Asking Politely with the Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive

Proper manners are important wherever you go, whether the people there speak Spanish, English, or Swahili. In polite society, when you ask for something instead of giving a direct order. You don’t say, “Gimme that!”; instead, you say something like, “I would like this or that.”

The same holds true for Spanish speakers. To express yourself politely in Spanish, you use the imperfect subjunctive verb tense along with querer or poder.

Querer literally means “to want.” Instead of using the verb in the straight present tense, which would translate rather brusquely to “I want,” use the imperfect subjunctive, which adds a much more subtle and polite sound to the request. Notice the difference:

  • Present: Quiero una hamburguesa. (I want a hamburger.)

  • Imperfect subjunctive: Quisiera una hamburguesa (I would like a hamburger.)

Poder literally means “to be able to” or “can,” but using poder to make requests in the present tense (“Can you do such and such?”) or the future tense (“Will you do such and such?”) can seem pretty cold. The imperfect subjunctive provides a much friendlier alternative, as the following examples illustrate:

  • Present: ¿Puedes lavar los platos? (Can you wash the dishes?)

  • Future: ¿Lavarás los platos? (Will you wash the dishes?)

  • Imperfect subjunctive: ¿Si pudieras, lavarías los platos? (If you could, would you wash the dishes?)