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Subjunctive vs. Indicative in Spanish

Subjunctive vs. Indicative in Spanish

Quick Answer

The subjunctive (el subjuntivo ) is one of three moods in Spanish. The other two Spanish moods are the indicative and the imperative.

  • The subjunctive mood is used to talk about desires, doubts, wishes, conjectures, and possibilities.
  • The indicative mood is used to talk about facts and other statements that are believed to be true and concrete.
  • The imperative mood is used to give commands.

Mood vs. Tense

Grammatical mood reflects a speaker's attitude toward a statement. As stated above, Spanish has three moods: the subjunctive, the indicative, and the imperative.

Grammatical tense refers to when an action takes place. Spanish has three tenses: the past, the present, and the future.

General Rules for Differentiating Between the Indicative and the Subjunctive

  • The indicative mood is used to talk about things that are objective and/or certain. This includes things like facts, descriptions, and scheduled events.

  • The subjunctive mood is used to talk about things that are subjective and/or possible, but not certain. This includes things like doubts, wishes, recommendations, unknowns, and opinions about the likelihood of other events occurring.

Take a look at the following sets of examples and ask yourself why each one uses either the indicative or the subjunctive. (Hint: if the sentence has two verbs, concentrate on the second verb). Don't worry if you're stumped; you'll find the answers below.

Indicative or Subjunctive?

Victoria estudia español.
Victoria studies Spanish.
 
Es posible que Victoria estudie español.
It is possible that Victoria studies Spanish.
 
Estoy seguro que Victoria estudia español.
I'm sure that Victoria studies Spanish.
 
Dudo que Victoria estudie español.
I doubt that Victoria studies Spanish.
 

The Why

ExamplesIndicative or Subjunctive?The Why
Victoria estudia español.IndicativeFrom the speaker’s viewpoint, the idea that "Victoria studies Spanish" is an objective fact.
Es posible que Victoria estudie español.SubjunctiveFrom the speaker’s viewpoint, the idea that "Victoria studies Spanish" is a hypothetical situation that may or may not be true.
Estoy seguro que Victoria estudia español.IndicativeFrom the speaker’s viewpoint, there is no doubt about Victoria studying Spanish.
Dudo que Victoria estudie español.SubjunctiveFrom the speaker’s viewpoint, there is doubt about Victoria studying Spanish.

Did you notice the repetition of the phrase "from the speaker's viewpoint" above? This is key to understanding a very important point: "indicative" does not mean "true." As long as a speaker feels that what they're saying is true, the indicative can be used. This does not, however, mean that what they're saying is actually true.

Estoy seguro que los seres humanos tienen alas.
I'm sure that human beings have wings.

 

The above statement is not true, but the speaker believes it is, so the second verb is in the indicative.

Features of Sentences that Use the Subjunctive

There are three main features that most sentences that use the subjunctive share: two subjects, two verbs, and a relative pronoun.

1. Two Subjects

Most subjunctive sentences will have one subject in the main clause and one in the secondary clause. The attitude of the subject in the main clause is what triggers the use of the subjunctive in the secondary clause.

Laura quiere que limpies el baño.
Laura wants you to clean the bathroom.
 

It is perfectly possible to use the subjunctive when both clauses refer to the same subject.

For example:

Dudo que yo pueda ir a la fiesta.
I doubt I can go to the party.

 

Espero que yo lo sepa hacer.
I hope I know how to do it.

 

2. Two Verbs

Most subjunctive sentences have two verbs: a verb in the indicative in the main clause and a verb in the subjunctive in the secondary clause.

Laura quiere que tú limpies el baño.
Laura wants you to clean the bathroom.
 

3. A Relative Pronoun

Most subjunctive sentences have a relative pronoun (such as que or quien) that links the main (indicative) clause to the secondary (subjunctive) clause.

Laura quiere que tú limpies el baño.
Laura wants you to clean the bathroom.
 

Words and Phrases that Trigger the Subjunctive or Indicative

Another key to grasping the differences between the subjunctive and the indicative is understanding that certain words or phrases trigger the use of each mood. For example, words and phrases that indicate uncertainty trigger the subjunctive, while those that indicate certainty trigger the indicative.

Many of the words and phrases that trigger the subjunctive fit into the acronym WEIRDO, which stands for: Wishes, Emotions, Impersonal expressions, Recommendations, Doubt/Denial, and Ojalá.

Below you'll find a list of words and phrases that tend to trigger the subjunctive in the verbs that follow them.

Table of Words and Phrases that Trigger the Subjunctive

ConceptRelated Verbs and Phrases
Verbs used to talk about wishesdesear , esperar , exigir , insistir , preferir , querer , pedir , necesitar 
Verbs used to talk about emotionsalegrarse , enojarse , sentir , encantar , lamentar , sorprender 
Impersonal expressionses extraño que , es importante que , es fantástico que 
Verbs used to talk about recommendationsrecomendar , sugerir , aconsejar , ordenar , mandar , insistir 
Verbs used to talk about doubt and denialdudar , no creer , no estar seguro , no parecer , no comprender , no pensar 
OjaláFor this category, there's just one word - ojalá !

Examples of Words and Phrases that Trigger the Subjunctive

Espero que vengas a la fiesta.
I hope you come to the party.
 
Me sorprende que pienses eso.
I'm surprised you think that.
 

Many of the words and phrases that trigger the indicative fit into the acronym SPOCK, which stands for Speech, Perceptions, Occurrences, Certainty, and Knowledge.

Below you'll find a list of words and phrases that tend to trigger the indicative in the verbs that follow them.

Table of Words and Phrases that Trigger the Indicative

ConceptRelated Verbs and Phrases
Verbs used to talk about speechdecir , describir , gritar , indicar , mencionar , repetir , revelar , señalar , asegurar , comentar , afirmar , aludir a 
Verbs used to talk about perceptionsnotar , observar , oír , percibir , encontrarse , ver 
Verbs used to talk about occurrencesocurrir , suceder , pasar , acontecer 
Expressions used to talk about certaintyes claro que , es seguro que , es cierto que , es obvio que , es evidente que 
Verbs used to talk about knowledgecreer , saber , averiguar , leer , enterarse de , aprender 

Examples of Words and Phrases that Trigger the Indicative

Es claro que se caen muy bien.
It's clear that they get along very well.
 
que te gusta mucho el café.
I know you really like coffee.
 

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