When the RAE was funded back in the 18th century, their definition of "subjunctive" was like this:

SUBJUNTIVO. Es uno de los modos de conjugar los verbos. Dixose assi, porque regularmente se rige de otra oración. (Diccionario de Autoridades)

Subjuntivo, el que necesita juntarse con otro verbo expreso ó suplido que perfeccione el sentido de la oracion. (Gramática de la lengua castellana)

So, the way the subjunctive mood was defined then was by expressing that a verb in a subjunctive tense cannot stand alone in a sentence and always needs of another verb (in the indicative, imperative or infinitive moods, present or omitted) to make complete sense. Nowadays it is defined as:

modo subjuntivo

  1. m. Gram. modo con que se marca lo expresado por el predicado como información virtual, inespecífica, no verificada o no experimentada.

This is, now it is defined by the things or feelings you want to express with that mood (and thus making the definition really about the mood and not about the way you have to use it). Does that mean that the definition from 1771 is now invalid as a consequence of the evolution of the language? Or does it still make sense? Or maybe it was never true?

  • No me parecen contradictorias. Antes se definía segundo su situación sintáctica, y ahora parece que prefieren definirlo según su valor semántico. No obstante, el subjuntivo sí era más común en el pasado y se usaba en situaciones subordinadas que hoy emplean el indicativo, por lo que hoy creo que la definición semántica puede quedar más adecuada al uso moderno. – user0721090601 Oct 16 '17 at 1:10
  • That looks like a false dichotomy: what about the possibility that the definition from 1771 was wrong then and is still wrong now? – Peter Taylor Oct 16 '17 at 16:49
  • @PeterTaylor that's a very interesting point of view and a nice example of lateral thinking. I have added that possibility to the question. – Charlie Oct 16 '17 at 16:54

To answer your question let's go through the common uses of subjunctive in spanish and try to find a pattern:

  • To express feelings: Me gusta que seas trabajador (indicative is allowed to emphasize a fact : Me gusta que eres trabajador)
  • To express an opinion: Es triste que no seas trabajador (indicative is allowed to emphasize a fact : Es triste que no eres trabajador)
  • To express doubt: No creo que venga (indicative is incorrect: "No creo que viene")
  • Wish or hope: ¿Quieres que trabajemos juntos? (indicative is incorrect: "¿Quieres que trabajamos juntos?"). "Que duermas bien" (indicative is incorrect: "Que duermes bien")
  • Asking for something or giving advice: Te pido que te lo pienses (indicative is incorrect : "Te pido que te lo piensas")
  • Indirect imperative : "Dile que venga" (indicative is incorrect : "Dile que viene")
  • To describe something unknown : "Quiero una galleta que tenga chocolate" (indicative is incorrect : "Quiero una galleta que tiene chocolate", but you would use indicative to describe a cookie which is known : "Quiero la galleta que tiene chocolate" )
  • To express a goal: "Este dinero es para que te compres algo bonito" (indicative is incorrect : "Este dinero es para que te compras algo bonito")
  • To express future: "Cuando venga el paquete lo sabremos". Interestingly enough, when the future is less certain, indicative is used : "Si viene el paquete lo sabremos".
  • To express a condition: "Estés o no estés de acuerdo, lo haremos a mi manera"

As you can see, it is extremely difficult to summarize the uses in just a couple of sentences. Most of the time there is a fixed pattern and only subjunctive can be used, these sentences seem to express uncertain, unverified or unspecific facts. When it isn't, indicative is usually used to express more certainty. So the second definition matches better the current use of subjunctive.

In the first definition of 1771 the second paragraph defines an use which is proven wrong by the last example I gave. Subjunctive can be used by its own in Spanish, though rarely.

The explanation about where the word "subjunctive" comes from seems to be correct. It comes from Latin "subjungere" which is the present active infinitive of subjungō that means "join with" or "unite" / "subdue" or "subject"

To summarize, I would say both definitions are mostly correct for current uses, but inaccurate. Still I can't think of a more accurate definition in one sentence.

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  • 1
    Nice answer, but I have to say that in your last sentence ("estés o no estés de acuerdo, lo haremos a mi manera"), the subjuntive mood does need another verb in indicative ("haremos"). If you just say "estés o no estés de acuerdo" the sentence is incomplete. So I would say the definition from 1771 is still completely valid, unless we find a proper counterexample. – Charlie Jan 24 '18 at 9:39
  • Yes you are right. Now that I think about it "Estés o no estés de acuerdo" is also a subordinate sentence in that context. With that in mind, the definition in 1771 would even be more accurate than the current one, since the pair "cuando/si" requires subjunctive only with cuando which is more certain than si – julodnik Jan 24 '18 at 9:49

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