In previous posts, we learned that the subjunctive is used when expressing desire, doubt, or uncertainty or after certain conjunctions like cuando (when). But, we can also use the subjunctive when the subordinate clause describes a noun in the main clause: Busco una película que sea divertida. (I’m looking for a movie that is fun). The choice between using the indicative or subjunctive will depend on the noun being described; if the speaker refers to a person or thing that is unknown or non-existent, we need to use the subjunctive. Don’t worry if this sounds complicated right now, let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.
Subordinate clauses that describe nouns in the main clause
Sometimes, the subordinate clause can behave like an adjective to add information, describe, or modify the noun (place, person, or object) in the main clause. This noun is called the antecedent. Take a look at the following example:
Quiero un trabajo
I want a job
me haga feliz
makes me happy.
In the example above, the main clause, quiero un trabajo (I want a job), is being modified by the subordinate clause. The noun trabajo in the main clause is our antecedent. In this case, the adjective clause me haga feliz (makes me happy) is describing the type of job I want — meaning the one that will make me happy, as opposed to one that will give me money or anything else. When we have a subordinate clause acting as an adjective, the verb in the subordinate clause can be in the subjunctive or in the indicative. Bearing this in mind, let’s see when we can use one or the other.
Using the subjunctive in adjective clauses
When we have an adjective clause describing an antecedent (the noun in the main clause) that is unknown or uncertain for the speaker, we use the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. Let’s see some examples:
Necesito un libro
I need a book
Busco un profesor
I am looking for a teacher
explique bien el subjuntivo.
explains the subjunctive well.
In these examples, we are looking for the stated qualities in the book or teacher. In the first example, I need a book that explains the subjunctive but I don’t have a specific book in mind. The same applies to the second example: I am looking for a teacher that knows German and I don’t know anyone.
Also, we can use the subjunctive when we talk about a non-existent antecedent in a negative sentence:
No conozco a nadie
I don’t know of anyone
Here, we are talking about a non-existent antecedent, because a person that speaks German is not known to the speaker.
We usually use the subjunctive when we ask questions because we want to know more information about the antecedent:
¿Conoces alguna farmacia que esté abierta?
Do you know of a pharmacy that is open?
⤷ TIP Adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify. In this case, abierta (open) accompanies the noun farmacia (pharmacy) which is feminine. So, the adjective needs to be feminine as well. For a refresher, take a look at this post on Spanish adjectives and gender.
When the antecedent is an indefinite pronoun like algo (something), or the noun is preceded by an indefinite adjective such as algún (a, some), we use the subjunctive because these words tell us that the antecedent is unknown.
Quiero comer algo que esté picante.
I want to eat something that is spicy.
El maestro busca algún alumno que sea dedicado.
The teacher is looking for a student that is dedicated.
Using the indicative in adjective clauses
When the antecedent is known by the speaker, we use the indicative. Take a look at the following examples:
Tengo un perro
I have a dog
Conozco al profesor
I know the teacher
es un Golden Retriever.
is a Golden Retriever.
In the examples above, the antecedents (the dog and the teacher) are known by the speaker, the speaker knows about their existence, so we use the indicative.
Indicative or subjunctive?
Now that we know the difference between the subjunctive and the indicative, let’s contrast some examples to see the difference in meaning:
Necesito el libro que está en español.
I need the book in Spanish.
Necesito un libro que esté en español.
I need a book in Spanish.
Take a look at the examples. They look almost identical, with the exception that one uses the indicative and the other the subjunctive. Because of this, they mean different things. Imagine you go to the library and the librarian asks you which book you want. If your answer is the example on the left, you know the book. Maybe you can’t recall the title, but you know the book you are talking about and you know it’s in Spanish. Also notice that we use the definite article el, because the antecedent is specific, this also gives us a clue to use the indicative. However, if your answer is the example with the subjunctive (on the right), then you don’t have a specific book in mind, you just want a book and the only condition is that it must be written in Spanish.
Busco al profesor que sabe alemán.
I am looking for the teacher that knows German.
Busco un profesor que sepa alemán.
I am looking for a teacher that knows German.
The same distinction applies to the examples above. When we use the indicative (on the left), we know the teacher we are talking about and in addition, we know that this person knows German. In the other example, we don’t have a specific person in mind, we just want any teacher that knows German.
Notice the use of the personal a in the previous examples: In the first one, we use it because the professor is specific, but in the second example, it’s not used because we are talking about someone that is not specific or certain.
Take a look at our post to learn more about the Spanish personal a.
Notice the difference between affirmative and negative statements with adjective clauses in the subordinate clause. Let’s compare some examples:
Affirmative → Tengo un amigo que es un genio. I have a friend that is a genius.
Negative → No tengo ningún amigo que sea un genio. I don’t have a friend that is a genius.
In the affirmative, we state that the antecedent amigo exists, so we use the indicative. On the other hand, in the negative statement, we deny the existence of the antecedent, so in these cases we use the subjunctive.
Below you will find some words and expressions that are usually associated with the use of the subjunctive or the indicative. This trick helps my students! But of course, you need to take the context into account.
- Conocer to know (affirmative)
- Tener to have (affirmative)
- Definite articles (el, la, los, las)
- Possessive adjectives (mi, tu, su…)
- Buscar to look for
- Necesitar to need
- Hay there is/there are
- Indefinite articles (un, una, unos, unas)
- Indefinite pronouns/adjectives (algún/ningún, algo/nada...)
- In questions
- In negative statements
To sum up
In this post, we went over the use of the subjunctive when the subordinate clause acts as an adjective. We learned that we use the subjunctive when we describe a noun in the main clause that is unknown, uncertain, or non-existent to the speaker. On the other hand, the indicative is used when the noun in the main clause is certain and known by the speaker.
We created some exercises to practice the use of the Spanish subjunctive in the constructions! Enjoy!
The personal a is used to introduce the direct object of a sentence that is a person (or pet) and is specific. It has no English equivalent.
Ana llamó a Pedro. Ana called Pedro.