Single subject subjunctives

Last week, several students in my intermediate Spanish class crashed and burned on what looked to me like a routine homework assignment. The topic was the subjunctive in contexts of doubt and possibility, and the format was constructing sentences “Chinese menu” style, with one element from each column.

I wasn’t wild about this activity. I would have liked to have seen more variety of subjects instead of just yo…yo…yo. Also, the activity included only one unambiguous indicative context (creo que). At the same time, it reinforced a clunky simplification that our textbook makes in introducing this topic. While in real life quizá(s) and tal vez can be followed by either the indicative or the subjunctive — this is, indeed, one of my favorite demonstrations of the power of the subjunctive — the textbook presents them as always triggering the subjunctive. I’d rather postpone quizá(s) and tal vez until students are ready to handle, and even enjoy, this flexibility.

These misgivings aside, I was surprised by the fact that many of my best students kept the indicative (podré, me tomaré, encontraré, etc.) in all of their sentences. A class discussion revealed why: they were following the rule of thumb, drilled into them in high school classes, that the subjunctive is only found in sentences with a change of subject signaled by que.

I could see where my students were coming from. In teaching the subjunctive one naturally emphasizes the difference between sentences like (1) and (2) below:

  1. Quiero salir. ‘I want to leave.’
  2. Quiero que tú salgas. ‘I want you to leave.’

Whereas English uses the infinitive ‘to leave’ in both sentences, Spanish uses the infinitive only if the two clauses have the same subject. Sentences like the second one above, which has two different subjects (yo ‘I’ and tú  ‘you’) separated by que, require the subjunctive.

A rule of thumb, however, is different from an actual rule. Expressions of doubt require que and the subjunctive even when there is no change of subject: for example, Dudo que tenga un hijo el año que viene ‘I doubt I’ll have a kid next year’, to use one of the “Chinese menu” options. While the ‘rule of thumb’ suggests the use of the infinitive instead, the resulting sentence Dudo tener un hijo el año que viene sounds less natural than the subjunctive version.

My students’ difficulty on this topic reflects the overall danger of relying on rules of thumb, including mnemonics, in teaching and learning. I’ve seen the same problem crop up in students’ reluctance to use the preterite to talk about weather (e.g. Ayer llovió ‘It rained yesterday), because somewhere along the line they learned to always use the imperfect. For more on this general pedagogical topic, please see this post from 2013.

Finally, I must include a shout-out to this discussion, which I found helpful in answering my students’ questions about this topic, and which more or less inspired this post.

6 thoughts on “Single subject subjunctives

  1. Michael Martinez

    I feel the right way to teach this is to teach the purpose of subjunctive instead of the rules. I’ll explain what I mean by using present indicative as an example.

    If the thing you’re talking about is currently happening or happens regularly as a matter of course, then you need to use the present indicative, otherwise you need to use the subjunctive. The only exception is when expressing an opinion about something that actually has happened or is happening – in this case the reason you use the subjunctive for the event is to put the emphasis on your opinion rather than putting it on the occurrence of the event.

    So, if you’re trying to think about whether something requires the subjunctive, ask yourself:
    * has it, in fact, happened?
    * it is happening right now?
    * does it regularly happen?
    If the answer to all of these is NO, then you NEED to use the subjunctive.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      I explain the general usage more vaguely, as a “weak” form of the verb that shows up in contexts where the regular verb forms are “too strong.” That weak/strong difference does a pretty good job in my experience, and it can handle the “expressing an opinion” case.

        1. jhochberg Post author

          It’s deliberately vague — gets fleshed out as they learn more cases.
          This is actually a new approach I’m trying — too early to tell how effective it is in the long run.


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