Slippery relative clauses

[See also this related post from last year.]

I happen to love the Spanish subjunctive. I love how expressive this mood can be. I love how the present and past subjunctives incorporate all the irregulars of the present and preterite indicative. And I love the two forms of the imperfect subjunctive.

IMHO the question of when to use the indicative versus the subjunctive is TONS easier than the question of when to use the preterite versus the imperfect. I tell my students that once they learn the rules, they will be okay.

Of course, my students don’t necessarily buy into my enthusiasm…But I keep trying. This year I’m experimenting with a new approach whereby I characterize indicative contexts generally as fuerte ‘strong’ and subjunctive contexts generally as débil ‘weak.’ This is actually a student-friendly version of the linguistic terminology of assertions versus non-assertions that I picked up when researching Question 87 of my book (“How can the subjunctive be used for actual events?”).

Of course I also teach my students specific uses of the subjunctive, often including the WEIRDO acronym. (Maybe one day I will try Lightspeed Spanish’s WOOPA acronym also or instead.) But I believe that it is helpful to give students an overall concept as well as the specific cases.

A PowerPoint I put together to teach the use of the indicative and subjunctive in relative (or “adjective”) clauses exemplifies this dual approach (see introductory slide below).  On the one hand, the real and hipotético descriptors reference the specific rule for relative clauses. On the other hand, the strong and weak guys hanging out next to the happy student who has a good Spanish teacher (explica), versus the sad student who’s still looking (explique), reference the fuerte and débil contexts. If you click on the image you will access the whole PowerPoint via Google Drive. (Normally I embed PowerPoints via SlideShare, but it isn’t working properly tonight.)

In class, I handed each pair of students a list of the eleven numbered sentences from the PowerPoint. (See below, where I’ve underlined the correct answers.) As I showed each slide, the student pairs tried to figure out whether the situation fit the indicative or the subjunctive. Then I called on one pair to report and explain their decision. The students really seemed to enjoy the activity, and mostly came up with the correct answers.

¿Indicativo (real) o subjuntivo (hipotético)?

  1. Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués.
  2. Necesito un helado que se hace/haga sin azúcar
  3. ¿Conoces un restaurante que tiene/tenga comida barata?
  4. ¿Conoces a una chica de Egipto que vive/viva en mi colegio mayor?
  5. Quiero leer un libro que se llama/llame Tool of War.
  6. Necesito un helado que se vende/venda en mi vecindario
  7. Quiero trabajar con una persona que tiene/tenga mucha experiencia.
  8. Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués.
  9. Estoy buscando un libro que me enseña/enseñe a reparar mi bicicleta.
  10. Quiero leer un libro que me explica/explique la gramática.
  11. Quiero trabajar con una persona que tiene/tenga mucha experiencia.

7 thoughts on “Slippery relative clauses

  1. alice

    This was very helpful…especially the last few. It seems so definite and obvious to me that if you are, for example, googling repair manuals on Amazon (9), that there are definitely Many…, but that there is some doubt until one is actually chosen, and the construction will be in the subjunctive. Likewise, I might have a list of actual existing professors who teach a subject (8), but until I actually choose one, I am working in the realm of the subjunctive. (Sure hope I got that analysis right!)

  2. Michael

    I thought that if you are looking for “una profesora” [indefinite article] rather than “la profesora” [definite article] who speaks Portuguese then the subjunctive would be required since you don’t even know if such a teacher of Portuguese exists.

    Thus, for the identical sentences 1 and 8, I thought that the verb enseñar should be conjugated in the subjunctive mode.

    In fact, in many of the basic Spanish textbooks that I’ve perused over the past decade, I seem to recall just such a simple sentence using buscar and the two articles to show when the subjunctive was required.

    Can you expand on this for us? I’m confused as to why you had two identical sentences in your list?
    All best,

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Hi Michael, great question! This is not too different from tal vez or quizás, where the same linguistic context can trigger indicative or subjunctive, the difference being the speaker’s intentions. So for example, in the otherwise identical sentences 1 and 8 (Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués), with the indicative you’re thinking of a specific professor, and with the subjunctive you’re looking for any professor. It’s like, in English, I’m looking for a girl who is wearing a long red dress. Have you seen her? (specific) vs. I’m looking for a girl who is wearing a long red dress. If I find one, I’ll marry her. (generic) See also the example here from the 1970s sitcom Phyllis.

    2. jhochberg Post author

      P.S. on rereading your question and my answer, it occurred to me that you might not have clicked through to see the PowerPoint. The sentences don’t make any sense without the images in the PowerPoint.

  3. Jon Aske

    A couple of comments.
    When you say “the preterite versus the indicative”, I remind you that the preterite is a tense of the indicative mood. Maybe you meant something else?
    I am skeptical about using terms like weak and strong, which just obfuscate matters and confuse students. Also assertion vs. non-assertion, especially when it comes to the use of the subjunctive in relative clauses.
    In relative clauses, which I prefer to call adjective clauses, a much more transparent name, the indicative is used if the noun phrase refers to an existing entity the speaker has in mind and the subjunctive is used otherwise. It really is that simple.
    In adverb clauses, matters are also quite simple. The rules are simple as to when an adverb clause will have the subjunctive.
    The most problematic context when it comes to the use of the subjunctive (vs the indicative) is the noun clause, or at least some types of noun clauses, for there we find subtle differences and the rules are not that simple.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks again for catching that typo.
      I edited the blog post to clarify why I use the weak/strong terms. (I never use assertion/non-assertion in class.)
      I used the term “relative clause” in this post mostly because our textbook uses it and that’s where my brain is. However, I have to say that I have never been fond of the terms “adjective clause” and “noun clause” for teaching the subjunctive. In fact, just between you and me (and anyone reading this comment), I never fully understood them until I forced myself to reread the relevant bits of a textbook a few years ago. I think that if you use these terms, kids have to first remember what an adjective or a noun is, and second, map this onto the relevant structures that may contain a subjunctive. In fact, I much prefer to refer to the different contexts via example.
      And yes, the distinction between subjunctive and indicative in adjective clauses is very simple, but when explaining it to students and giving them the chance to decide between two moods, it is very helpful to have some images to hang the ideas on. Hence the little PowerPoint.

      Yours in Spanish,



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