Spanish Grammar Guide

Imperfect Subjunctive (e.g.: Querían que yo hablara)

An Overview of the Imperfect Subjunctive:

The imperfect subjunctive is used like the present subjunctive to express uncertainty or attitude of the speaker concerning an event. The imperfect subjunctive performs this function in the past tense, e.g.: El hombre habla como si fuera el presidente. ("The man speaks as if he were the president.")

How to Form the Imperfect Subjunctive

The imperfect subjunctive has two sets of verb endings, the common set is based on endings beginning with -ra, while a second set (more formal, less common) is based on endings beginning with -se. Form the imperfect subjunctive by using the 3rd person plural of the preterite, dropping the -ron ending, and adding the appropriate imperfect subjunctive ending. The following table shows the two sets of endings for the verb escribir:

3rd person plural in perterite: escribieron. Take off -ron to get imperfect subjunctive stem: escribie-
Subject -ra endings (more common) -se endings (less common)
yo escribiera escribiese
escribieras escribieses 
él/ella/usted escribiera  escribiese
nosotros escribiéramos escribiésemos 
vosotros escribierais escribieseis 
ellos/ellas/ustedes escribieran  escribiesen 

Note that the nosotros forms have a written accent on the last vowel of the stem.

How to Use the Imperfect Subjunctive

The imperfect subjunctive is used in the same way as the present subjunctive to express uncertainty or the attitude of the speaker, except the reference point is in the past. Its use is required by the same "triggers" as in the present subjunctive.

Verbs and Expressions that Trigger Subjunctive

The subjunctive is “triggered” by certain verbs and expressions, most of which end in que. Knowing how to use the subjunctive involves familiarizing yourself with these triggers. In general, subjunctive forms reflect a speaker's attitude or uncertainty about a verbal action.

Here are some of the most common verbal triggers: querer quegustar que, dudar que, lamentar que.

Here are some common expression triggers: ser necesario que, ser possible que, ser una lastima que, para que.

Here’s how it works. Anytime one of these triggers appears in the past tense or the conditional, the following verb must be in the imperfect subjunctive form. For example,

  • Yo quería que salieras de ese lugar.
  • Era necesario que vinieras.
  • Ella dudaba que su madre supiera la verdad.
  • Fue una lástima que usted no pudiera auydarnos.

Common Verbs and Expressions that Trigger the Subjunctive

Verbs that trigger the subjunctive express desire, doubt, emotion, obligation and possibility. Here are the most common triggers:

  • dudar que, desear que, esperar que, exigir que, gustar que, insistir que, necesitar que, pedir que, preferir que, prohibir que, proponer que, querer que, recomendar que, sugerir que, temer que, e.g.: Jorge dudaba que el político dijera la verdad. ("Jorge doubted that the politician would tell the truth.")

Common expressions that give rise to the subjunctive are:

  • ser bueno que, ser dudoso que, ser importante que, ser mejor que, ser necesario que, ser preferible que, ser una lástima que, tener miedo de que, para que, a menos que, en caso (de) que, antes (de) que, a fin (de) que, como si, e.g.: Alejandra quería leer ese libro para que supiera algo sobre la historia de Canadá. ("Alejandra wanted to read that book in order that she would know something about the history of Canada.")
  • Use the imperfect subjunctive with quizás, tal vez and ojalá when they occur BEFORE the verb to indicate an event that is contrary to fact and unlikely to happen, e.g.: Ojalá hiciéramos una mejor decision. ("I wish we would have made a better decision.")

You can also use the imperfect subjunctive to make polite requests/suggestions with the verbs querer, poder and deber, e.g.: Quisiera un agua, por favor. ¿Pudieras traerme una? Debiéramos tomar mucha agua. ("I'd like some water, please. Could you bring me one? We should drink a lot of water.")

Tricky Stuff

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* You need to know the main verbs and expresions that trigger the subjunctive

* You need to know the subjunctive forms of the high frequency verbs, i.e.: ser, estar hacer, saber, dar, venir, tener, etc. Ignore these at your own peril!

*Remember that the imperfect subjunctive stem is formed by removing the -ron ending from the 3rd person plural preterite and then adding the approprate imperfect subjunctive ending. If the verb is irregular in the preterite, it is irregular in the imperfect subjunctive.

* a number of verbs that trigger the indicative when used in affirmative statements trigger the subjunctive when used in negative sentences or interrogatives, e.g.: Yo pensaba que la fiesta iba a ser divertida pero no pensaba que fuera tan grande. The verb creer also works this way.

antes que triggers the subjunctive, después que triggers the indicative. Think about why this would be...with antes que, the event has not yet happened and so is hypothetical while with después que the event has happened already so is not in doubt.

* aunque, mientra, después (de) que, en cuanto, hasta que, tan pronto (como), cuando can all be used with both the indicative and the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. Use the subjunctive when talking about future events, hypothetical events or any events that have not occurred, e.g. No sabía cuando tuviéramos que ir. Use the indicative when talking about events that have happened, are happening, or habitually occur, e.g.: Sabía cuando tuvimos que ir.

The Imperfect Subjunctive with the Present Conditional

The imperfect subjunctive is also used after si "if" with the present conditional in order to refer to something hypothetical, untrue or unlikely to happen, e.g.: La fiesta sería mejor si hubiera más comida. Remember that the imperfect subjunctive form always occurs after si while the present conditional form NEVER occurs after si.

Spanish Grammar Guide » Verbs (e.g.: hablar, venir, ser, tener, hacer) » Mood: indicative, subjunctive, imperative and conditional
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