Subjunctive vs. Indicative in Spanish

Quick Answer

The subjunctive is one of the three moods in Spanish, the other two being the indicative (actions, events, facts) and the imperative (commands).

Moods reflect how the speaker feels about an action while a tense refers to when an action takes place.

The subjunctive mood is used to express desires, doubts, the unknown, the abstract, and emotions, which is the opposite of the indicative mood which is used to express actions, events, and states that are believed to be true and concrete.

Most of the tenses you have learned so far have been in the indicative mood; however, the subjunctive mood includes many of the same verb tenses, but not all, in three different time periods:

TenseMoodMood
SubjunctiveIndicative
Pastimperfectimperfect
past perfectpast perfect
preterite
Presentpresentpresent
present perfectpresent perfect
Futuresimple futuresimple future
future perfectfuture perfect
informal future
Conditionalthere are no conditional subjunctive tensesconditional
conditional perfect

General Rules for Indicative vs. Subjunctive

In general, the indicative mood is objective and certain.

  • It is used to talk about actions, events, or states that are believed to be facts or true.
  • It is very typical in speech for making factual statements or describing obvious qualities of a person or situation.

In general, the subjunctive mood is subjective and possible (but not certain).

  • It is used to talk about doubts, wishes, the abstract, emotions, and other unknown and non-factual situations.
  • It is commonly used in making recommendations, giving commands, and talking about how things make you feel.
  • It is also used to express opinions about another action.
IndicativeSubjunctive
Spanish
Victoria estudia español.
 
Dudo que Victoria estudie español.
 
EnglishVictoria studies Spanish.I doubt that Victoria studies Spanish.
ReasonThis states an objective fact that Victoria studies Spanish.The introduction of doubt makes it impossible to present the statement that Victoria studies Spanish as an objective fact.
Spanish
Es cierto que Victoria estudia español.
 
Es posible que Victoria estudie español.
 
EnglishIt is certain that Victoria studies Spanish.It is possible that Victoria studies Spanish.
ReasonFrom the speaker’s viewpoint, the statement that Victoria studies Spanish is an objective fact.From the speaker’s viewpoint, the idea that "Victoria studies Spanish" is not an objective fact, but a hypothetical situation which may or may not be true.
Spanish
No dudo que Victoria estudia español.
 
Es bueno que Victoria estudie español.
 
EnglishI don’t doubt that Victoria studies Spanish.It is good that Victoria studies Spanish.
ReasonThe lack of doubt on the part of the speaker allows them to present this statement as an objective fact.Es bueno que expresses the speaker’s subjective opinion about Victoria studying Spanish.

Words or Phrases that Indicate the Subjunctive or Indicative

Because there must be some uncertainty or subjectivity to warrant the use of the subjunctive, you will find either uncertainty or certainty in the verb in the main clause of a sentence. It is very helpful if you can recognize the verbs and phrases in the main clause that indicate the subjunctive and tell them apart from similar clauses that warrant the indicative.

Luckily, many of the verbs and phrases that require the subjunctive fit into the acronym WEIRDO: Wishes, Emotions, Impersonal expressions, Recommendations, Doubt/Denial, and Ojalá. Each of these concepts has its own article for more details.

ConceptRelated Verbs and Phrases
Wishesdesear, esperar, exigir, insistir, preferir, querer, pedir, necesitar, etc.
Emotionsalegrarse, enojar, sentir, encantar, lamentar, sorprender, etc.
Impersonal expressionses extraño que, es importante que, es fantástico que, etc.
Recommendationsrecomendar, sugerir, aconsejar, ordenar, mandar, insistir, etc.
Doubt and Denialdudar, no creer, no estar seguro, no parecer, no comprender, no pensar, no es cierto que, etc.
Ojalán/a

And just to be fair to the indicative, we have an acronym for that too - SPOCK: Speech and communication, Perceptions,Occurrences and events, Certainty, and Knowledge and understanding.

ConceptRelated Verbs and Phrases
Speech and communicationdecir, describir, gritar, indicar, mencionar, repetir, revelar, señalar, asegurar, comentar, afirmar, aludir a, etc.
Perceptionsnotar, observar, oír, percibir, encontrarse, ver, etc.
Occurrences and eventsocurrir, suceder, pasar, acontecer, etc.
Certaintyes claro que, es seguro que, es cierto que, es obvio que, es evidente que, etc.
Knowledge and understandingcreer, saber, averiguar, leer, enterarse de, aprender, etc.

Parts of a Subjunctive Phrase

There are three main parts to a subjunctive sentence:

1. Two Different Subjects

There will be one subject in the main/independent clause, and one in the noun/dependent clause.

Quiero que limpies el baño.
I want you to clean the bathroom.
 

2. Two Verbs: One WEIRDO and One Subjunctive

There will be one indicative verb in the main/independent clause which will indicate the need for the subjunctive (a WEIRDO verb - see above) and a second verb in the noun/dependent clause which will be in the subjunctive.

Quiero que tú limpies el baño.
I want you to clean the bathroom.
 

However, if you find a sentence with a main clause followed by a second clause, and the verb in the main clause introduces the idea of certainty or objectivity, you will use the indicative. Only verbs in the main clause that indicate a concept that is uncertain and subjective will require the subjunctive.

  • Es cierto que limpias el baño. (It is true that you are cleaning the bathroom.)

3. A Relative Pronoun (Que, Quien, Como)

This pronoun links the two clauses and can translate to mean “that,” but is often not translated at all into English.

Quiero que limpies el baño.
I want (that) you clean the bathroom. / I want you to clean the bathroom.
 

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