When to use the subjunctive?
In our introduction to the subjunctive, we said that
fundamentally, the subjunctive is a special verb form that marks a non-assertion.
A non-assertion is something like a "snapshot" of a situation without saying that
it actually takes or took place— the rough equivalent of English phrases such as
"Daniel coming", "for Mary to wait", that Bill should come back etc.
In practice, this "snapshotting" function means that the Spanish subjunctive ends up being
used in a number of common types of construction:
to form the object of non-assertive verbs: that is, equivalents of
English cases such as:
I want/asked (for) him to come
they proposed/suggested that he came (but he didn't)
Mary hopes for Daniel to get better
we prefer (for) the children to be safe
I'm angry that Jane was so late
Suggest a change / Cambios sugeridos
(in some cases) as the object of assertive verbs used in the negative
(or which we might say are "intrinsically negative"). Note that in these cases, English doesn't
generally use any special construction to mark 'non-assertiveness', but the underlined
phrase would generally require a subjunctive in Spanish:
in relative clauses, where the noun does not refer to a
concrete thing or person:
in so-called impersonal constructions (it's possible/likely that...),
which arguably fall into the following category;
to make a clause be the subject of the sentence:
in fairly rare cases where a clause is made the subject of a sentence, that clause
will generally have a subjunctive verb in Spanish. English tends to use
either X -ing Y or for X to Y:
In both Spanish and English,
it's more common to put the clause after the verb; English
requires a "filler" subject (generally "it"):
To form the imperative in many cases.
In certain time-related clauses, essentially where the
time of the event in the subordinate clause occurs after
the time frame of the main clause, including clauses meaning
so that, in order that.
Thus, the equivalents of the following
would generally use a subjunctive in Spanish:
Similarly, when despues de ("after")
introduces an event "in the future", it takes a subjunctive:
Subjunctive in main clauses
A common feature of all the uses of the subjunctive mentioned above is that
they occur in subordinate clauses (a "sentence within a sentence").
In a few cases, the verb in the main clause can occur
in the subjunctive:
- generally, the subjunctive is triggered by an adverb or phrase
expressing "possibility", notably posiblemente,
probablemente, quizás, talvez;
- in such cases, the subjunctive is generally optional.
Introduction to Spanish verbs
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