When to use the Spanish subjunctive?

Picture of a tower with a palm tree in front of it.

We use the subjunctive when we want to express an opinion, uncertainty, or wish, and after verbs that express desire, emotion, doubt, disbelief, or denial. The subjunctive mood is very frequent in Spanish, but it can be tricky to use it at first. In this post we will review how to form the present subjunctive and introduce you to its main uses. Ready? 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.

What is the subjunctive?

The subjunctive is a mood used to express an opinion or uncertainty about something, unlike the indicative mood, which is used to describe things that the speaker believes are true or is sure about. The subjunctive is mainly used in the “subordinate clause.” What is a subordinate clause? Let’s take a look at the following example:

 Yo quiero que tú vengas conmigo.  I want you to come with me.

In the example above, the sentence has two parts. The first part contains the verb in the indicative quiero (I want), and this is the main clause. The second part contains the verb in the subjunctive and this is the subordinate clause. The main clause is followed by que that links the main clause and the subordinate clause:
MAIN CLAUSE SUBORDINATE CLAUSE
Yo quiero
I want
que
that
vengas conmigo.
you come with me.

The main clause contains a verb or an expression that introduces the subjunctive. In this post, we will go over some expressions or verbs used in the main clause that give rise to the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. But first, let’s go over how to form it!

How to form the present subjunctive?

In order to form the present subjunctive, you need to follow these steps:
  1. Take the first person singular of the present indicative (yo form, “I” )
    -ar verbs: yo hablo I speak
    -er verbs: yo como I eat
    -ir verbs: yo vivo I live
  2. Drop the o:
    -ar verbs: yo hablo I speak
    -er verbs: yo como I eat
    -ir verbs: yo vivo I live
  3. Add the opposite vowel (a → e; e/i → a):
    for -ar verbs add: e (hable)
    for-er/ir verbs add: a (coma/viva)
  4. Add the appropriate ending: -s for , -mos for nosotros/as, -is for vosotros/as, -n for ellos/ellas/ustedes.
Here’s a summary of the endings:
-ar verbs
(amar to love)
-er/-ir verbs
(beber to drink)
yo-e (ame)-a (beba)
-es (ames)-as (bebas)
él/ella/usted-e (ame)-a (beba)
nosotros/nosotras-emos (amemos)-amos (bebamos)
*vosotros/vosotras-éis (améis)-áis (bebáis)
ellos/ellas/ustedes-en (amen)-an (beban)

* vosotros/vosotras is only used in Spain.

If you want to go over the most frequent irregular verbs in the subjunctive, check out the list we created.

Note: Although we only review the present subjunctive here, the subjunctive, like the indicative, has many different tenses, like the imperfect subjunctive!

How to use the Spanish present subjunctive?

  • Subjunctive with verbs of desire, necessity, and influence

    When we have a verb or an expression that conveys desire, necessity, and influence in the main clause, we use the subjunctive in the subordinate clause.

    Desire: Yo deseo que tú vayas. Literal: I desire that you go. / Understood: I want you to go. Necessity: Es necesario que tú vayas. It is necessary that you go. Influence: Te recomiendo que vayas. I suggest that you go.

IMPORTANT

In order to use the subjunctive in the subordinate clause, the subject of the verb in the main clause and in the subordinate clause must be different. If they are the same, we use the infinitive:

Yo quiero ir.
I want to go. = The subject of the verb “want” and “go” is the same, i.e., “I”

Yo quiero que vayas.
I want you to go. = The subject of the verb “want” and “go” is not the same,
i.e. “I” ≠ “you”

Some impersonal expressions that are used to express desire, will, necessity, or influence are:

Es necesario que… It is necessary that…
Es preferible que… It is preferable that…
Es recomendable que… It is recommendable that…

These impersonal expressions are used with the verb ser (to be) in Spanish.

  • Subjunctive with verbs of emotion and expressions of judgment​

    If the verb in the main clause expresses an emotion (fear, joy, surprise, etc.) or a judgment (you give your opinion about something: Es bueno/justo…que (It’s good/fair…that) we need to use the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. Take a look at the following examples:

    Es triste que vayamos a casa. It is sad that we have to go home.
    Estoy contento de que estés conmigo. I am happy that you are with me.

  • Subjunctive to express wishes

    The subjunctive is also used to express wishes.

  • With ojalá
    Ojalá is a word we use in Spanish to express wishes; it means “I hope” or “I wish.” The expression ojalá is always used with the subjunctive. Take a look at the following examples:

Ojalá que hoy coma sushi. 
I wish I could eat sushi today.
Ojalá que nos vayamos de vacaciones pronto.
I wish we could go on vacation soon.

  • With expressions using que
    We can also express wishes with this formula: que + present subjunctive:

¡Que tengas un buen día!  Have a good day!

In these cases, the verb “I wish” is implied as in “(I wish you) have a good day,” but it can also be explicitly expressed with verbs esperar (to hope) or desear (to wish), if you wish to do so!

¡Espero que tengas un buen día! I hope you have a good day!

  • Subjunctive with doubt, denial, and certainty/uncertainty​

    We also use the subjunctive in the subordinate clause when we express doubt, denial/negation, or uncertainty in the main clause:

Doubt: Yo dudo que eso sea verdad. I doubt this is true.
     Es improbable que yo haya hecho eso. It’s improbable that I did that.

Negation: Yo niego que él tenga muchas casas.

                   I deny that he has many houses.
          No es verdad que tenga muchas casas.
                  It’s not true that he has many houses.

IMPORTANT

If we use the verbs dudar (to doubt) or negar (to deny) in a negative sentence, we are expressing certainty and thus, we use the indicative:

Doubt → Yo dudo que eso sea verdad.
     ⤷ subjunctive
I doubt this is true.
Certainty → Yo no dudo que eso es verdad.
     ⤷ indicative
I do not doubt this is true.
Denial → Yo niego que él tenga muchas casas.
   ⤷ subjunctive
I deny he has many houses.
Certainty → Yo no niego que él tiene muchas casas.
        ⤷ indicative
I deny he has many houses.
IMPORTANT
When we use the verb creer (to believe) in the main clause, the indicative is used in the subordinate clause because we express certainty:

Creo que tengo fiebre.
⤷ indicative

I think I have a fever.
On the other hand, when the verb creer (to believe) is used in a negative sentence (no creo, I don’t think) the subjunctive is used because we express uncertainty:

No creo que tenga fiebre.
⤷ subjunctive

I don’t think I have a fever.

We created a list with verbs and expressions that express wish, will, emotion, denial, and doubt that trigger the subjunctive. In this list you will also find some other perception verbs that behave like creer.

Summary

In this post we went over some of the main uses of the subjunctive. We saw that the subjunctive is used in the subordinate clause when we express desire, will, emotion, doubt, denial, and uncertainty in the main clause. 

Remember that the subjunctive is triggered by some expressions like es bueno que (it’s good), es importante que (it’s important), etc., and after some verbs like deseo que (I wish/desire), dudo que (I doubt), no creo que (I don’t think/believe), among others. So when in doubt, look for trigger words!

So there you have it, we have covered the main uses of the subjunctive, but that’s not the end of the story. Did you know that the Spanish subjunctive is used after certain conjunctions and in adjective clauses? Don’t miss the next posts on the subjunctive series to find out more!

In the meantime, take a look at this strategy, it will help you determine when to use the subjunctive!  Before you leave, we created some activities so you can practice the subjunctive in these contexts.  A key is included so you can check your work. Happy learning!

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.

Unpacking the grammar

Mood refers to the attitude about what the speaker wants to convey, for example, stating a fact or giving an opinion.

  • In Spanish there are four moods: the indicative (for facts), the subjunctive (for subjective thoughts), the conditional (for conditions), and the imperative (for orders).
Meet The Author:
Author-De Nicolas Foto
Irati de Nicolás Saiz
Irati is a linguist and an experienced University Spanish teacher with a PhD in Hispanic Linguistics.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Extra Resources:

Present subjunctive formation
Subjunctive expressions

Activities:

Present subjunctive activity

Activities:

Present subjunctive activity

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