In the Wiktionary page for por favor, an example sentence reads

Quisiera una mesa por favor. ― I would like a table, please.

However, this makes more sense to me:

Querría una mesa por favor.I would like a table, please.

I don't quite understand the use of subjunctive imperfect here.

  • I've voted to close since there's already a question about this. Check out the link above; I think the accepted answer is very complete and it wouldn't be OK to repeat it here. If you do need some more clarification, though, just say so.
    – pablodf76
    Dec 27, 2017 at 12:03
  • @pablodf76 and others - I have voted to reopen. It's true that the underlying information behind the answer to the other question, and what would be a good answer to this question, is the same. But here the OP is asking something specific that is not part of the other question. Dec 28, 2017 at 1:25
  • @iBug - Sure, read the answer to the other question, it will be helpful. But for what you asked, I'll give you a sneak preview of hopefully an answer to come: Literally, what you proposed would be good. I would like. Yes, the conditional of querer would be querría. But I almost never hear or see querría. I think that's probably for two reasons: (1) there's this special thing, quisiera, which is a lovely word, and it perfectly fills the niche where you put querría; (2) "querría" sounds a lot like "quería". If I'm in a restaurant and I ask for another napkin with "quería,"... Dec 28, 2017 at 1:28
  • ... I'll sound petulant and complaining if someone hears it as "quería" instead of "querría" (I've been wanting it for a while and no one has brought one). With "quisiera," people will hear it as an eminently polite request. What I mean is, other words work just fine in the conditional, e.g. "Pediría que me acompañaras". But "querría" has been sort of booted out of the standard set of expressions (which I speculatively attribute to the two reasons outlined). Dec 28, 2017 at 1:30
  • @aparente001 You're right, though as it happens, querría doesn't sound bad to me, and I've been known to use quería as well. In fact quisiera may even sound a bit affected. It's a dialectal thing, I think. I'll vote to reopen. Want to try an answer?
    – pablodf76
    Dec 28, 2017 at 10:40

1 Answer 1


The second use you show is what is called CONDICIONAL DE MODESTIA O DE CORTESÍA in RAE's Nueva Gramática, where it explains why is it used (emphasis mine):

23.15ñ El llamado CONDICIONAL DE MODESTIA O DE CORTESÍA es paralelo al imperfecto de ese mismo tipo. De hecho, ambos alternan en esas construcciones -y, a veces, también con el presente-, como en {Desearía ~ Deseaba ~ Deseo} hablar con el doctor. Como en el caso del imperfecto de cortesía (§23.11e* y siguientes), el uso del presente puede resultar demasiado rudo, por lo que se tiende a evitar en fórmulas como No sabría decírtelo con seguridad (Vargas Llosa, Hablador).

*Corrected original reference (§25.11e has nothing to do with this topic).

The reason for such a use of the conditional (or the imperfect preterite, as mentioned) is that using the present might come off as rude, so people just switched to using other tenses.

We can get a more in-depth explanation by looking at section 23.11f, which explains the context and probable reasoning behind the use of the imperfect preterite when you want to be polite (again, emphasis mine):

23.11f Aunque cabría suponer que en Yo deseaba..., usado como pretérito de cortesía, se sobreentiende '... cuando vine (o he venido)' o alguna expresión pretérita similar, parece preferible entender que la situación pasada no se identifica mediante una forma verbal pretérita en el imperfecto de cortesía, sino de manera parecida a como se da sentido a los pretéritos imperfectos que se analizaron en los apartados precedentes. En efecto, venía viene a significar 'vengo' en Yo... venía a pedirle un favor (Buero, Valmy)*; deseaba puede alternar con deseo en —¿Es usted el señor Caballero? —Servidor de usted... Yo deseaba... (Galdós, Tormento)*; etc. Estas formas verbales se interpretan, pues, como presentes, pero a la vez designan situaciones enmarcadas en un escenario supuesto o ficticio que se crea, por razones retóricas, en ciertas relaciones sociales sujetas a fórmulas convencionales.

*Replaced references to examples from other sections with the actual examples.

The gist of it is that, even though your request takes place in the present and you expect your petition to be fulfilled (like when you ask the maître for a table, as in your example), you use the imperfect preterite or the conditional to make clear that you allow the hypothetical outcome of your petition not being satisfied, or being just plainly rejected.

Now, as for the general substitution of the simple conditional with the subjunctive tense, it is explained here:

23.15u (...) la alternancia entre [imperfecto de subjuntivo] y [condicional] se da en el español general, en cambio, con los auxiliares poder, deber y querer en las perífrasis verbales: {Deberías ~ Debieras} prestar más atención; {Podría ~ Pudiera} interpretarse mal, con la excepción, ya analizada, de las prótasis condicionales.

No specific reasoning behind it this time; however, the imperfect subjunctive is the natural "hypothetical future" substitute to both conditional and imperfect preterite, as explained in 24.1a:

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Thus its usage as a substitute for those tenses in polite conversations (among other scenarios).

Quoting the RAE: «The imperfect subjuntive (...) is the most complex tense of the subjunctive mood, because of the syntactical contexts it is used in as well as the variety of meanings it conveys.» Also, preferences of using it over other tenses differ by region, so there is not a single rule or reason why it is used.
I recommend reading through the whole 24.2 section of Nueva Gramatica if you want to go deeper.

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