Spanish Grammar Guide

Present Subjunctive (e.g.: Quiero que hables)

An Overview of the Present Subjunctive in Spanish:

Spanish makes extensive use of the subjunctive, which is simply a special form of the verb that occurs after certain verbs or expressions. In order to master the subjunctive, you need to know two things:

1) how to form the subjunctive of a given verb;

2) the preceding verbs/expressions that trigger use of the subjunctive form for the following verb.

English makes very limited use of the subjunctive. Still, it does exist. For example, while one usually writes "I know she is happy", the verb form can change following a verb that expresses a desire, for example, "I wish she were happy". The Spanish subjunctive is similar, but it is more frequent and affects many verbs.

How to form the subjunctive

Let’s first look at the subjunctive forms themselves. For most verbs, the stem is based on the present indicative yo form, e.g:

  • Yo tengo > stem = teng-
  • Yo hablo > stem = habl-

The final vowel is different than the one used for the present indicative. The subjunctive of -ar verbs involves a change from "a" to "e", e.g.:

  • Ella habla > Quiero que ella hable.
  • Tú tocas> Quiero que tú toques.
  • Nosotros empezamos> Quiero que nosotros empecemos.
  • Ellos bailan> Quiero que ellos bailen.

The following table shows the subjunctive endings for -ar verbs, e.g.: hablar.

subject ending example
yo -e hable
-es hables
él, ella, usted
-e hable
nosotros -emos hablemos
vosotros -éis habléis
ellos, ellas, ustedes
-en hablen

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  • Note that verbs ending in -zar/-gar/-car have spelling changes in the yo and nosotros forms only, -zar changes "z" to "c" and -gar/-car adds a "u", e.g.: Es dudoso que juegue al fútbol mañana, pero es posible que toquemos música. This is the same spelling change that occurs for these verbs in the yo form of the preterite.

If the verb's infinitive ends in -er or -ir, the ending begins with "a", e.g.: 

  • Ella vende > Quiero que ella venda.
  • Tú vendes > Quiero que tú vendas.
  • Nosotros perdemos > Quiero que nosotros perdamos.
  • Ellos pierden > Quiero que ellos pierdan.


The following table shows the subjunctive forms for verbs ending in -er or -ir, e.g.: vender.

subject ending example
yo -a venda
-as vendas
él, ella, usted
-a venda
nosotros -amos vendamos
vosotros -áis vendáis
ellos, ellas, ustedes
-an vendan

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There are also a six verbs with an irregular subjunctive form. They are illustrated in the following tables:

 
ir ("to go")
subject subjunctive
yo vaya
vayas
él, ella, usted
vaya
nosotros vayamos
vosotros vayáis
ellos, ellas, ustedes
vayan

 

ser ("to be")
subject subjunctive
yo sea
seas
él, ella, usted
sea
nosotros seamos
vosotros seáis
ellos, ellas, ustedes
sean

 

estar ("to be")
subject subjunctive
yo esté
estés
él, ella, usted
esté
nosotros estemos
vosotros estéis
ellos, ellas, ustedes
estén

 

dar ("to give")
subject subjunctive
yo
des
él, ella, usted
nosotros demos
vosotros déis
ellos, ellas, ustedes
den

 

saber ("to know")
subject subjunctive
yo sepa
sepas
él, ella, usted
sepa
nosotros sepamos
vosotros sepáis
ellos, ellas, ustedes
sepan

 

haber 
subject subjunctive
yo haya
hayas
él, ella, usted
haya
nosotros hayamos
vosotros hayáis
ellos, ellas, ustedes
hayan

  

Verbs and expressions that trigger the subjunctive

So when do we use these special subjunctive forms? 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. The use of subjunctive can be summarized as encoding the speaker's attitude and uncertainty of the outcome described by the verb in subjunctive.

Here are some of the most common verb triggers: querer que, gustar que, dudar que, lamentar que.

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

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

  • Yo quiero que salga inmediatamente.
  • Es necesario que vengas.
  • Ella duda que su madre sepa la verdad.
  • Es una lástima que usted no pueda auydarnos.

In a way, the matching between a trigger and a subjunctive verb form is like agreement between a feminine determiner and a feminine noun, e.g. la nación or between a plural subject and a plural verb, e.g.: ellos estudian. Just like with agreement, there are two parts that are working together to convey the same information, in this case the mood or attitude of the speaker.

Common verbs and expressions that trigger the subjunctive

Verbs that trigger the subjunctive express desire, doubt, emotion, obligation and possibility. You want the list of the triggers? OK, here are the most common ones:

  • 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.")

Other expressions that trigger the subjunctive in the subordinate clause are:

  • es bueno que, es dudoso que, es importante que, es mejor que, es necesario que, es preferible que, es una lástima que, tener miedo de que, para que, a menos que, en caso (de) que, antes (de) que, sin que, e.g.: Es importante que ustedes lleguen a tiempo. ("It's important that you arrive on time.")

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!

* 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 pienso que la fiesta va a ser divertida pero no pienso que vaya a terminar temprano. 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 event that has not yet occurred, e.g.: Nos vamos cuando lleguen de la plaza. Use the indicative when talking about events that have happened, are happening, or habitually occur, e.g.: Nos vamos cuando llegan de trabajar.

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