Tag Archives: subjunctive

Spanish beats English: subjunctive in adjective clauses edition

My teaching this semester has been heavy on the subjunctive, but one topic we haven’t covered is the use of the subjunctive to distinguish between actual and hypothetical characteristics in descriptions, or “adjective clauses.” The last time I taught this topic was during a chapter on housing, so there were lots of sentences like Vivo en un apartamento que tiene mucha luz ‘I live in an apartment that has a lot of light’ versus Quiero un apartamento que tenga mucha luz ‘I want an apartment that has a lot of light’. The indicative tiene is appropriate when talking about an actual light-filled apartment; the subjunctive tenga works for the hypothetical light-filled apartment.

The next time I teach this topic I plan to start with a memorably funny bit from the 1970s TV show Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman. It was a spin-off from Rhoda, which was itself a spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In this scene, Phyllis’s daughter Bess tries to break the news of her engagement to her mother, who fails to understand. I’ve paraphrased their dialogue, as well as I can remember it, in cartoon form below. [Please see note at end for a correction.]

If Bess and Phyllis had been speaking Spanish, there wouldn’t have been any confusion. Bess would have used the indicative, as shown in the speech bubble on the left, to indicate that Harold was her actual fiancé. Her mother’s misinterpretation corresponds to the version with the subjunctive shown on the right.


So this is definitely a case where Spanish is superior to English!

[Note: After posting this blog entry I did a Google search and discovered that (i) this is universally acknowledged as the funniest episode of Phyllis and (ii) I had misremembered the scene! The conversation was actually between Phyllis and a colleague, played by Richard Schaal, and it’s Phyllis who utters the ambiguous line (something like “Bess wants to marry a man whose parents are midgets”). In the intervening years my memory had transposed the characters and invented the name Harold! With apologies to the writers and crew, I’ll keep my cartoons the way they are to reflect my (defective but happy) memory.]

A subtle case of the subjunctive

Today I’ll start by sharing a gorgeous example of the subjunctive/indicative contrast that I recently noticed in one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero. Then I’ll circle around and explain what makes it so gorgeous.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú [Patro], por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you [Patro], for what you know or might say.

A bit of background: I like to tell my students that the subjunctive/indicative distinction is easier to master than the the preterite/imperfect distinction. The contexts, or triggers, that require the subjunctive are usually clear-cut, whereas there’s often a lot of subjectivity in deciding whether a given past tense context triggers the preterite or the imperfect. For example, Ojalá ‘God willing’ always triggers the subjunctive, whereas ayer ‘yesterday’ can be followed by either the preterite or the imperfect, depending on how the speaker perceives what happened yesterday.

For this reason, I’m intrigued by subjunctive/indicative contexts that allow more flexibility. Certain triggers are famously ambiguous. For example, tal vez and quizás, both meaning ‘maybe’, can be followed by either the subjunctive or the indicative, depending on whether you are pessimistic or optimistic:

  • Tal vez venga ‘He might come, but probably won’t’ (subjunctive)
  • Tal vez viene‘ He might come, and probably will’ (indicative)

Most Spanish grammar guides (e.g. here) cover in depth a second flexible context: so-called “adjective clauses”, or relative clauses that describe (give more information about) a noun, i.e. a person, place, or thing. A subjunctive In an adjective clause indicates that the clause describes a hypothetical person, place, or thing while an indicative indicates that the noun is real. Consider, for example, the sentence pair below, which I remember from tenth grade (!!), and which distinguishes between a hypothetical and an actual secretary:

  • Busco una secretaria que sepa escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for a (hypothetical) secretary who can type’ (subjunctive)
  • Busco una secretaria que sabe escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for an (actual, specific) secretary who can type’ (indicative)

Not all flexible relative clauses are adjective clauses. This brings us back to the example I started this post with, in which the relative clause functions as a noun.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú, por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you, for what you know or might say.

I love this example because it contains both an indicative and a subjunctive within a single relative clause! This combination subtly mirrors the progression of the speaker’s thoughts: from the murderer’s certain motive for killing Patro — what she knew — to the murderer’s hypothetical motive — what Patro might say. As with the venga/viene and sepa/sabe examples, the subjunctive and indicative forms of the verb provide a compact and elegant way to achieve this distinction.

Frankly, having looked through my collection of grammar books and websites, I’m not sure what category the puedas subjunctive falls into. The noun clauses with the subjunctive presented in grammars typically follow classic WEIRDO triggers like Espero queEs triste que, Ojalá que, and Dudo que. Nevertheless, the puedas example strikes me as splendid Spanish. Any ideas?

The top 10 Spanish verb mysteries unraveled

The wait is over — here is my “listicle” (slide presentation) that unravels the top 10 mysteries of Spanish verbs. Why is hay always singular? Why are there so many more irregulars in the preterite past tense than the imperfect? Why do positive and negative commands have different pronoun rules? The answers lie in the history of Spanish.

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.