John goes to the store. This sentence merely states the certain, objective fact that John goes to the store.
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I know that John goes to the store. There is no doubt that John goes to the store. I want John to go to the store. I hope that John goes to the store.
The Spanish Subjunctive
It is possible that John will go to the store. Because there must be some uncertainty or subjectivity to warrant the use of the subjunctive, you will usually see it in sentences that contain a main clause which introduces a quality of uncertainty or subjectivity. The above examples all have main clauses, but only the first and the third introduce an element of uncertainty or subjectivity.
In learning to use the subjunctive, it is quite helpful if one can first recognize such clauses. I believe the visitor is Ana. Subjunctive: No creo que la visitante sea Ana. I don't believe the visitor is Ana. Explanation: The subjunctive is used in the second example because the subordinate clause is negated by the main clause.
Generally, the indicative is used with creer que or pensar que , while the subjunctive is used with no creer que or no pensar que. Indicative: Es obvio que tienes dinero. It is obvious you have money. Subjunctive: Es bueno que tengas dinero. It is good you have money. Explanation: The indicative is used in the first example because it expresses reality or apparent reality.
The subjunctive is used in the other example because the sentence is a reaction to the statement in the subordinate clause. Indicative: Habla bien porque es experto. He speaks well because he's an expert. Subjunctive: Habla bien como si fuera experto. He speaks well as if he were an expert.
Explanation: The subjunctive is used in the second example because it's irrelevant to the sentence whether he's an expert, although the sentence suggests that he isn't. Perhaps they can do it and I'm sure of it.
Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive
Perhaps they can do it but I doubt it. Explanation: In a sentence such as this, the subjunctive is used to emphasize uncertainty or doubt, the indicative to emphasize certainty. Note how the Spanish verb form is used to indicate an attitude that might need further explanation in English. There are politicians who have courage. Are there politicians with courage?
I will arrive even though my car isn't running. I will arrive even if my car isn't running. Explanation: The indicative is used in the first sentence because the speaker knows his car isn't working. In the second sentence, the speaker doesn't know whether it is running, so the subjunctive is used. The pyramid has been restored by the provincial government.
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I am happy that the pyramid has been restored. Explanation: The indicative is used in the first sentence because it is a direct statement of fact. The main point of the second example is the speaker's reaction to the event, so the subjunctive is used. When you are with me my heart is full. This will help you navigate the common pitfalls, and know what common learner mistakes and perceptions to watch out for.
We have the subjunctive in English too! Just as with gender, the Spanish subjunctive is quite an alien concept to us.
How Not to Learn The Subjunctive Mood
Even for speakers of other romance languages which use the subjunctive, the Spanish subjunctive has a lot of differences compared to French or Italian. While this can be discouraging, fear not! However, as with all Spanish conjugations, you just need practice.