April 28, 2010 | Spanish

Subjunctive Speculations

I consider some urgent grammatical issues.

I have been pondering some subjunctive issues and questions in Spanish—and also in English.

For native speakers of English, subjunctive is a tricky thing. Although in Englishes of the past, subjunctive was more common, its relevance for modern English is pretty minimal. You don’t tend to learn about it in school unless you are studying a foreign language, and most native speakers—including me—have difficulty talking about it in English grammar.

Me Studying on My Favorite Grammar-Friendly Sofa

So, here’s my first subjunctive issue: in my Dorothy Richmond book, Spanish Verb Tenses, she writes, “In every subjunctive sentence…there is always some aspect of uncertainty—something that is not known or not controllable.” As an example of a subjunctive sentence, she offers, “I hope that you speak Spanish.”

She continues: “The second clause of this sentence is in the subjunctive, because the speaker does not know that you speak Spanish and is not reporting that you do.”

I have seen this kind of thing before. Why would you consider the verb speak subjunctive in English? In Spanish, it is clearly subjunctive (Espero que hables español). But not in English. (At least not 21st-century English. I think this construction, or similar ones at least, cued subjunctive in past eras, but I’m not sure.)

In any case, compare these two sentences:

  • I hope that he speaks English.
  • I insist that he speak English.

I picked third-person singular so that the subjunctive would be obvious, since indicative and subjunctive forms are the same for most conjugations in English. (Which is another reason people don’t talk much about subjunctive in English.)

The second sentence shows subjunctive. The third-person singular indicative of “to speak” is “speaks,” but here we instead have “speak” because of the influence of the verb “insist.” In the first sentence, however, we use indicative: “speaks.” Both of these sentences would have to be subjunctive in Spanish, but only the second shows subjunctive in English.


My next subjunctive issue concerns literary possibilities rather than grammar. On page 219, same book, Richmond writes: “Emotions often color the truth of a situation and introduce a degree of uncertainty. A sentence that follows the pattern emotion or personal feeling + ‘that’ sets up the need for the subjunctive. Consider the sentence ‘I’m angry that she’s so evil.’ The person’s inherent evilness, while certainly clear and true to the speaker, might not be so evident to others.”

In translating that sentence, I would normally render the verb “is” (from the contraction “she’s”) as subjunctive, in accordance with her explanation. My question is this, though: In the Spanish translation, could a writer use indicative rather than the normally cued subjunctive to make some kind of statement about how his or her assertion of the woman’s evil is unequivocal?

Use Pencil When Studying on White Leather

For example, instead of writing, “Estoy enojada que ella sea tan mala” (that’s my translation, and my apologies if it’s not wholly idiomatic), could one make a slightly different point by replacing the subjunctive sea with the indicative es: “Estoy enojada que ella es tan mala”? As in, the woman is absolutely, positively evil, and my opinion about that is just plain truth, and that’s why I’m angry?

Or would indicative just always be wrong, no matter what?

A third subjunctive question: I’m curious about subjunctive theory versus practice: how often do Spanish speakers around the globe actually use subjunctive when they’re supposed to? I ask this in part because, even in the relatively few noticeable cases requiring subjunctive in English, English speakers often go for the indicative. I am pretty sure you are more likely to hear “I must insist that he attends the conference” (indicative) than the grammatically correct “I must insist that he attend the conference” (subjunctive).

For example, here is one of Dorothy Richmond’s many helpful illustrations of subjunctive sentences: Quizá él no te conteste. (Meaning, “Maybe he won’t answer you.”) I wonder what percentage of Spanish speakers would render this as subjunctive. Or is it common in such cases to opt for indicative instead? As in, Quizá él no te contesta. If so, how common?

Finally: I really get a kick out of some of the English-to-Spanish translations I am asked to come up with in Richmond’s grammar exercises. Here’s one: No estamos convencidos de que la luna sea de queso verde.

So, when the occasion calls for it, I will now be equipped to say, “We aren’t convinced that the moon is made of green cheese”!

Comments (9)

Ken • Posted on Wed, April 28, 2010 - 2:47 pm EST

I think native Spanish speakers would instinctively use the subjunctive, just as native English speakers usually do not.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, April 28, 2010 - 3:14 pm EST

That was previously my impression, but I have noticed some sentences in Spanish around here lately (in conversation and e-mail) that don’t have subjunctive where one would normally use it. Which is why I am wondering…

Ken • Posted on Wed, April 28, 2010 - 3:23 pm EST

Ah.  Good question, then.  Maybe it’s lazy speech, then?  Sort of like the ‘r’ vs. ‘l’ in Thai and probably other Southeast Asian languages. Or maybe I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. :)

Diana • Posted on Thu, April 29, 2010 - 2:20 pm EST

I’ve been asking myself many of the same questions in my Spanish studies!  One course book I have suggests that you can absolutely sometimes choose between ind and subj depending on how sure you are.  Have you thought of taking a few classes on Myngle?  I save all my questions for my once a week session with a ‘live’ teacher.  Or maybe you can find someone locally who would be happy to answer all that kind of stuff?  I’m going to ask tonight at my ‘Habla Espanol’ meet-up group.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, May 03, 2010 - 8:39 pm EST

Thank you so much, Diana, for the information and suggestions! 

I ask people questions all the time, but I don’t always get consistent answers! :)

Kj • Posted on Tue, February 21, 2012 - 12:03 am EST

When talking to native Spanish speakers, you will recognize that subjunctive is natural and necessary. 

I didn’t fully understand the composition of subjunctive phrases until I was immersed in the language in Mexico. 

Only then did I hear the phrases firsthand and begin to recognize when subjunctive is used as opposed to indicative.

Manuel Hurtado • Posted on Tue, August 05, 2014 - 11:15 am EST

Good questions, Ellen.

I hope that he speaks English.
I insist that he speak English.
The first one is clearly a subjunctive: ·“Espero que hable inglés.”
The second one can be either indicative or subjunctive depending on what you mean:
-“Insisto en que habla español” I know that he speaks Spanish, and I insist that it is true.
-“Insisto en que hable español”. I want that he speaks English, so I keep trying that he does so.

I’m angry that she’s so evil.
“Enojar” is more common in Latin America. We prefer “enfadar” in Spain. Anyway, “estar enfadado”, “estar enojado” or “estar molesto” require “con” when you specify the cause: “Estoy enfadado con mi hermano”, “Estoy molesto con que no me llamaras”. So, your sentence should be: “Estoy enfadado/molesto/enojado/cabreado con que sea tan mala”. It’d be more idiomatic, however, “Me enfada que sea tan mala” (or me cabrea, me molesta, me enoja). Subjunctive is necessary, I’m afraid, which leads me to your

Third question:
Yes, we do use subjunctive instinctively, and I can’t imagine anyone not using it for lazy speech. It just sounds awful. “Espero que vienes”!!!! Nooooooo
However, it is true that some constructions admit both forms, depending on the meaning or the level of certainty you want to imply. “Quizás no te contesta/conteste”, both could be said, it is just a matter of certainty. In other occasions, the meaning may change. “Cuando” may be followed by subjunctive or indicative: “Cuando vengas, hablaremos” There’ll be a moment in the future that you will come, we’ll speak then. “Cuando vienes, lo paso genial” Every time you come, I have a great time.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, August 05, 2014 - 12:14 pm EST

Hi, Manuel! I love your systematic, orderly explanation. Thank you so much. That last paragraph was especially useful to me, as that issue continues to plague me, across languages in fact.

In closing, I would like to offer a sentence that in English takes indicative in its dependent clause, but in Spanish requires subjunctive: I am happy that you helped me! :)

Manuel Hurtado • Posted on Thu, August 07, 2014 - 9:56 am EST

Hi Ellen!

Es un placer ayudar en lo que pueda (oh, subjunctive again: however, again you can use both in this sentence according to the speaker intention. You can say “Es un placer ayudar en lo que puedo”, somehow limiting to some real facts/abilities. If you say “en lo que pueda”, the possibilities of other potential facts are more open in the future)

No soy experto en la enseñanza del español como segunda lengua, por lo que a veces es un reto tratar de explicar cosas que sabes de manera instintiva, pero de las que quizás no conozcas la causa. (oh, my god, again I could’ve said “conoces la causa”, I just added some hint of uncertainty)

Espero que sepas (I’m afraid this time only subjunctive is possible) que puedes contar conmigo para lo que necesites.

Saludos desde el Mediterráneo.

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