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Published on: Grammar

The Complete Guide to Subjunctive vs Indicative in Spanish

Today we’re going to be tackling one of the trickiest topics in the Spanish language – subjunctive vs indicative. The difference between these two moods is usually one of the most difficult concepts for Spanish learners to understand.

But there’s no reason that the subjunctive should haunt you for the rest of your life! It might be a little hard to grasp at first, but the subjunctive mood just takes a little bit of practice to master. 

So if we want to really understand the difference between the subjunctive vs indicative in Spanish, then we’re going to need to look at all three (yes, three!) moods. 

Let’s get started! 

Moods in Spanish

The first thing to note is that there are three moods in Spanish. You have the indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. Typically, you learn them in that order, too.

Notice that we’re talking about moods, not tense. A grammar tense refers to the time. A grammar mood refers to the way you express something.

For today’s purpose, we’ll be focusing on the three moods in the present tense. Although you can also use these moods in the past tense, we’ll keep things simple to avoid any confusion. 

Let’s take a look at each of these Spanish moods and understand them one by one.

Indicative

The indicative mood is the easiest type, so we’ll start here. Simply put, the indicative mood is used to indicate something. You are stating something as a fact, or something you believe is a fact. 

In case there is any confusion – the indicative is the mood for EVERY verb conjugation you’ve probably already learned. 

The present tense, the progressive, the imperfect, the preterite, etc. – all of those tenses can be expressed through the indicative. 

Here’s a quick conjugation chart to review the conjugation for verbs in the indicative present tense:

Indicative mood conjugation chart

Subject Pronoun AR verbs ER verbs IR verbs
Yo Hablo Corro Abro
Hablas Corres Abres
Él / Ella / Usted Habla Corre Abre
Nosotros Hablamos Corremos Abremos 
Vosotros Habláis Corréis Abrís 
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes Hablan Corren Abren

 

In other words – you can think of the indicative mood in Spanish as the “normal” verb conjugations. You’ll use them to express facts you believe to be true. For example:

  • José corre todos los días – José runs every day.  
  • Los niños hablan mucho – Children talk a lot. 

Both corre and hablan are in indicative because both of those sentences express a fact or a general statement. Keep this in mind for when we move on to the subjunctive.

Need to review these verb conjugations for the present tense? Make sure to check out our guide on Spanish regular verb conjugations.

Imperative

The imperative mood is also known as the “command” mood. When we use this tense, we aren’t simply stating something, we are commanding someone to do something. 

Well, not necessarily “command” – it can also be a polite request or asking someone to do something for you. That connotation depends on the tone and the context. In other words – it’s making the verb into a call to action. 

Imperative mood conjugation chart

Subject Pronoun AR verbs ER verbs IR verbs
Tú (informal, affirmative) Habla Corre Abre
Tú (informal, negative) Hables Corras Abras
Usted (formal, affirmative) Hable Corra Abra
Usted (formal, negative) Hable Corra Abra
Nosotros  Hablemos Corramos Abramos
Vosotros (informal, affirmative)  Hablad Corred Abrid 
Vosotros (informal, negative) Habléis Corráis Abráis 
Ustedes (formal, affirmative) Hablen Corran Abran
Ustedes (formal, negative) Hablen Corrran Abran

 

So, the imperative might seem a bit more complicated at first, but this is because affirmative commands and negative commands sometimes use different expressions.

But the truth is, they all follow a very similar conjugation pattern:

  • The informal, affirmative command follows the indicative mood conjugations. 
  • Everything else follows the subjunctive mood conjugations. 

We’ll go into full detail for the imperative verbs on a different day – but for today, just pay attention to the conjugations. 

Subjunctive

Now we’re moving on to everyone’s most dreaded concept in the Spanish language – the present subjunctive. 

Conceptually, it can be a bit tricky for English speakers to understand how to use the subjunctive mood. This is mostly because it is very rarely used in English, so we find it complicated to understand. 

The subjunctive is used to express emotions, doubt, and feelings – intangible sentiments that aren’t so cut-in-stone. The best way to master the subjunctive mood is by simply practicing it. So let’s look at the subjunctive conjugation chart, then move on to how to use it.

Subjunctive mood conjugation chart

Subject Pronoun AR verbs ER verbs IR verbs
Yo Hable Corra Abra
Hables Corras Abras
Él / Ella / Usted Hable Corra Abra
Nosotros Hablemos Corramos Abramos
Vosotros Habléis Corráis Abráis
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes  Hablen Corran Abran

 

As you can see, you can kind of think of the subjunctive as the “opposite” of the indicative. Both in conceptual terms and in regard to conjugation.

It’s not a perfect explanation, but in general AR verbs take the ER indicative conjugation, while ER and IR verbs take the AR conjugation. While not a completely fool-proof rule, it can be a helpful guide when you’re working on memorizing.

Now let’s move on to the juicy stuff – how to use the subjunctive vs indicative mood in Spanish. 

The subjunctive vs indicative

So now we’ll be focusing solely on the difference in usage between the indicative in Spanish and the subjunctive. Remember, we’ll be looking at the differences between these two moods only in the present tense – but remember, we can apply this understanding to past tenses on another day. 

Indicative in Spanish

The indicative in Spanish is used to talk about facts and certainty. In other words – statements you are certain about. Using the indicative is much easier because there are fewer restrictions and, in general, it’s the first mood you’ll learn in any language. 

Some examples of the indicative are:

  • María es muy lista – María is very smart
  • Trabajo en una empresa de marketing – I work in a marketing company
  • La semana que viene es pascua – Next week is Easter

As you can see – pretty simple. All of these sentences state a fact or something the speaker is certain about. Now let’s move on to the subjunctive and see how this can change. 

Subjunctive in Spanish

Image by Tengyart via Unsplash

The subjunctive is used to talk about emotions, desires, uncertainty – anything that isn’t truly a fact. Now, we won’t get too philosophical, but a general guideline is that the subjunctive mood helps us talk about subjective things.

Here are a few examples:

  • Dudo que tenga mucho tiempo – I doubt he/she has a lot of time. 
  • Es importante que estudies mucho – It’s important you study a lot. 
  • Que bien que hayas venido  – How nice of you to come

To use the subjunctive, each of these sentences has a few things in common. 

  • A conceptual difference
  • A subject change
  • A connector

In most cases, the connector is que – so that’s easy to remember. Now let’s go over the two other elements that we MUST have in order to use the subjunctive.

 QUICK TIP…

We can use the subjunctive in other ways, as well. But for simplicity – let’s stick to this explanation to start.

The WEIRDO Clauses

The conceptual difference, the change in the sentence that makes it separate from the indicative – is fundamental. Usually, you use the indicative to express a clear factual statement. However, with the subjunctive, we’ll be expressing an idea that isn’t so concrete. 

There are lots of different meanings you could express with the subjunctive, but we often categorize them as WEIRDO clauses. Hopefully, this strange acronym helps you memorize the different uses!

W – Wishes

  • Espero que tengas un buen día – I hope you have a nice day
  • Quiere que hablemos más bajito – He wants us to speak a little quieter

E – Emotions

  • Me frustra que cueste tanto tiempo – It’s frustrating that it takes so long. 

I – Impersonal expressions

  • Es bueno que comas bien – It’s good that you eat well
  • Es horrible que gobiernen  – It’s horrible that they’re in the government

R – Recommendations 

  • Recomiendo que vayas al médico – I recommend you go to the doctor 
  • Sugiere que comamos la paella – He suggests we eat paella

D – Doubt / Denial

  • Dudo que estén cerrados – I doubt they’re closed 
  • No creo que tengan comida vegetariana  I don’t think they have vegetarian food

O – Ojalá (hopefully)

  • Ojalá no llueve más – Hopefully it doesn’t rain anymore
  • Ojalá tengas tiempo – Hopefully you have time.

Remember these are just conceptual guides! Sometimes you can use the subjunctive to express other ideas that don’t perfectly fit in these categories.

Subject Change

The second important element to recognize when you use the subjunctive vs the indicative is the subject change. In Spanish, when we use the subjunctive – it almost always is going to trigger a change of subject in the second clause. 

You can look back at the previous examples and notice that ALL the sentences have two subjects. The first verb is conjugated in one subject (yo, tú, él, etc.), while the verb in the subjunctive is in a different one.

For example:

  • Espero que lo pases bienI hope you have a good time 

In order to trigger the subjunctive in these types of clauses, we’ll need a change of subject AND a connector (like que). 

Que bien que lo hayas acabado

You’re finished! To be fair, the subjunctive is a difficult topic that will probably take you a while to understand. So just remember that you’ll need some time for it to click.

But the best way to get it under control is to practice! So go ahead and sign up for a free private class or a 7-day free trial of our group classes to practice what you learned!

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