Spanish Indicative vs. Subjunctive
Jamie's Spanish Lessons 


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Identifying indicative and subjunctive tenses is not a "hit-and-miss" method, as often presented. The use of subjunctive is often described as "for expressing uncertainty or doubt". This is not true two-thirds of the time. Rather, use depends on extremely strict rules that only require a bit of grammar. There is a lot of information below. Read a bit at a time and review until it makes sense. Feel free to email with questions.

The Grammar: finding the subjunctive (dependent) clause

A clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb and functioning as a member of a complex or compound sentence (Webster). To illustrate what that means, here are some example compound sentences. Each clause is colored differently, with the subject underlined and the verb in italics:

            ex. 1. We can't leave until someone pays for the bill.
            ex. 2.
She is looking for a man that can sweep her off her feet.
            ex. 3.
I hope that you know what you are doing.

Each different colored fragment is a clause: a complete statement containing a subject and a verb. In ex. 2, the subject of the red-colored clause is man, even though it doesn't appear in that clause. It was already stated in the green-colored clause.

Each green-colored clause is an independent clause: it can stand alone as a complete sentence, a complete thought. Read them aloud; they make sense. These clauses tell some fact, they indicate something. Therefore, verbs in independent clauses are indicative. Always. Another term for an independent clause is an ordinate clause.

The red-colored or blue-colored clauses, when alone, do not form a complete thought. Read them out loud; they lack some bit of information to make sense. These are dependent clauses, as they depend upon another clause to be complete. Other words for a dependent clause are a subordinate clause or a subjunctiveclause. These clauses are subjunctive to (dependent upon) another. Therefore, verbs can ONLY be conjugated in the subjunctive when they are in subjunctive clauses.BUT, not all subjunctive clauses are conjugated in the subjunctive. The picture below illustrates these relationships:

If that chart makes it more confusing, then completely ignore it :-)
The use of subjunctive verbs in a subjunctive clause follows the set of rules listed below. The rules are followed by a flowchart to help sort them out.

The Subjunctive in Subjunctive Clauses

There are 3 types of subjunctive clauses (noun, adjective, adverb), each with its own rule for use of a subjunctive verb. You must first know which of the 3 subjunctive clauses you have before being able to decide on use of the subjunctive tense.


A noun clause is a clause that "acts" as a noun, being the object of another clause. It can often be replaced by the words "a thing" or "something".

            ex. 1. "I hope that you know," can be written as "I hope something."
            ex. 2. "You know
what you are doing," can be written as "You know something," or "You know a thing."

The verb in a noun clause is subjunctive only if the following TWO CONDITIONS are met:

  • the independent clause contains a verb of volition (emotion, will, hope, desire, doubt, fear, recommendation). Some common verbs of volition: alegrarse, dudar, esperar, necesitar, preferir, prohibir, querer, recomendar, sentir, temer
  • there is a change of subject going from independent to subjunctive clauses

In ex. 1, the independent clause has a verb of volition, "hope", AND a change of subject: I hope that you know. Both conditions are met, so the verb, know, is in the subjunctive.
             ex. 1 in Spanish: "Espero
que sepas."

In ex. 2, the independent clause does NOT have a verb of volition ("know"). Therefore, the subjunctive clause's verb, are doing, is in the indicative. There is also NOT a change of subject: You know what you are doing.
            ex. 2 in Spanish: "Sabes
lo que haces."


An adjective clause is a clause that "acts" as an adjective, modifying a noun from another clause. It can often be replaced by another adjective (ex. green, tall, interesting, sad...).

ex. 3. "She is looking for a man that can sweep her off her feet," can be written as "She is looking for a charming man."
ex. 4. "I saw the girl
who turned you down at the club," can be written as "I saw the conceited girl."

  • If the subject of an adjective clause is unknown, the verb is subjunctive. In ex. 3, this man that can sweep her off her feet is unknown, so can sweep is subjunctive.
    ex. 3 in Spanish: "Ella busca a un hombre
    que le vuelva loca." (liberal translation)
  • If the subject of an adjective clause is known to exist, the verb is indicative. In ex. 4, the girl who turned you down really does exist, so turned is indicative.
    ex. 4 in Spanish: "Vi a la chica
    que te rechazó en el club."


An adverbial clause is a clause that "acts" as an adverb, modifying the situation in which a verb (from another clause) takes place. It can often be replaced by another adverb (ex. quickly, now, late, hardly...).

ex. 5. "We left the house without my mom seeing us," can be written as "We left the house quietly/stealthily."
ex. 6. "The elephant ran
when it saw a mouse," can be written as "The elephant ran then."
ex. 7. "You all can't leave
until someone pays for the bill," can be written as "You all can't leave yet."
ex. 8. "The flight will take off
as soon as you fasten your seatbelt," can be written as "The flight will take off soon."

The use of subjunctive in adverbial clauses depends on the first word of the clause.

  • Several first words in an adverbial clause always require a subjunctive verb, and can be remembered by the acronym ESCAPA:

En caso de que
Sin que
Con tal de que
Antes de que
Para que
A menos (de) que

The subjunctive clause in Ex. 5 begins with without (sin que), and therefore requires the subjunctive.
            ex. 5 in Spanish: "Salimos de casa
sin que mi madre nos viera."

  • Several first words in an adverbial clause are sometimes followed with a subjunctive verb. Verbs in clauses beginning with these words are indicative if the event has occured, and are subjunctive if the event is anticipated to occur:

despues de (que)
tan pronto como
en cuanto
hasta que

The clause in Ex. 6 begins with when (cuando), and the action has occured, so it is indicative.
            ex. 6 in Spanish: "El elefante corrió
cuando vio el raton."

The clause in Ex. 7 begins with until (hasta), and the payment is being anticipated, so the verb is subjunctive.
            ex. 7 in Spanish: "Ustedes no pueden salir
hasta que alguien pague la cuenta."

The clause in Ex. 8 begins with as soon as (tan pronto como), and anticipates you fastening your seatbelt, so the verb is subjunctive."
            ex. 8 in Spanish: "El avión despegará
tan pronto como te ajustes el cinturón."

There are definitely more "first words" that begin adverbial phrases, but I can't remember them right now. Check your textbook for more.

These rules are all summarized in the flowchart below.

Click on chart for full size image

Other uses of the Subjunctive

Impersonal expressions - these are sentences with no true subject in the independent clause. They usually express an opinion or recommendation. Impersonal expressions can be thought of as Noun Clauses, but with an impersonal expression ("It is good...") instead of a verb of volition ("I like...").

ex. It is important that you brush your teeth. (Es importante que te cepilles los dientes.)
ex. It is bad
that you do not use your turn signal. (Es malo que no uses el turn signal.)
ex. One hopes that/I hope that/God willing
you find your keys. (Ojalá que encuentres las llaves.)

Blessings and curses - these are subjunctive clauses that do not have independent clauses. They can also be thought of as Noun Clauses, but with an implied verb of volition, such as "I pray" or "I hope".

ex. May you always have clean socks. (Que siempre tengas calcetines limpios. <--- no ind. clause)
May ants infest your salad. (Que las hormigas infesten tu ensalada. <--- no ind. clause)

PAGE 2, Use of different subjunctive tenses (imperfect subjunctive, conditional...), is in the works

UPDATE: no, it's not.  Sorry. 

Page last updated: 15 October 2008
copyright © 2003 by Jamie Michael Kern