Conveying Uncertainty with the Spanish Subjunctive - dummies

Conveying Uncertainty with the Spanish Subjunctive

The Spanish subjunctive mood doesn’t need to be positive. It simply needs to be uncertain, and uncertainty can take many forms, including doubt, impersonal opinion, and incomplete action. Use the subjunctive to express these situations in Spanish; the following sections give you the details.

Voicing your doubts and reservations

For the optimist, the subjunctive offers hope. For the pessimist, the subjunctive offers doubt. The subject doubts or can’t imagine that something or other happens. Like English, Spanish uses several words to express doubt, including, of course, the verb doubt itself. Each verb that expresses some form of doubt must be followed by the subjunctive in order to convey the sense of uncertainty. The following table lists common Spanish verbs that express doubt.

Verbs That Express Doubt
Verb Translation
dudar to doubt
no creer to not believe
no estar convencido/a de to not be convinced
no estar seguro/a de to not be sure
no imaginarse to not imagine
no parecer to not seem
no pensar to not think
no suponer to not suppose
temer to suspect, to fear

You could put together a sentence like this one to show that you’re uncertain: Yo dudo que ella llegue a tiempo. (I doubt that she arrives on time.)

Although the verbs listed in the negative use the subjunctive in their subordinate clauses, these same verbs require the indicative when used in the affirmative.

Expressing impersonal opinion

When you want to express an opinion but don’t necessarily want that opinion attributed to you, you can use the subjunctive to express impersonal opinion. In English, the key word in expressing impersonal opinion is it’s: “It’s important that . . . ,” “It’s necessary that . . . ,” or “It’s preferable that . . .” This list gives you commonly used Spanish expressions that state an impersonal opinion and require the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. These expressions convey impersonal opinion by expressing emotion, uncertainty, unreality, or an indirect or implied command.

Common Expressions of Impersonal Opinion
Term Translation
es fantástico it’s fantastic
es importante it’s important
es imposible it’s impossible
es incredible it’s incredible
es (una) lástima it’s a shame
es mejor it’s better
es necesario it’s necessary
es posible it’s possible
es probable it’s probable
es preferible it’s preferable
es ridículo it’s ridiculous
es terrible it’s terrible
ojalá I hope; God willing
puede ser it may be

Here’s an example that expresses impersonal opinion: Es necesario que ellos trabajen más. (It’s necessary that they work more.)

Making one action conditional upon another

Some connecting words and phrases, such as unless, before, and in case, introduce subordinate clauses that express incomplete action. When one action is conditional upon another, uncertain action, you use the subjunctive to convey that uncertainty. In the sentence “I’ll clean their room as soon as they leave,” for example, the main clause, “I’ll clean their room,” is conditional upon the subordinate clause, “as soon as they leave.” Several connecting phrases cue the use of the subjunctive, including the following terms:

Connecting Phrases That Use the Subjunctive
Term Translation
a menos que unless
antes (de) que* before
con tal (de) que* provided that
Cuando when
después (de) que* after
en caso de que in case
hasta que until
mientras que while
para que so that, in order that
tan pronto como as soon as
* The de may be omitted.

When the subordinate clause describes uncertain, incomplete action, the verb in the main clause is usually in the future tense. Here’s a sentence that uses the future tense and the subjunctive mood: Yo le hablaré tan pronto como llegue. (I’ll speak will him as soon as he arrives.)