Spanish subjunctive: the ultimate guide (dos & don’ts)

November 10, 2023

Quick answer:
The Spanish subjunctive (el subjuntivo) is one of the three moods in Spanish, the other two being the indicative and the imperative.

It is a way of using verbs to describe “virtual information” – in other words, our emotional perception, bias or attitude towards something, rather than just stating a fact.

That’s it in a nutshell – though if you need more than this, we’ve got more: in our longer, more thorough answer below, find below everything you’ll ever need to know about the present subjunctive in Spanish: a full explanation of what it actually is, and your go-to guide on when and when not to use it.

Longer, more thorough answer:

“I hate the Spanish subjunctive.”

It’s a complaint I hear all too often from Spanish learners. 

And I totally understand why: it’s one of the trickiest grammar topics for English speakers to master. Not just in Spanish, but in most other languages, as well. 

But don’t let that stop you – it’s no way near as hard as you think it is. 

No seriously, the subjunctive isn’t that difficult to learn. It just takes a bit longer to get your head around, is all. 

But that’s where we can help.

Find below everything you’ll ever need to know about the present subjunctive in Spanish: what it actually is, and your go-to guide on when and when not to use it.

Just wait – it’ll become second nature to you in no time!

Want some extra help with the Spanish subjunctive?

   Practise your way to perfection with our app Busuu’s Spanish subjunctive grammar unit today.

What is the Spanish subjunctive?

In a nutshell, the subjunctive in Spanish is a way of using verbs to describe “virtual information”.

In other words, our emotional perception, bias or attitude towards something, rather than just stating a fact.

And here’s the really interesting bit: it’s a mood, not a tense.

Now, before you start conjuring up images of moody verbs sitting around and sulking in their conjugation groups, let me explain the difference between moods and tenses.

We use verb tenses – such as presente, pretérito imperfecto (otherwise known as the imperfect tense in Spanish) and futuro – to describe an action that has occurred.

We use moods – indicativo, subjuntivo and imperativo – to reflect how we feel about that action. 

Let’s take a look at an example of the subjunctive mood in English:

Phrases (or dependent clauses, if you like using the correct grammatical lingo) that appear at the start of a sentence like, “if I were you”, or “if I had known” use the English subjunctive. 

Why? Because these phrases are used to express doubt (a feeling!) about a particular action.  

Starting to get a feel for the Spanish subjunctive yet?

If your answer falls somewhere between a solid ‘yes’ and a tentative ‘kind of’, you’ve got the basic theory down.

Nice work!

Now it’s time to move on to how to apply it to real-life situations.

The Spanish subjunctive in action: the dos and don’ts 

So here’s the thing: the subjunctive has tons of different uses in Spanish. 

So instead of boring you with a big, daunting list of rules to memorise, we’re going to give you everything you need so you understand when – and when not to – to use the Spanish subjunctive.

Do use the subjunctive when you’re describing your attitude towards something factual, or a fact relating to someone, provided that…

1. There are two verbs in the sentence, with a “que” in between them

For example:

¿Quieres que prepare algo de comer?
Do you want me to make you something to eat?
Carlos espera que salgamos pronto.
Carlos hopes we’ll leave early.

2. The ‘person’ of the first verb is different to the ‘person’ of the second verb

For example:

¿Quieres () que prepare (yo) algo de comer?
Do you want me to make you something to eat?
(Literal translation: do you want that I make you something to eat?)

3. The first of those two verbs express uncertainty, doubt, a wish or any kind of emotion 

For example:

Me extraña que no vengan a la fiesta.
I find it strange that they’re not coming to the party.
No soporto que Susana nunca recoja la mesa.
I can’t stand the fact that Susana never clears the table.

If a sentence ticks all three of these boxes, then yes – you will definitely need to use the subjunctive. 

Just remember: the first of the two verbs will always be in the indicative, and the second will always be in the subjunctive.

Now, for a few sneaky exceptions.

Sorry! But let’s face it: it wouldn’t be grammar without at least a couple of red herrings.

Here are a couple of key exceptions to the rule:

  • Ojalà – a common word in Spanish to express hope – is always followed by the subjunctive, whether or not the verb is followed by a “que”.

For example:

Ojalá no llueva mañana. 
I hope it won’t rain tomorrow.
Ojalá que apruebe el examen.
I hope I pass the exam.
  • When you express your best wishes to someone – either when it’s their birthday; they’re going on a trip; or they’re not feeling well – the “que” comes at the start of the sentence, and the subjunctive comes straight afterwards.

For example:

¡Que pases un buen finde! 
I hope you have a nice weekend!
¡Que tengas buen viaje! 
I hope you have a good trip!
¡Que te mejores!
I hope you get better!

Don’t use the subjunctive…

1. When you’re talking about the same person

If both verbs refer to the same person when you’re describing an emotion, a feeling, making a wish and you have two verbs, you don’t need to use the subjunctive.

In cases like these, you’ll normally find that there’s no need for a “que”; instead the second verb is in the infinitive form (like comer – to eat).

For example:

Tengo ganas de verte.
I’m looking forward to seeing you.
Espero ir a la fiesta del sábado.
I hope I’ll go to the party on Saturday.
Me encanta aprender español.
I love learning Spanish.

2. If there’s no signal

There will always be some kind ‘signal’ that will trigger the subjunctive.

It could take the form of another verb or expression describing any kind of emotion; a change in person; good wishes expressed to someone else; or the word “ojalá”.

Whatever the signal may be, it’ll be always there.

So before you jump the gun and give the subjunctive a cautious whirl, check the signal – the thing giving you that all important go-ahead – is there.

A few final words of advice

Don’t treat the subjunctive as a boring list of rules you have to memorise.

You’ll end up anxiously scratching your head for days on end and get nowhere.

Because when it comes to the subjunctive, it’s the meaning – not the rules – that count.

Instead, just take a moment to think about what you want to say or write. Keep this article to hand and see if what you’re trying to say fits the subjunctive bill.

And after a little while, you won’t need to think. You’ll just know!

Want to master more tricky grammatical points in Spanish? Or in another language, perhaps? 

We’re Busuu, the app that makes learning a language easier for everyone. We’d be happy to help.

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