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I have been trying to understand how the subjunctive in English and Spanish differ. All of the examples in Spanish that I've come across in introductory examples have the subjunctive conjugations occurring in the dependent clause of the sentence.

Is this part of how Spanish uses the subjunctive? That is, does it occur primarily in dependent clauses? If so, why and why is this not true for English?

  • The subjunctive in English, where it remains outside of set phrases, mostly occurs in dependent clauses as well. It's advisable that he stop smoking now. Spanish can have it in main clauses, but it's not common and can almost always be read with an implicit superclause. – guifa Jan 1 '17 at 11:09
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Short answer—yes, the subjunctive mood is primarily used in subordinated clauses. From Etimologias.dechile.net:

The subjunctive is so called by Latin grammarians because it's a mood preferentially used in subordinated clauses, hence why subjuntivo means "subordinated", conjoined to another verb through a relationship of dependence. But this is not necessarily so, since one may find a subjunctive verb in a main clause or an indicative verb in a subordinated clause. In the present moment the subjunctive mood is defined as the mood that introduces the speaker's subjectivity in the uttering of an action. As opposed to the indicative mood, which expresses the objectivity and the reality of an action, the subjunctive introduces the nuances of potentiality, possibility or irreality in an action referred to the past, present, or future, specified by the subordinating links and main verbs used, as in:

  • Possible wishes: "Que venga pronto la lluvia". "Quiero que venga".
  • Impossibile wishes: "Ojalá hubiera venido".
  • Potential hypotheses: "Si viniera Juan lo pasaríamos muy bien".
  • Impossible hypotheses: "Si hubiera habido sol, habríamos tenido calor", "si lloviera estaríamos más frescos".
  • Doubts, indirect questions, orders, etc.

And any other situation where the action expressed is a subjective assessment or is subject to eventualities, the potentiality of the facts or the imagination of the speaker ("habla como si fuera su padre").

[Written by Helena, pseudonym for Elena Pingarrón Seco, and translated by myself.]

So "the-subjunctive-mood-is-used-in-subordinated-clauses" should only be taken as a rule of thumb, since there are numerous counterexamples. Rarely will you find the subjunctive mood in a main clause, two notable exceptions being sentences introduced by ojalá and the use of the subjunctive mood to make a formal request instead of the conditional tense. A key point is that even though the subjunctive mood usually expresses subjectivity or doubt, the indicative mood may be used too when subjectivity or doubt are present. For more information, I recommend checking out the tag subjuntivo.

In what ways the subjunctive mood is used in English isn't within the scope of this site. As far as I know, besides I wish...- and if-clauses the subjunctive mood is almost obsolete in English, especially the present subjunctive ("I recommend you be...). Either way, the subjunctive mood is far more frequent and far more complex in Spanish, both in inflection and usage.

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