseguir el trabajo (I hope I get the job). No subjunctive.
  • Espero que consigas el trabajo (I hope you get the job). Subjunctive.
  • Mi mamá espera casarse pronto (My mom expects to get married soon). No subjunctive.
  • Mi mamá espera que me case pronto (My mom expects me to get married soon). Subjunctive.

That is the normal way of making sentences but native speakers often omit the first part when wishing good things to other people. This means they don’t say “espero…” because it’s implied in the phrase. Let’s see some examples:

  • ¡Espero que te vaya bien en el examen! (I hope you do well in the exam)
  • ¡Espero que tengas un buen día! (I hope you have a good day).
  • Espero que todo salga bien con la cirugía (I hope everything goes well with your surgery).
Wishing something for a friend? Use W.E.I.R.D.O! Source: Unsplash.

E is for Emotions

When we describe how other people’s actions affect our feelings we are talking about emotions. The list is huge, but we’ll use three verbs/expressions to show how it works: ‘me gusta’ (I like), ‘me pone triste’ (it makes me sad), and ‘odio/detesto’ (I hate).

  • Me gusta viajar (I like traveling). No subjunctive.
  • A mi papá le gusta que yo viaje (My dad likes it when I travel). Subjunctive.
  • Me pone triste no tener amigos (It makes me sad not having friends). No subjunctive.
  • Me pone triste que mi primo no tenga amigos (It makes me sad that my cousin has no friends). Subjunctive.
  • Mi esposo odia usar camisas (My husband hates wearing shirts). No subjunctive.
  • Mi esposo odia que yo use camisas (My husband hates it when I wear shirts). Subjunctive.

I: Impersonal Expressions

Actions described by using the expressions ‘es’, ‘está’ or ‘qué’ [for exclamatory sentences]. When we don’t specify who does those actions, we only need to use the infinitive form, but when we want to say who exactly performs the  action, the subjunctive is required.

  • Es molesto no tener trabajo estable (it’s annoying not to have a stable job). No subjunctive.
  • Es molesto que yo no tenga trabajo estable (it’s annoying that I don’t have a stable job). Subjunctive.
  • Qué chévere poder viajar todos los meses (how cool it is to be able to travel every month). No subjunctive.
  • Qué chévere que puedas viajar todos los meses (how cool it is that you can travel every month). Subjunctive.
  • Está difícil jugar fútbol mañana (It’s hard/unlikely playing football tomorrow) No subjunctive.
  • Está difícil que juguemos fútbol mañana (It’s hard/unlikely that we play football tomorrow). Subjunctive.

It’s important to notice that we are describing the fact of an action happening (either real or not), not how it is WHEN it happens. If we want to describe an action that happens frequently, we don’t need the subjunctive:

  • Es bueno cuando vienes a verme (it feels good when you come to see me).

R: Recommendations/Requests

In this case we want or command other people to do something. In these examples, we’ll use four verbs: ‘querer’ (to want), ‘necesitar’ (to need), ‘recomendar’(to recommend), and ‘pedir’ (ask for something).

  • No quiero venir mañana (I don’t want to come tomorrow). No subjunctive.
  • No quiero que vengas mañana (I don’t want you to come tomorrow).  Subjunctive.
  • Ellos necesitan ganar más dinero (They need to earn more money). No subjunctive.
  • Ellos necesitan que ustedes ganen más dinero (They need you to earn more money).  Subjunctive.

Some verbs that can be used with indirect object pronouns such as ‘le’, situations when we can replace the subjunctive with an infinitive form.

  • El doctor me recomienda dormir más (The doctor recommends me to sleep more). No subjunctive.
  • El doctor recomienda que yo duerma más (The recommends that I sleep more). Subjunctive.
  • Yo le pido a mi novia recogerme del trabajo (I ask my girlfriend to pick me up from work). No subjunctive.
  • Yo le pido a mi novia que me recoja del trabajo (I ask my girlfriend to pick me up from work). Subjunctive.

D: Doubt and denial

With ‘doubt and denial’ we are not changing subjects anymore. In this case, we use the subjunctive when we are not sure enough about what we are saying or we are directly saying something is not true. In these examples we are going to use four expressions: ‘estoy seguro/a de que…’ (I’m sure that…), ‘no creo que…’ (I don’t think that…), ‘es verdad que…’ (it’s true that…), ‘es falso que…’ (it’s false that…).

  • Estoy seguro de que el próximo año será mejor (I’m sure next year will be better). No subjunctive.
  • No creo que el próximo año sea mejor (I don’t think next year will be better).  Subjunctive.
  • Es verdad que tenemos poco tiempo (It’s true we have little time). No subjunctive.
  • Es falso que tengamos poco tiempo (It’s false we have little time).  Subjuntivo.

Some expressions might sound like we need to use the infinitive as they talk about things that are likely to happen. However, sometimes they are not “likely enough” for the infinitive to be used. For example:

  • Es probable que vayamos a Cartagena este año. (It’s likely we (will) go to Cartagena this year). This expression is not probable enough, so we use the subjunctive.

O: Ojalá

Ojalá is a word with an Arabic etymology. Its original meaning is “if god wills”, but nowadays is used in Spanish with the sense of “I wish”, “I hope”, “we hope” or “hopefully”. It’s an impersonal expression that indicates the wish for something to happen. The subjunctive is required:

  • ¡Ojalá gane la lotería! (I hope I win the lottery!)
  • ¡Ojalá me convierta en ingeniero! (I hope I become an engineer!)
  • Ojalá este alcalde no sea malo (Hopefully, this mayor won’t be bad).

Let’s practice!

If you´ve come all the way down here, it means that it’s time to practice what you know about subjunctive. Please post your suggested translation of the following statements in the comments section. We are sure our readers will help one another correct any mistakes:

  1. I hope you finish that course soon!
  2. I hope you have fun.
  3. It’s good to have a friend in the company.
  4. It’s stupid that I have to do all this paperwork!
  5. I don’t think it’s that easy.
  6. She is recommending me to wait for the doctor´s answer.
  7. I don’t want to go there!
  8. It’s impossible that you get so much money!
  9. It’s true that Bogota doesn´t have a metro!
  10. María doubts that it is going to rain on Friday.
  11. Mom doesn’t like it when I visit my friend Pedro.
  12. I hate that men always try to flirt with me.
  13. It’s bad that my car needs fixing.