Subjunctive vs. indicative in Spanish: the difference

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The indicative or the subjunctive? The subjunctive or the indicative? 

Knowing whether to use the Spanish subjunctive or indicative may at first feel like navigating a minefield, filled with countless booby traps and Mario Kart-style banana skins to slip up on.

But in actual fact, understanding the difference is quite simple. 

First, though, there’s a few things we need to walk you through.

How moods in Spanish differ from tenses

Before we dive into the details, let me explain the difference between moods and tenses.

We use tenses to talk about an action in relation to time, usually expressed with verbs in forms such as the presente, pretérito or futuro.

We use moods to show the way in which we choose to express ourselves. 

Made up of the indicative (the one we use to state facts), the subjunctive (the one we use to express opinion or doubt) and the imperative (the one we use to order people to do stuff), moods live by their own sets of rules.

For now, though, let’s just focus on the rule sets for the indicative and subjunctive moods. 

Find below everything you need to know about the differences between the indicative and the subjunctive in Spanish: what they are and when to use them.


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What is the indicative?

The Spanish indicative is what we can call the “normal” mood – it’s actually the first one you come across in Spanish, and in most other languages. 

All the tenses that you learn at a beginner, elementary or lower intermediate level with Busuu – such as presente, pretérito indefinido or pretérito perfecto – are in the indicative mood.

We use it to talk about facts – about something that has happened in the past, is happening in the present, or we know will certainly happen in the future.

Take a look at this example.

Viene Carlos esta tarde. 
Carlos is coming over this afternoon.

See: it’s a cold, hard fact. Carlos is definitely coming round this afternoon, so we use the verb viene, which is in the indicative mood.

What is the subjunctive?

The subjunctive, on the other hand, is the opposite of ‘fact’. 

Just like the indicative, there are tenses in the subjunctive – such as subjunctive presente or pretérito imperfecto.

We use these tenses to describe “virtual information” – in other words, our perception or attitude towards something, rather than the expression of a fact:

Espero que Carlos venga esta tarde. 
I hope Carlos comes over this afternoon.

Can you spot the feeling and emotion in the verb espero (I hope)? 

This is what has triggered the present subjunctive verb “venga”. 

By saying “I hope” in this sentence, I’m really saying that I’d like Carlos to come round, but I don’t know if he actually will or not. 

It’s not a factual statement. It’s simply what I’m wishing for.

Following so far?

Good!

Subjunctive vs. indicative: how to tell the difference

Now for the thing you’ve all been waiting for – the solution to your Spanish grammar meltdowns keeping you up at night.

We’re giving you our top tips to spotting the fundamental differences between the subjunctive and the indicative in practice.

Now hold your applause, because we haven’t even told you the best bit: you’ll be able to understand when to use the subjunctive and indicative in Spanish by getting your head around a mere two tips. Two.

Didn’t we say understanding the difference would be easy?

Now feel free to clap!

1. Look at the verbs in the sentence

If…

There’s only one verb in the sentence, it’ll be indicative

Just like this sentence right here:

Elena habla español.
Elena speaks Spanish

Check it out: it’s a fact. Elena actually does speak Spanish.

There are two verbs in the sentence, but both refer to the same person, they’ll both be indicative

In cases like these, you’ll use the indicative for the first verb and the infinitive (the purest form of the verb with a ‘to’ in front of it) for the second.

Like this:

Elena quiere hablar español.
Elena wants to speak Spanish.

There are two verbs – the first expressing emotion – separated by “que”, the first is indicative and the second is subjunctive

Oh and one more thing: in this case, the two verbs won’t refer to the same person.

Check out this example:

Jaime quiere que Elena hable español.
Jaime wants the Elena speaks Spanish.

See: Jaime is expressing a wish for Elena. A subjunctive trigger, if ever we’ve seen one.

2. Understand the meaning of the sentence

Look at the sentence: is it talking about something that’s factual, or are you expressing doubt or uncertainty?

Your clue will be the first verb or expression that comes before the que.

It will determine whether you have to use the subjunctive for the second verb that comes after que.

If…

The first verb or expression conveys certainty, make the second verb indicative

For example:

Sé que Elena habla español.
I know that Elena speaks Spanish.

Read between the lines: using “know” implies there is no doubt that Elena actually speaks Spanish – which means the subjunctive has no place in this sentence.

The first verb or expression conveys uncertainty, make the second verb subjunctive

Just like this:

Dudo que Elena hable español.
I doubt that Elena speaks Spanish.

Doubt and uncertainty alert! See how the first verb has triggered the subjunctive?

To sum up

That’s it from us, folks! Now for a quick round-up.

We use the indicative to talk about facts we consider to be certain.

We use the subjunctive to describe how we feel about those facts, and to express uncertainty.

And while you’ll find endless lists of verbs and expressions that trigger the indicative and the subjunctive, our advice is to toss those lists aside.

Just use this guide to figure out what your sentence expresses. That’s where the difference between the indicative and subjunctive lies.


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