Despite its reputation, the Spanish subjunctive isn’t that bad.
But, it can be avoided and should be avoided if you’re not yet conversational in Spanish.
I have published over 200 articles on Real Fast Spanish, but I haven’t written anything on the Spanish subjunctive.
The reason(s) I haven’t spoken about the subjunctive thus far is because:
- There is a lot of Spanish to learn and understand before you learn the subjunctive.
- The subjunctive is difficult and an unnecessary distraction for beginners and intermediates.
- You don’t need it to be conversational.
This third idea is principally what Real Fast Spanish is based upon. It’s about reducing the mental load of learning Spanish by cutting out all non-essential grammar and vocabulary so you can converse in Spanish sooner.
There are, however, some things I would love to share with you that will help you avoid the subjunctive, and improve your accuracy while developing your skills using the essential vocabulary and grammar introduced in the conversation hacking guide.
You can read this post in two ways: as an introduction to the subjunctive, or as a guide to avoid it by simply restructuring how you express a few certain ideas.
In other words, if the Spanish subjunctive worries you, in this post, you’ll learn how you can avoid the Spanish subjunctive entirely.
What is the subjunctive?
Before we get to Spanish, we first need to ask: what is the subjunctive in general?
The subjunctive mood is a behaviour of verb conjugations that often tells us something about the speaker’s beliefs or certainty about a given situation.
In English, the subjunctive mood does occur, we just don’t know about it.
We aren’t aware of it because, firstly, they don’t teach it to us in schools, and secondly, and even more importantly, often it doesn’t do anything to the conjugation of the verb.
I recommend that you try the burritos.
Here, the English verb conjugation ‘you try’ is in the subjunctive mood.
But, you wouldn’t know about it because it appears in this sentence like it would in any other sentence.
For example, in the following sentence, ‘you try’ is in the normal (indicative) mood:
If you try the burritos, you will love them!
This is because ‘if’ statements like this don’t require the subjunctive mood.
In contrast, I could say,
I recommend that he try the burritos.
Here we can notice the subjunctive mood in action because the usual verb conjugation that we expect to hear is ‘he tries’.
And, it is this change from ‘he tries’ to ‘he try’ that tells us that the subjunctive mood is in effect.
But, while English does have the subjunctive, we generally don’t notice it because the above situation doesn’t happen often.
Moreover, in the modern use of the English language, lots of English natives will still say ‘he tries’ in the above example.
So, how is the Spanish subjunctive different?
What is the Spanish subjunctive?
Just like the English subjunctive, the Spanish subjunctive is a verb mood that you have to use around desire, uncertainty, possibility, opinions etc.
But unlike English, the use of the subjunctive in Spanish is far more apparent.
This is because every single verb conjugation in the Spanish subjunctive mood is different from the normal (indicative) mood.
This means there are two main challenges with using the Spanish subjunctive mood:
- knowing when to use it
- knowing the subjunctive conjugation of every verb
That said, as I mentioned at the start of the post, if you want to, you can completely avoid the subjunctive when you are speaking Spanish.
But, in order to do so, you first need to learn a little bit about the subjunctive, such as when it is likely to occur, so you can avoid it.
Subjunctive triggers: when do you need the subjunctive mood?
A simple example, that will lead to the first technique below, is the following phrase:
Puede que… (It could be…)
This phrase is similar to ‘es posible que…’ or ‘es probable que…’, all of which describe the likelihood of an event or an idea.
All of three of these phrases are Spanish subjunctive triggers. This means whenever you use them, you have to follow the phrase with a verb in the subjunctive mood.
The example from earlier with one of these phrases would be:
English: It’s possible that she has time to see me today.
Español: Es posible que ella tenga tiempo para verme hoy.
In this example, you can see the third person subjunctive conjugation of the Spanish verb tener, which is tenga.
You can, however, express this idea in almost exactly the same way without the subjunctive mood, which leads to technique number 1.
1. How to avoid the subjunctive when talking about probable ideas
The first technique to avoid the Spanish subjunctive is to replace all statements of probability, such as es posible que… or es probable que… or puede que…, with:
A lo mejor… (Maybe…)
This phrase replaces the other three seamlessly but doesn’t trigger the subjunctive mood. This phrase is great because it requires that you use the normal indicative mood.
Let’s look at our example from earlier:
English: Maybe she has time to see me today.
Español: A lo mejor ella tiene tiempo para verme hoy.
Here is another example, instead of:
English: It could be that you are right.
Español: Puede que tengas razón.
Replace the puede que… with a lo mejor:
English: Maybe you are right.
Español: A lo mejor tienes razón.
To sum up technique number 1, whenever you want to make a statement of probability and you can’t remember the subjunctive conjugation, you can simply use a lo mejor to express an identical idea in the indicative mood.
2. How to avoid the subjunctive when you are uncertain about something
Next on the list of tricks to avoid the subjunctive mood is a simple sentence reshuffle.
If you aren’t certain about something, you could use sentences like:
No creo que… (I don’t think that…)
No pienso que… (I don’t believe that…)
But, these phrases both trigger the Spanish subjunctive mood.
All you have to do to avoid the subjunctive is to make a small change by relocating the position of ‘no’ in the sentence.
For example, you’ll need the subjunctive in the following sentence:
English: I don’t think that the prices are cheap here.
Español: No creo que los precios sean baratos aquí.
Instead, if you move the location of ‘no’ to after the que you can use ser in the normal mood again:
English: I think that the prices aren’t cheap here.
Español: Creo que los precios no son baratos aquí.
It is only a small change to say ‘I think that (negative idea)…’ instead of ‘I don’t think that (positive idea)…’, but it will allow you to keep your accuracy up and avoid the subjunctive.
Here is another example:
English: I don’t think that he remembers me.
Español: No pienso que me recuerde.
Move the ‘no’ to after the que to get:
English: I think that he doesn’t remember me.
Español: Pienso que no me recuerda.
3. How to avoid the subjunctive when talking about your desires
As well as uncertainty, a desire or longing for something triggers the use of the subjunctive. However, unlike the previous category, it doesn’t matter whether you state your desires in the positive or the negative, both require the subjunctive.
But, the trick to be aware of with desires is that you’ll need the subjunctive when your sentence has two clauses.
In other words, if your statement of desire has two clauses separated by a ‘that’, you’ll need to use the subjunctive mood for the verb in the second clause.
English: I hope that we finish our work before sunset.
Español: Espero que terminemos nuestro trabajo antes de la puesta del sol.
If you can rearrange the sentence to remove the que, you can avoid the subjunctive. E.g:
English: We hope to finish our work before sunset.
Español: Esperamos terminar nuestro trabajo antes de la puesta del sol.
English: I would like that we see each other soon.
Español: Me gustaría que nos veamos pronto.
Again, see if you can remove the que, to leave the verb, previously after the que, in its infinitive form:
English: I would like to see each other soon.
Español: Me gustaría vernos pronto.
4. How to avoid the subjunctive with impersonal expressions
Referred to as valoración or constatación in Spanish, impersonal expressions are those like:
Es importante que… (It’s important that…)
Es cierto que… (It’s certain that…)
Es normal que… (It’s normal that…)
Está claro que… (It’s clear that…)
Es triste que… (It’s sad that…)
With these sentences, you have to be careful because the choice of preceding adjective will tell you whether the verb in the second sentence clause will need to be subjunctive.
More often than not the decision will be obvious. For the above five examples, and from what you have already read, which do you think trigger the subjunctive and which don’t?
The adjectives that call for the subjunctive are importante, normal, and triste.
So, the key takeaway here, if you are going to make statements like this, aim for certainty:
English: It’s certain that it is a good idea.
Español: Es cierto que es una buena idea.
English: It’s clear that we are going in the wrong direction.
Español: Está claro que vamos en la dirección equivocada.
5. How to avoid the subjunctive in sequence-based sentences
Probably the strangest trigger for the subjunctive to be aware of is time-based sequence descriptions.
Despite having zero uncertainty, when you describe a sequence of events with antes de que or después de que, you have to use the subjunctive.
To avoid the subjunctive, in a similar way to the sentences on desire, simply remove the que and try to get an infinitive verb into the sentence.
For example, instead of:
English: Before you leave, tidy up your room.
Español: Antes de que te vayas, recoge la habitación.
You can remove the que, and replace te vayas with irte:
English: Before leaving, tidy up your room.
Español: Antes de irte, recoge la habitación.
English: After we eat, we’ll go to the ice cream parlor.
Español: Después de que comamos, vamos a la heladería.
Again, remove que and replace the verb with its infinitive form:
English: After eating, we’ll go to the ice cream parlor.
Español: Después de comer, vamos a la heladería.
So when should you learn the Spanish subjunctive?
This post is intended to be an overview of how to avoid the Spanish subjunctive. But, it also works as a reasonable introduction to the topic as you will now be aware of where the subjunctive commonly occurs.
If you can communicate in Spanish, without the need to change to English, and you want to continue to improve, then now is the time to learn the subjunctive mood.
If, on the other hand, you struggle at times to find the words to describe straightforward ideas or ask uncomplicated questions, then you need to focus on learning foundational vocabulary.
If I could start learning Spanish from scratch again, I wouldn’t have focused on the subjunctive as early as I did. I was too focused on knowing everything and being ‘fluent’ as quickly as I could.
I have talked previously about my disillusion with the word ‘fluency‘ because it implies a level of perfection that means you need to focus on knowing everything all at once.
Instead, I believe that the order you learn Spanish theory matters a great deal, and that you should focus first on simply being able to communicate.
A conversational level doesn’t require a perfect use of the subjunctive or any other tense, it simply comes from knowing a large enough vocabulary that you can describe things in a roundabout way.
Once you reach this point, then it is time to level up your skills. If you can hold a conversation then you will want to refine the ideas that you can express with a more expansive vocabulary and a better control of grammar.
It’s your turn to use some of the theory in this post to improve your Spanish skills.
See if you can find some time this week to put some of the sentence reshuffles on your “to practice” list. Try to go out and see how you can express desires, judgments or probability without the subjunctive.
How else can you avoid the Spanish subjunctive mood?