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The past subjunctive in Spanish: -se forms

The most common form of the Spanish past subjunctive is generally the -ara or -iera form mentioned on the previous pages. However, Spanish has an alternative way of forming the past subjunctive, with forms ending in -ase or -iese1. This alternative is formed simply as follows:

Replace -ra with -se, preserving person endings and accents.

This gives forms such as the following:

preguntara > preguntase
llegáramos > llegásemos
tomarais > tomaseis
pidieran > piedesen
dijeras > dijeses
fuera > fuese
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When do you use the -ara/-iera forms and when do you use the -ase/-iese forms of the past subjunctive?

First, a general rule of thumb:

If in doubt, always use the -ara/-iera forms: they're the most widely used geographically and have the widest possible range of uses.

Geographical variation

The -ra form is reported to be more widely used in Latin America and in the Andalucía region of Southern Spain (cf Stewart, 1999, p. 1022). Butt & Benjamin (2000:240) suggest that the -se form is frequent in Argentina.

Whichever is the prevalent form in a particular region, speakers (or at least, literate speakers) are generally exposed to both forms, since in most if not all Spanish-speaking countries, publications from the other countries are widely sold. In Mexico City, for example, the -se forms appear at best extremely rare in speech. But a Mexican reader of Muy Interesante (a popular science magazine published in Spain) will be passively exposed to -se forms even if they wouldn't use those forms actively.

Differences in usage

In terms of meaning, the -ara/-iera forms appear to be used fairly interchangeably. However, a couple of commonly reported differences are:

  • the -ara/-iera form appears far more common everywhere as a slightly more formal alternative to the conditional perfect: lo hubiera hecho for lo habría hecho;
  • the -ara/-iera form appears more common in its literary use as an alternative to the pluperfect, or a "past tense implying prior knowledge by the reader" (as found in journalistic use): cf Stewart (op cit, pp. 102-103) and Butt & Benjamin (2000:226-227, 240).

1. In cases where the past subjunctive form has no i (fuera, produjera etc), nor does the -se form: fuese, produjese etc.
2. Stewart, M. (1999), "The Spanish Language Today", Routledge.

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