If we limit our view to the present tense, how can I fill in the blanks succinctly?

When I use the indicative mood, I am indicating that something happens.

When I use the subjunctive mood, I am ??????

Cuando uso el indicativo, manifiesto que algo ocurre.

Cuado uso el subjuntivo, ??????

What's the best way to sum up what I'm doing when I use the subjunctive in each of these sentences? I'm thinking something along the lines of "expressing something other than certainty" for the English version, but I was curious what others thought would be a short summary of what one does when they use the subjunctive. I'm not looking for a laundry list of specific cases, such as "expressing doubt, uncertainty, emotion, desire, recommendation, denial, or disbelief", but a quick summary that encompasses as many reasons to use it as possible. My version seems like it is merely saying that the subjunctive is used whenever the indicative doesn't work, and while this is fairly true, I was wondering if there was a better way to briefly describe when to use it in both languages.

This is primarily for teaching purposes so I can give people a 5 second, meaningful, and memorable description of what the subjunctive is used for.

4 Answers 4


Well... it's pretty... subjective and probably complex to explain to English native speakers, but I would say that

When I use the subjunctive mood, I am expressing some conditional idea or desire.

Actually, why not...

...When I use the subjunctive mood, I am expressing doubt, uncertainty, emotion, desire, recommendation, denial, or disbelief

That sounds pretty good to me. And I can say it in less than 5 seconds (hey, and I'm not even a native English speaker!). :-)


A very reduced explanation of the use of subjunctive tense in Spanish, is related to the subordinated sentences explained in Spanish syntax.

When you're using subordinated sentences, its verb is usually conjugated in subjunctive tense while the main sentence's verb is conjugated in indicative.

When you must analyze the specific cases when subjunctive tense is used in subordinated sentences (instead of indicative), arises that list of doubt, desire, uncertainity, emotion, need, fear, recommendation, denial, disbelief.


When I use the subjunctive I am making a statement about an assertion, instead of indicating that the assertion is true.

This description is kind of informal. But I think it gets the gist of it.

Example of subjunctive in English:

"If I were to go on a diet, I would feel better about myself."

Note the "I were". That's unusual. Also note that I'm not telling that I'm going to go on a diet, or that I'm not going to go on a diet.


When you use the indicative mood, you do not always express certainty:

Iré si él va.
I'll go if he goes.

I don't remember when she will arrive.
No recuerdo cuándo ella llegará.

Likewise, the subjunctive mood does not always express uncertainty:

Siento que estés enfermo.
I lament that you are ill.

Me acostaré cuando se ponga el sol.
I'll go to bed when the sun sets.

Butt and Benjamin (section 16.2.7 below) fervently state that a 5 second, meaningful description of the uses of the subjunctive does not exist.


I don't consider this brief answer to be the last word in The Great Subjunctive Debate. But it is part of the truth, if not the whole truth.

  • Can you please copy the relevant text from your link? Google Books is not available all the time for everyone.
    – JoulSauron
    Jun 16, 2014 at 10:13
  • Sorry, I was too long by 459 characters when I quoted a single paragraph.
    – Greg Weeks
    Jun 16, 2014 at 16:07

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