Summary of the main uses of the subjunctive

  1. The Subjunctive in Noun Clauses. For purposes of this section on the subjunctive, noun clauses are dependent clauses which serve as the direct object of another verb. Dependent clauses have a subject and a conjugated verb (not the main verb); unfortunately, English frequently employs an infinitive in these cases, where Spanish requires a conjugated verb. For example: I want you to buy the book; [the direct object is the phrase “you to buy the book” = I want that you buy the book.] In Spanish, the subjunctive mood is used for the verb in a dependent noun clause when:

    1. The subject of the governing verb is different from the subject of the dependent noun clause [e.g., “you” vs. “I” ], AND
    2. The governing verb is one of:
      • Influence or willing [e.g., want, prefer, desire, insist, request, etc.] OR
      • Emotion [e.g., fear, be angry, be sad, be happy, be surprised, etc.] OR
      • Doubt or negation [e.g., be uncertain, be unsure, doubt, deny, etc.] OR
      • Impersonal expressions of influence, emotion, doubt, probability, possibility, necessity, or a subjective reaction on the part of the speaker [e.g.,: It's urgent, bad, wonderful, uncertain, possible, probable, unlikely, etc.]

  2. The Subjunctive in Adjectival Clauses. Adjectives are words that modify —describe or limit— a noun, for example: the new hat, the pretty dress, many intelligent students. An entire clause may serve an adjectival purpose, describing a noun or pronoun —the antecedent— in a sentence, for example: Do you have a dress which will go with these shoes?

    The rule: In Spanish, the subjunctive is used in an adjectival clause when the antecedent is indefinite or unknown (as in example number three below) or is nonexistent or negated (as in example number two below); in contrast, the indicative is used when the antecedent is a definite or existing one (as in example number one below).


    Main clause

    Dependent clause



    Adjectival clause

    Mood of the verb ladrar (to bark)

    Reason for the use of the subjunctive or the indicative

    1. Tengo un perro que ladra mucho. Indicative Definite antecedent: I own the dog.
    2. No tengo un perro que ladre mucho. Subjuntive Negated antecedent: The dog doesn't exist.
    3. Quiero un perro que ladre mucho. Indicative Indefinite antecedent: Such a dog may or not exist.

    (I have/don't have/want a dog that barks a lot.)

  3. The Subjunctive in Adverbial Clauses. Adverbs indicate such things as why, where, when, and how. Typical adverbs in English are words like “soon” , “here” and “quickly” ; adverbial phrases are groups of words used in the same way, such as “on Sunday” or “with compassion” . Likewise, an entire clause —remember that a clause has a subject and conjugated verb— may have an adverbial function: John is working so that she will notice him [why].

    Adverbial clauses are introduced by conjunctions. The indicative or subjunctive mood may be required in the adverbial clause in Spanish, depending on:

    1. Whether there is a change of subject. If no change of subject is involved and a preposition exists which corresponds to the conjunction, that preposition plus an infinitive is normally used, e.g.: He's saving his money so he can buy a car, Ahorra su dinero para poder comprar un coche.

    2. The relationship between the governing verb or situation and the verb or situation in the adverbial clause. The rule: In general, if the situation in the adverbial clause is viewed as something hypothetical or anticipated —rather than completed, habitual, or factual— then the subjunctive is required in the adverbial clause. [Note: certain conjunctions always indicate this type of relationship and always take the subjunctive, such as para que, a fin de que, sin que, a menos que, con tal que, antes de que; others may take either the indicative or the subjunctive, e.g., cuando, hasta que, mientras, tan pronto como, aunque, ]

  4. Conditions involving si (“if”).  Remember that si is NEVER followed by the present subjunctive. If the sentence in English does not contain the word “would” , the sentences is mostl likely a real condition, and is  expressed using indicative tenses.  If there is a “would” involved, the sentence is usually a contrary-to-fact or unreal condition, and the typical pattern is to use a past subjunctive in the “if” clause and a conditional in the main clause. If the condition is for the present or future time use the imperfect subjunctive in the “if” clause and the simple conditional in the main clause; if the condition involves past time, use the past perfect subjunctive in the “if” clause and the conditional perfect in the main clause.

    Si gano la lotería, iré a Cancún. If I win the lottery, I will go to Cancún. “Would” doesn't appear; use the indicative.
    Ahora mismo si yo ganara la lotería, iría a Cancún. Right now if I won the lottery, I would go to Cancún. “Would” appears; present time; imperfect subjunctive & conditional.
    El año pasado si hubiera ganado la lotería, habría ido a Cancún. Last year if I had won the lottery, I would have gone to Cancún. “Would have” appears; pasta time; past perfect subjunctive & conditional perfect.

Fred Jehle
Indiana University-Purdue University Ft.Wayne
Fort Wayne, IN 46805-1499 USA
Home page