Tag Archives: imperfect subjunctive

Spanish linguist’s guide to verb conjugations

I just wrote out some thoughts on Spanish verb conjugations in order to answer a question on Reddit, and thought they might be of more general interest.

The question was how to learn Spanish verb conjugations. I recommended conjuguemos.com, as always, for verb practice. But I also summarized the different conjugations, lumping them into eight groups from a learner’s perspective.

In this effort I wasn’t careful to distinguish tense, aspect, and mood; life is too short. And of course, the longer-term challenge is knowing WHEN to use each conjugation.

  1. The present tense takes a lot of practice because (i) it is usually the first tense you study, (ii) -ar, -er, and -ir verbs have distinct endings, and (iii) there are a lot of irregulars.
  2. The imperfect is super-easy because (i) -er and -ir verbs have the same endings and (ii) there are only three irregulars.
  3. The preterite, like the present, has tons of irregulars, but at least -er and -ir verbs have the same endings. I have a nice summary on my Teaching page (look for “Todo el pretérito”).
  4. The two subjunctive (present and past) conjugations are similar to the normal (“indicative”) present and the preterite for historical reasons, so once you have learned these it’s mostly a matter of getting used to a somewhat different set of endings. It helps that -er and -ir verbs have the same endings in the present subjunctive, and that -ar, -er, and -ir verbs ALL have the same endings in the past (“imperfect”) subjunctive. However, the present subjunctive does have six irregulars of its own. And the imperfect actually has two possible sets of endings (-ra and -se), though learners can just stick with the -ra set.
  5. The future and conditional are a piece of cake because you aren’t really conjugating, you’re just sticking endings (the same for -ar, -er, and -ir verbs) onto the infinitive. Although there are a bunch of irregulars, they all evolved to simplify pronunciation, so they feel good in your mouth.
  6. The perfect tenses with haber (like he comido) all use the same participle (the -ado/-ido thing), so once you (i) memorize a few irregular participles (like escrito) and (ii) know how to conjugate haber in the tense of your choosing, you are set.
  7. Same for the various progressive tenses (like estoy comiendo and estaba bailando), except that here you probably already know how to conjugate estar, so all you need to learn is the present participle (the -ando/-iendo thing), which again has a few irregulars (like durmiendo and leyendo) which are predictable once you get the hang of them.
  8. Commands build on what you already know. Mostly you use the subjunctive. The only exception is affirmative informal commands, both singular () and plural (vosotros). For historical reasons, affirmative  commands resemble the él/ella/usted form of the present tense, plus 8 irregulars, while affirmative vosotros commands simply change the -r of the infinitive for a -d, e.g. hablad ‘Speak, you guys’. A complication with commands is that object pronouns go before negative commands (No lo hagas) but glom onto the end of affirmative commands, often requiring an accent mark to maintain the normal stress position (Cómelo).


The -se imperfect subjunctive is alive and kicking

My friend Sue and I didn’t visit any language-related destinations today, making it an exception in our linguistic tour of northern Spain. I’d like to take advantage of this “day off” to share with you some uses of the -se imperfect subjunctive that I unexpectedly observed yesterday.

The -se imperfect subjunctive is one of my favorite phenomena in Spanish: not only does the language have both present and past tense subjunctives, but also, the past tense subjunctive has two different forms. This is an unusual and possibly unique type of grammatical redundancy.

Of the two past subjunctives, the version that ends in -ra is much more common than the one that ends in -se. One sees the -se subjunctive in literature, but I’d never heard anyone use it in conversation, or seen it in any casually written text. (It does shows up in literature.) I was thrilled, then, to run into the -se subjunctive twice yesterday. First, our tour guide at the Monasterio de Suso used it once or twice in his explanations. Later, during our lunch stop in Zaragoza, I spotted it on a poster for an anti-aging treatment. This text on the poster asks ¿Qué edad tendrías si no supieses la que tienes? ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’; I’ve underlined the subjunctive. The newer, and more frequently used, form would be supieras.se subjunctiveSeeing the subjunctive in action, after spending so much time researching and writing about it, was a real thrill. Plus, I love the poster — and I’m glad to say that Dra. Montserrat Salvador López, whose services it advertises, is listed as one of Spain’s Top Doctors!

Using the two imperfect subjunctives

I always keep an eye out for nice examples of Spanish prose that exploit the two versions of the imperfect subjunctive. (Previous posts on this topic are here and here.) I came across one recently in Cuatro días de enero, a police procedural by Jordi Sierra I Fabra set in Barcelona just before Franco’s forces take the city on January 26, 1939. Early in the novel the protagonist, a world-weary police detective, and his wife, who is dying from cancer (probably a metaphor for the death of the city), are talking about the state of the war. The author describes the detective’s feelings:

  • A veces se sentía atrapado, hiciera lo que hiciese, dijera lo que dijese.

This sounds much better, to my ears, than the English equivalent: Sometimes he felt trapped, no matter what he did or said.

I knew that fuera lo que fuese is a standard saying (‘be that as it may’) but was curious about hiciera lo que hiciese and dijera lo que dijese. A Google search turned up several more examples of these two verb pairs used together, and some that added a third:

  • Aquella desesperación cada noche ante la inminencia de lo que iba a ocurrir, aquella fatalidad ante el hecho de que hiciera lo que hiciese, dijera lo que dijese, o callara lo que callase (Cuentos desde mi rincón)
  • …la férrea y negativa postura de la señorita en cuestión de no querer acostarse con él, pasara lo que pasase, dijera lo que dijese e hiciera lo que hiciese (La codorniz de Enrique Herreros)

I love the sound of these verb pairs, and I guess these authors do, too.

Linguistic gems from recent reading

Ages ago I discovered the joys of reading Spanish novels for fun. It helps to keep up my fluency and build my vocabulary, while adding bits of cultural knowledge. Of course, I always keep my linguistics hat on in case I find anything particularly interesting. This post describes two such findings.

The first is from La carta esférica, a novel about a sailor who joins a mysterious woman on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship carrying a priceless cargo of Jesuit emeralds. It’s by one of my favorite Spanish authors, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, best known for the Capitán Alatriste series. Besides its pleasantly page-turning plot, this novel features the best example I’ve ever seen of the stylistic exploitation of the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. Here, the narrator alternates between -ra and -se subjunctives as he waits for the mysterious lady of the emeralds to stop him from walking out. This alternation adds an extra back-and-forth rhythm to the parallel structure of the successive que clauses.

Todo el rato, hasta que cerró [la puerta] detrás de sí, estuvo esperando que fuese hasta él y lo agarrara por el brazo, que lo obligase a mirarla a los ojos, que contara cualquier cosa para retenerlo.

“The whole time, until the door closed behind him, he hoped that she would go to him, take him by the arm, make him look her in the eye, and say anything to keep him there.

Right now I’m reading Magali García Ramis’s memoir of growing up in Puerto Rico, Felices Días Tío Sergio. I first learned about García Ramis when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española (basically, the Puerto Rican branch of the Real Academia Española). In a previous post I described her inaugural lecture, on the Puerto Rican /r/. I bought a copy of Felices Días back then but only recently got around to reading it. It is absolutely delightful, written in simple Spanish that would make it a good first novel for a student to read.

The passage that caught my linguistic eye has to do with another cardinal aspect of Puerto Rican pronunciation, the aspiration of final -s. Here the protagonist, a young girl, is asking her mother to make cat-shaped cookies for the funeral in absentia of their lost cat, Daruel. It’s an interesting passage from a sociolinguistic perspective because it shows the two speakers’ awareness that this is a stigmatized feature. In the first line, Ramis uses the letter j to show the aspirated /h/ pronunciation of the /s/ of los.

— ¿Ah Mami? ¿Ah, nos laj haces? [Mom, will you make them for us?]
– Nos lassss hacesss – corrigió Mami [Will you make them for us? – Mom corrected]
– Bueno, nosss lass hacesss ¿Sí? [OK, will you make them for us?]

I love the exaggeration of the multiple ssss and the way the daughter extends them to nos, which she seems to have pronounced correctly from the start.

The sadistic Spanish subjunctive

I can remember the exact moment when Spanish utterly and permanently captivated me. I was fifteen years old and in my fourth year as a Spanish student. Our class had wrapped up the basic tenses and the present subjunctive, and was ready to launch into the imperfect subjunctive. Our teacher explained to us that this tense was based on the pretérito and incorporated all of its irregulars.

This struck me as laugh-out-loud funny. We had already learned that the present subjunctive inherited all the idiosyncrasies of the normal present tense, including the ones that only show up in the yo form (the -zco and -go types). But the preterit is even thornier. It seemed bizarre beyond belief that the subjunctive should adopt the most problematic elements of both these tenses.

As a student, it amused me to imagine that a twisted “Spanish committee” (perhaps a branch of the Spanish Inquisition?) had designed the subjunctive. (My little PowerPoint below depicts this scenario.) As a teacher, I now like to tell my students that the present subjunctive is God’s way of getting them to review the irregular verbs that they’d studied weeks, months, or even years ago. I figure that teaching at a Jesuit university authorizes me to invoke God in the classroom.

In fact, the many irregulars of the subjunctive are neither a cosmic joke, an evil machination, nor an act of God. They’re simply a coincidence. The present and imperfect subjunctive happened to follow the same evolutionary paths as several distinct categories of irregular verbs in the present and pretérito indicative.

Consider the examples of irregular verbs shown in the table below, color-coded for your convenience.

irregular subjunctive

The “boot” verbs, in yellow, are irregular in the present tense because of a language-wide process that changed stressed /o/ to /ue/ and stressed /e/ to /ie/. The corresponding present subjunctives have the same vowels and the same stress pattern, and therefore the same irregularity.

The -ir “sole” verbs, in blue, are irregular in the present and the pretérito because of another general process: the raising of /e/ to /i/ and /o/ to /u/ before /j/ (the sound of English y). All Latin -ire present subjunctive endings, and the “sole” (3rd person) endings of the imperfect subjunctive, contained (or still contain) /j/, triggering the vowel change.

The -zco and -go irregulars of the present tense, in green, evolved because the o ending of the yo form insulated it from changes that affected the other present tense forms and the infinitive. The subjunctive endings for these verbs begin with a, which had the same insulating property.

Finally, the drastic stem-changing pretéritos, in magenta, descend from Latin’s “strong perfect” past tense forms. The imperfect subjunctive is based on Latin’s pluperfect tense, which had the same irregularities.

This leaves “only” the six additional irregulars of the present tense subjunctive. Their diverse origins are summarized below.

6 irregular present subjunctives

As always, if you want to learn more, the best source is Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language. But beware — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Spanish lessons from popular fiction

My second-favorite souvenir from a Spanish-speaking country is a reading list. (My absolute favorite is a mama cuchara, an oversized spoon that I bought at the open-air market in Otovalo, Ecuador.)

My mama cuchara is about 2 feet long and usually contains soup, not a tree.

This precious list was a parting present from a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where I took summer classes about six years ago. She explained that for advanced non-native speakers like us (many of whom were Spanish teachers), the best way to keep improving our Spanish when we got home was to read for pleasure. The idea is that if you get absorbed in a story, your fluency will increase naturally.

I love this approach because it combines two of my deepest passions: Spanish and light reading. Now I get to read a mystery novel or an adventure story and count it as “professional development”. Not in any formal sense, of course (hence the ironic quotation marks), but enough to feel that I’m using my time productively. Sometimes I read like a student, looking up new words and even making flashcards for them. But usually I “just” read.

Last night I finished a terrific book from the list, Guillermo Martínez’s La muerte lenta de Luciana B. The plot describes a writer’s Rashomon-like quest to understand a series of deaths — or are they murders? Martínez is Argentinian and of course I got a big kick out of the voseo, but the biggest linguistic thrill for me, having just blogged on the topic, was the following passage, which combines both versions of the imperfect subjunctive:

Hubo un silencio del otro lado, como si Kloster ya tuviera el presentimiento correcto y se preparase a jugar una partida diferente.

Perhaps a native speaker who reads this blog can suggest an intuitive explanation for the author’s choices here.

One of my professor’s top recommendations was the wildly popular Capitán Alatriste series by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. These books feature a down-on-his-luck Golden Age swashbuckler with a knack for inserting himself into important historical events (like the siege of Breda) à la Forrest Gump and palling around with notable writers like Francisco de Quevedo. The series has spawned a restaurant in Madrid and a [by all accounts mediocre] film starring Viggo Mortensen, whose fluent Spanish comes from a childhood in Argentina.

Alatriste taverna

Taberna del Capitán Alatriste, Madrid

The Alatriste books are rich in vocabulary. Besides swordfighting and military terms, and adjectives good for describing sinister characters, they abound in idiomatic expressions involving a la or las pronoun that lacks a specific direct object referent. Examples include:

  • dársela “to pretend to be something”, e.g. “…que por ser antiguo sargento de caballos, mutilado en Nieuport, se las daba de consumado estratega.”
  • habérsela “to contend with”, e.g. “…permanecieron allí, quietos y silenciosos a uno y otro lado del candelabro … estudiándose para averiguar si se las habían con un camarada o un adversario”
  • tenérsela jurada “to have it in for someone”, e.g. (referring to Quevedo): “Algunos, como Luis de Góngora o Juan Ruiz de Alarcón se la tenían jurada, y no sólo por escrita.”
  • levantársela “to excite (sexually)”, e.g. (referring to an allegedly pure woman, a “santa”) “Y entre santa y santa — repuso Calzas, procaz — a nuestro rey se la levantan.”
  • arreglársela “to manage, carry out, finagle”, e.g. “A veces me pregunto cómo se las arreglan ustedes, los que no juegan [al ajedrez], para escapar de la locura o la melancolía.”

My favorite book so far by Pérez-Reverte, El maestro de esgrima, isn’t from the Alatriste series. It’s a complicated story involving the titular fencing teacher, an unusual student, and a blackmail plot. What fun!

¡Que disfruten!

Twice the subjunctive, twice the fun

This post is a little denser on grammar than usual, so I’ve inset helpful expositions in red.

The American comedian W.C. Fields famously quipped that if first prize was a week in Philadelphia, second prize was two weeks. I suppose that most Spanish students feel the same way about the subjunctive. If first prize is the present subjunctive, second prize is the imperfect subjunctive. Third prize, then, must be the present subjunctive plus TWO imperfect subjunctives: the ones with -ra and the ones with -se.

(If you’re rusty on the imperfect subjunctive, a decent review is here.)

For a linguist, however, the many subjunctives of Spanish are pure candy. For one thing, it’s delightfully contrarian that neither imperfect subjunctive is directly related to the original Latin version. Instead, these two tenses (or moods, more precisely) arose from two Latin pluperfect conjugations: the pluperfect subjunctive (for -se) and the pluperfect indicative (for ra).

“Pluperfect” simply means a tense that is used to talk about actions completed before some past point in time. The Modern Spanish equivalents use compound structures, as in Si hubiera comido… “If I had eaten…” (pluperfect subjunctive) and Había comido “I had eaten” (pluperfect indicative).

The following table shows the original Latin conjugations and their outcome in Spanish.

imperfect subjunctive

Even more interesting is the mere fact that the two conjugations co-exist in modern Spanish. Although not as common as the -ra subjunctive, the -se subjunctive is certainly current, especially in the written language, and is understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world. This is remarkable because in grammar, a difference in form normally implies a difference in meaning. Comí, comía, and he comido are all different kinds of past tenses; voy a comer and comeré refer to  imminent vs. distant future events The Spanish imperfect subjunctive is thus a striking exception. In fact, it’s the only case I’m familiar with in any language where two parallel constructions co-exist in the core of the grammar. (If you know of any others, please share them!)

Essentially, what we are seeing here is a snapshot of a slowly moving change in the language. The -se subjunctive came first; Ralph Penny dates it to Old Spanish, roughly 1000 to 1400 CE. Its evolution was relatively simple, involving only a shift in time (from pluperfect to normal past tense) along with shortened verb endings as a result of normal sound change. The -ra subjunctive took longer to evolve because it also involved a switch from indicative to subjunctive: that is, from actuality to possibility. Penny dates its emergence to the Golden Age (1500 to 1700), and its overtaking the -se subjunctive to “more recent times”.

In the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, then, the language’s past and future co-exist peacefully in the present. Although this is an unusual situation in grammar, it’s one that we’re used to in vocabulary, which changes much faster. A contemporary American English speaker, for example, understands the outdated swell and nifty, the timeless cool, and possibly the trendy swag and dope. The Spanish parallels would depend on dialect, but just consider the exuberant redundancy of maravillosofantásticoestupendofabulosoexcelentefenomenaltremendo, and buenísimo. The co-existence of the two Spanish subjunctives is therefore simultaneously exotic and familiar.