The Context-Sensitive Subjunctive

Posted by Tyler | Filed under

As you probably know, one of the most confusing concepts for an "anglo-parlante" to master in Spanish is the subjunctive mood.  The subject is usually introduced by learning a series of introductory verbs and phrases or grammatical structures that usually take the subjunctive.  The classic example is expressing desire as in “Quiero que vengas aquí”.  That’s all good and fine as long as long as life follows the rules, but language is a living, mutable thing and context can be everything.

Take the following sentence:
Digo que mi madre [ser] buena.
How would you conjugate “ser” in this sentence?  Es or sea?  

The answer is that it depends on what you mean!

Let’s take the first possibility. Digo que mi madre es buena.  What you’re saying in this instance is that your mom IS good (most are), something you’d do well to remember tomorrow if you live in Argentina where the third Thursday in October is Mother’s Day or “Día de la Madre”.

Now let’s take the second case and put ser in the subjunctive.  Digo que mi madre sea buena.  Now you’re saying that you WANT her to BE good.

It’s a subtle but important difference.

Let’s try with a few other verbs that might be either indicative or subjunctive.

Indico que completa este ejercicio.  – ask you to complete an exercise
Indico que complete este ejercicio.   – state that you are completing an exercise

Los porteños se quejan de que no hay luz.  --  The power is out.
Los porteños se quejan de que no haya cortes de luz en pleno.  -- Not currently a loss of electricity.  Projecting in the future eventually repeats.) Imagined time in the future, for example in Winter, might be imagining what will happen in the summer when all the air conditioners kick in.

Le recuerdo que siempre hace bien la tarea. --  declaration that something is happening
Le recuerdo que siempre haga bien la tarea. --  is a demando or a request