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Me pidió que le llamara

  1. Why is a subjunctive used here -- 'llamara', and not a normal verb?

  2. why does "pedir" denote request and, for instance, "decir" -- not? What determines whether or not a verb is used as a request?

  3. How would the meaning change if it was "llama"? Or "llamaría"? Or "llamará"?

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    Welcome to Spanish.se. A little bit of context would help us to understand what you are really trying to convey in that sentence. Once we can understand what you need to know, we can give you a proper explanation about why to use a given tense and not another. Also, that "me pedí que" sounds bad. Did you copy this from a text or are you trying to translate something yourself? Did you mean "Me pidió" or "Le pedí"? – Diego Apr 30 '19 at 17:19
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First, let's correct the small spelling error in your otherwise lovely sentence:

Me pidió que le llamara.

Note that the verb pedir is conjugated like this for the third person singular past tense: pidió.

Now for your questions.

1) Why is a subjunctive used here?

There is something similar in English: She asked that I be more assertive. Note that we don't say: She asked that I am more assertive.

There may be technical explanations possible, but the most practical way of looking at this is that the linking word "que" leads to a subjunctive, in Spanish, most of the time.

2) Why does "pedir" denote a request and, for instance, "decir" doesn't? What determines whether or not a verb is used as a request?

First, "pedir" denotes a request because "pedir" means "to request." (See Collins.) (Notice that "ask" has two basic different meanings in English: one is to request, and the other is to ask a question.)

Now, as to whether "decir" can be used as part of a request, I would say that in informal speech, yes, it could, I suppose; but if you want to make sure you're being polite, "pedir" would be a better choice. However, context matters. "His mother asked him to straighten his room before leaving" is technically a request, but I have a feeling she doesn't consider it optional!

I would think that common sense and context will tell you whether something is a request; but you can always ask ("¿Me dices o me pides que lo haga?"). But I have a feeling there's something you want to understand about this that I haven't quite understood.

3) How would the meaning change if it was "llama"? Or "llamaría"? Or "llamará"?

First, I'd like to make sure it's clear to you that in this sentence, everything is in the past tense. "Pidió" is simple past, and "llamara" is past subjunctive. Let's see what this would look like if we shift it to the present:

Me pide que le llame. | He is asking me to call him / He is asking that I call him / He is requesting that I call him.

None of the other three verb forms could be substituted into this particular sentence in place of "llamara." Here are some sentences that would work:

Si le pido, me llama. | If I ask him to, he will call me.

Yo de tí, le llamaría. | If I were in your shoes, I would call him.

Mi tía le llamará mañana. | My aunt will call him tomorrow.

Each verb form has its own uses.

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Subjunctive is one (if not the one) verb tense that causes most headaches to non-native Spanish learners. This site ¿Cuáles son los usos del subjuntivo?, from the many in the Internet about subjuntivo en español, lists some of the uses of Subjunctive.

I would tell you "see that 'Para expresar petición, consejo o sugerencia' there?" But the truth is that you need to think of this the other way around: You may want to pick a verb tense for "he asked me to call him", and when nothing really fits for "to call", consider (especially if you have a subordinate clause starting with "que") reviewing the uses of subjuntivo, to see if it your case falls in any of these cases.

So, in short, we are using subjunctive here because we are expressing a request (somebody requested that -someone else does verb- => that verb will go in subjunctive in Spanish). A request is usually made through one of the "verbos de influencia": decir, comentar, pedir, aconsejar, ordenar, repetir, prohibir… and will be the main verb in a subordinate sentence introduced by "que".

None of the other options you suggest makes sense, because the "request" forces the subjunctive. You could say instead.

Me dijo que (él) me llamará

Me dijo que (él) me llamaría

Me dijo que (él) me llama

This third one is a especial case, in which you are using present but you express future action (presente con valor de futuro: "me operan el jueves", "termino la carrera este junio"). As you can see, for all of these to work I had to take away the "Me pidió que", because this turns the sentence in a request that forces de subjunctive.

  • 1) but why "pedí" is a request and "dijo" is not? – jijino Apr 30 '19 at 20:49
  • 2) why "llamara" and not "llame"? both are subjenctive – jijino Apr 30 '19 at 20:52
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    @jijino 1) "Dijo" means "He said" and that does NOT necessarily mean a request. It can just be a description someone having said something and is not trying to influence someone. – Karlomanio Apr 30 '19 at 21:21
  • @jijino 2) It could be either but would change the meaning. "She requested that I call her" only works one way in English, but in Spanish using llamara would be describing that she requested that I call her and that was a completed action. Whereas if I used llame, it would be for an action I hadn't done yet, i.e. I haven't called her yet. – Karlomanio Apr 30 '19 at 21:24
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    @jijino I have read it many times. In English, the first thought is that "she asked that I call her' means that you haven't called her, but this could imply past tense time too in English because this is a subjunctive form for English. But you are still thinking only in English words and meanings. In Spanish, it's different. – Karlomanio Apr 30 '19 at 22:15
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Because it was a request. When making a request you should use subjunctive instead of indicative. If you said

me pedí que le llama

it wouldn't make sense. "Llama" is indicative, so you're saying it like it is a concrete thing. A request would be asking someone to do something, not saying that someone is doing something, so the subjunctive would be used.

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    This user is a "new contributor" by the site standards. It is our common interest as a community that we don't just downvote inexperienced users' contributions without some careful feedback to point out what we believe can be improved or lacks quality, to help these users grow and improve their contributions. – Diego Apr 30 '19 at 17:53

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