Understanding When to Use the Spanish Pluperfect Subjunctive

Because Spanish uses the pluperfect subjunctive more than English does, you may wonder just when you’re supposed to use it instead of other verb tenses. Keep reading for an explanation of when to use the pluperfect subjunctive versus the pluperfect and the present perfect subjunctive.

The pluperfect subjunctive expresses the same time frame as the pluperfect; that is, it expresses a past action that is more past than another past action. The difference is that the pluperfect subjunctive is used in sentences with a main clause that requires the use of the subjunctive mood in the subordinate clause.

The following sentences show the difference between the pluperfect and the pluperfect subjunctive:

  • Pluperfect: Yo creía que ellos habían llegado a tiempo. (I believed that they had arrived on time.) Note that this sentence is a statement of fact.

  • Pluperfect subjunctive: Yo dudaba que ella hubiera llamado. (I doubted that she had called.) Note that this sentence expresses doubt, so it uses the subjunctive.

Another subtle distinction you need to be able to make is between the present perfect subjunctive and the pluperfect subjunctive. Both constructions begin with a main clause and call for the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. The present perfect subjunctive, however, refers to actions that may have happened, whereas the pluperfect subjunctive references an action in the subordinate clause that possibly had happened.

The following sentences help distinguish between present perfect and the pluperfect subjunctives:

  • Present perfect subjunctive: Es importante que los estudiantes hayan leído la lección. It is important that the students have read the lesson.

  • Pluperfect subjunctive: Yo no creía que él hubiera robado la tienda. I didn’t believe that he had robbed the store.

Note that both of these sentences are in the subjunctive mood; only the tense is changed.

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