Usando el subjuntivo en el pasado — El imperfecto del subjuntivo

In this section we will learn that the subjunctive mood is also employed when referring to past actions, events and states. In Unidad 3 we learned about when the subjuntive mood is used in present and future contexts. Because the subjunctive is used in most of the same contexts in the past, it is a good idea to review this information before starting this section.

Las formas

Se forma el imperfecto (o pasado) del subjuntivo a base de las formas del pretérito—específicamente la forma de “ellos/ellas/ustedes” (3ª persona plural). ¿Necesitas repasar estas formas antes de comenzar?

  1. 1. Empieza con la 3ª persona plural del pretérito
    • hablaron
    • comieron
    • vivieron
  2. Elimina –ron para establecer la base del imperfecto del subjuntivo
    • hablaron
    • comieron
    • vivieron
  3. Añade las terminaciones a continuación a estas bases nuevas
    • habla-
    • comie-
    • vivie-
Persona Terminación para el imperfecto del subjuntivo HABLAR COMER VIVIR
yo -ra hablara comiera viviera
-ras hablaras comieras vivieras
él / ella / usted -ra hablara comiera viviera
nosotros/as -´ramos habláramos comiéramos viviéramos
vosotros/as -rais hablarais comierais vivierais
ellos/ ellas/ ustedes -ran hablaran comieran vivieran


Terminaciones alternativas

There are alternative endings for forming the imperfect of the subjunctive. You will not be asked to learn these endings and they will not appear in the activities in MySpanishLab or on exams. However, it is important for you to be aware of them because they are relatively commonly used (especially in Spain). You may hear them from your instructor, and it is likely that you will come across them as you read authentic Spanish in Acceso.

Persona Terminación para el imperfecto del subjuntivo HABLAR COMER VIVIR
yo -se hablase comiese viviese
-ses hablases comieses vivieses
él / ella / usted -se hablase comiese viviese
nosotros/as -´semos hablásemos comiésemos viviésemos
vosotros/as -seis hablaseis comieseis vivieseis
ellos/ ellas/ ustedes -sen hablasen comiesen viviesen

Las funciones

You use the imperfect subjunctive to express doubt or uncertainty and preferences or recommendations that refer to the past. It is also used to express that something did not exist or the speaker was unsure if it existed in the past. Additionally, it is used in certain contexts that express interdependence in the past. The good news is that unlike the indicative past tense, which gives you the choice between the preterit and the imperfect, the subjunctive uses only the imperfect. Whenever the verb in the main clause is in the past tense (whether preterit, imperfect, or past perfect) and motivates the subjunctive, the subordinate clause uses the imperfect subjunctive. Let’s break this down and see some examples.

1. El uso del subjuntivo para expresar la incertidumbre o las reacciones del hablante

If the speaker is expressing doubt, disbelief or uncertainty in the main clause, the subjunctive is used in subordinate clause to signal this.

Mi amigo dudaba que nuestro equipo ganara el campeonato. (ganar)
My friends doubted that our team would win the championship.

Yo no creía que mi amigo tuviera razón. (tener)
I didn’t believe that my friend was right.

The following phrases often appear in main clauses and trigger the use of the subjunctive in the subordinate clause.

Si se expresa una reacción o un comentario en la cláusula principal, se usa el subjuntivo en la cláusula dependiente. Muchas veces las expresiones que motivan el uso del subjuntivo son impersonales (empiezan con ser).

Fue bueno que los estudiantes hicieran la tarea antes de cada clase. (hacer)
It was good that the students did/were doing their homework before each class.

Era triste que hubiera tanto paro en esa época. (haber)
It was sad that there was so much unemployment in those times.

*Ojo: While using the subjunctive to signal doubt or uncertainty is universal in all regions of the Spanish-speaking world, its use with reactions and/or comments seems to be dissipating in some regions. For our purposes, we will use the subjunctive in these contexts (as demonstrated above), but don’t be surprised if you hear native speakers use the indicative in these same contexts.

2. Para expresar preferencias, deseos, esperanzas, peticiones, recomendaciones (en las cláusulas nominales)

In Spanish when a speaker expresses desires, hopes, requests, suggestions (anything that he or she doesn’t really have control over) in the main clause, the subjunctive is used in the dependent clause to signal that the outcome is not clear.

Esperaba que los estudiantes comprendieran las actividades. (comprender)
I hoped that the students understood / would understand the activities.

I may have hoped that they understood the activities but I really couldn’t control the outcome. The same basic concept applies to requests, suggestions, preferences and desires.

La instructora pidió que los estudiantes hicieran la tarea antes de venir a clase. (hacer)
The instructor asked the students to do their homework before coming to class.

Mi médico recomendó que yo comiera menos grasa. (comer)
My doctor recommended that I eat less fat.

Prefería que hubiera menos de 18 estudiantes en la clase. (haber)
I preferred that there were fewer than 18 students in the class.

Mi mamá insistió en que mi hermano menor no hablara por teléfono móvil en el restaurante. (hablar)
My mother insisted that my little brother not talk on the cell phone in the restaurant.

3. Para señalar que algo no existe o que uno no está seguro de la existencia (en las cláusulas adjetivales)

This use of the subjunctive is often referred to as “indefinite or negative antecedents.” All that really means is that the speaker is signaling that the phrase in the dependent clause is describing something that either did not exist or may not have existed (within the given context).

Imaginemos que la instructora de una clase tenía que hacer una llamada urgente a Alemania pero no sabía alemán.

La instructora buscaba a un estudiante en la clase que hablara alemán.
The instructor was looking for a student in the class that spoke German.

¿Había alguien en la clase que hablara alemán?
Was there anyone in the class that spoke German?

No, no había nadie que hablara alemán.
No, there was nobody that spoke German.

¡Sí, había una persona que hablaba alemán!
Yes, there was someone who spoke German!

Notice that in all of the indefinite or negative descriptions (when the speaker was not sure if what was being described actually existed or was sure that it did not exist), the subjunctive is used in the dependent clause. However, in the last example, the imperfect indicative is used. Can you explain why?

It is also important to clarify that the context is the key to establishing and restricting what might not have or did not exist. Obviously there are lots of people who speak German in existence! The teacher was looking for a student in the room that spoke German and wasn’t sure if someone did. When the student answered that no one spoke German, the statement was obviously restricted to no one in the class.

4. Para expresar interdependecia (en las cláusulas adverbiales)

Hasta ahora hemos visto tan solo el uso de la conjunción “que” para conectar las cláusulas principales y las cláusulas dependientes. También es posible utilizar los adverbios como conjunciones que unen dos cláusulas. En este caso el adverbio expresa la relación entre la cláusula principal y la cláusula dependiente.

One of the primary functions of these types of conjunctions is to indicate the conditions under which something happened in the past. This gets a little tricky, though, because not all of these conjunctions require the subjunctive in every situation. It depends ...

¡El uso del subjuntivo dependía de la relación que existiera entre los elementos de la oración! (existir)
The use of the subjunctive depended on the relationship that existed between the elements of the sentence!

To review the conjunctions that motivate the subjunctive and the contexts in which they are used, click here.  The conjunctions listed there that always motivate subjunctive will continue to do so in the past tense.

El instructor preparó tortilla de patatas para que los estudiantes pudieran probar la comida española.
The instructor made tortilla de patatas so that the students would be able to try Spanish food.

The conjunctions that only motivate subjunctive in hypothetical situations will not do so when referring to things that have already happened.

Fuimos a la playa en cuanto dejó de llover.
We went to the beach as soon as it stopped raining

In rare cases, however, we may need the subjunctive to talk about hypothetical situations in the past.

Queríamos ir a playa en cuanto dejara de llover.
We wanted to go to the beach as soon as it would stop raining.

This is why it is so important to build from the 3rd person plural of the preterit!
Sudamérica I