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I've been debating recently the meaning of the following sentence:

No pensamos que el plan saldría a la luz tan pronto.

I'd translate it as:

We didn’t think the plan would come to light / be revealed so soon

To me, the speaker is describing the case, “We didn’t think so but it did happen”. The “it did happen” is why the indicative mood is being used. Alternatively, what about the opposite situation, “We didn’t think so and it didn’t happen”? Because the speaker is describing some imaginary event in the past we reach for the subjunctive:

No pensamos que el plan saliera a la luz tan pronto

Am I anywhere near the truth?

3 Answers 3

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The subjunctive in Spanish is mainly used in subordinate clauses, and its use largely depends on the main verb and on its form (affirmative or negative) and tense.

With verbs of mental process in the negative, the negation (1) can refer only to the verb of mental process (in which case the indicative will be used) or (2) can refer to the whole sentence, "que"-clause included (in which case the subjunctive will be used).

Negation is said to be used contextually in (1) and to express a personal doubt in (2). For example, if we say:

  1. No cree que me odian. (They hate me, but he does not believe it.) Here the negation only refers to the verb "creer".

  2. No cree que me odien. (He doubts that they hate me.) Here the negation refers to the whole sentence, "creer que me odian".

There is a problem with the verb "pensar": in the negative it does not work well to express a personal doubt IN THE FUTURE (it can effectively express a personal doubt SIMULTANEOUS WITH THE TIME OF THE DOUBT or IN THE NEAR FUTURE). The problem is that, unlike "ser efectivo" below, the verb phrase "salir a la luz" necessarily points to the future.

1.a. No pensamos que el plan sea efectivo (We don't think that the plan IS effective).

2.a. No pensamos que el plan será efectivo (We don't think that the plan WILL BE effective).

or in the past:

1.a'. No pensamos/pensábamos que el plan fuera efectivo (We didn't think that the plan WAS effective).

2.a'. No pensamos/pensábamos que el plan sería efectivo (We didn't think that the plan WOULD BE effective).

At the same time, its synonym "creer" does not work well to express contextual negation. To fully understand the difference between (1) and (2) with "salir a la luz", let's see how "no pensar" is used to express contextual negation and how "no creer" is used to express a personal doubt:

Where "pensamos" is used, we should note that it can mean "we think" or "we thought":

1.b. No pensamos que el plan saldrá a la luz pronto.

2.b. No creemos que el plan salga a la luz pronto.

Although both sentences can be translated as:

"We don't think the plan will come to light soon",

1.b. really means: People say the plan will come to light soon (they are certain about it), but we don't agree, while 2.b. means: We are doubtful about the plan coming to light soon.

Similarly, in the past we have:

1.c. No pensamos que el plan saldría a la luz pronto.

2.c. No creímos que el plan saliera a la luz pronto.

Both sentences can be translated as:

"We didn't think the plan would come to light soon",

but while 1.c. means: People said the plan would come to light soon (they were certain about it), or the plan did come to light soon, in spite of our disbelief, 2.c. means: We were doubtful about the plan coming to light soon.

In the imperfect, the subjunctive shows the same feature as with the preterite:

1.d. No pensábamos que el plan saldría a la luz pronto.

2.d. No creíamos que el plan saliera a la luz pronto.

With a verb like "dudar" in the affirmative, the subjunctive will always be used, because the personal doubt is obviously implicit in the main verb itself (there is no contextual negation here). As is the case with "pensamos", "dudamos" can be "we doubt" or "we doubted":

  1. Dudamos que el plan salga a la luz pronto.

  2. Dudamos que el plan saliera a la luz pronto.

  3. Dudábamos que el plan saliera a la luz pronto.

(3) means "We doubt the plan will come to light soon", while (4) and (5) mean "We doubted that the plan would come to light soon".

Reference: http://www.hispanoteca.eu/Foro/ARCHIVO-Foro/No%20creas%20que-subjuntivo%20o%20indicativo.htm

http://www.hispanoteca.eu/Foro/ARCHIVO-Foro/No%20creo%20que-subjuntivo%20o%20indicativo.htm

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  • With sentence 2.c can we infer whether the speaker's expectations were met or not?
    – blogscot
    Nov 2, 2022 at 14:21
  • The speaker's expectations were not met (the plan did come to light soon). This is due to the use of the preterite (pretérito perfecto simple). With the imperfect (no creíamos), it is uncertain whether the plan came to light soon or not -- what is clear is that they didn't believe so.
    – Gustavson
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:27
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There is a confusion regarding verb tenses and translation.

No pensamos que el plan saldría a la luz tan pronto.

The first verb is in the present indicative and the second is in the simple conditional. The correct translation is:

We don't think the plan would come to light so soon

What leads us to think that the sentence is poorly written, in any case it would be
–“We didn’t think so and it happen”–:

No pensábamos que el plan saldría a la luz tan pronto
(imperfect past + conditional)

or, –“We don’t think so and it will not happen”–

No pensamos que el plan salga a la luz tan pronto
(present indicative + subjunctive)

or, –“We didn’t think so and it didn't happen”–

No pensábamos que el plan saliera a la luz tan pronto
(indicative imperfect past + subjunctive imperfect past)

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  • "pensamos" puede ser "indicativo" o "pretérito perfecto" también. Es posible que BlogScot pensara en el formulário del pretérito. (Pero sin un marco de tiempo no sabemos cual formulário él quería )
    – Peter M
    Nov 3, 2022 at 20:43
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A very interesting question. There are three cases we can look at here. One of them is not provided by the OP.

  1. No pensamos que el plan saldría a la luz tan pronto. [present and conditional tense]

We don't think the plan would come to light so soon. [present and conditional tense]

  1. No pensamos que el plan saliere a la luz tan pronto. [present and future, not subjunctive].

We don't think the plan will come to light so soon.

However, in modern Spanish, you'd say: No pensamos que el plan va a salir.

saliera is imperfect subjunctive, so it would have to be:

  1. No pensábamos que el plan saliera a la luz tan pronto.

We didn't think the plan would come out so soon.

The English verb in the second clause in English in 1) and 2) is would come out.

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  • 1
    Hola @Lambie, "saliera o saliese". Pretérito Imperfecto de Subjuntivo pero no "saliere" 2 - "No pensamos que el plan saliere".
    – Diego
    Nov 1, 2022 at 20:03
  • @Diego, No pensamos que sabrán (futuro). No pensamos que vendrán (futuro). No pensamos que saliere. futuro del subjuntivo. No?
    – Lambie
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:31
  • Diego tiene razón. El futuro del subjuntivo es arcaico y solo se usa en lengua jurídica escrita (ej. leyes): Si el plan no fuere aprobado, se aplicará una sanción.
    – Gustavson
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:53
  • Hola @Lambie, teóricamente podrías utilizarlo, sin embargo, se trata de un tiempo verbal que en español prácticamente ha caído en desuso, fue utilizado de forma habitual hasta el siglo XVIII, se utiliza para referirse a una acción o situación futura e hipotética. (Sabrán) es futuro de indicativo, (vendrán) es futuro de indicativo, el futuro de subjuntivo, ejem "vinieren", "mataren", "amaren"... es más complicado y arcaico. Habitualmente también se utiliza el condicional compuesto o el pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo "hubiera o hubiese salido"."No pensamos que el plan hubiera salido tan pronto".
    – Diego
    Nov 2, 2022 at 16:09
  • @Diego, yo conozco los tiempos. No hace falta repetírmelos todos. No pensamos que el plan hubiera salido tan pronto". We didn't think the plan would have come out so soon. that's different.
    – Lambie
    Nov 2, 2022 at 17:15

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