Imperfect Subjunctive (el imperfecto del subjuntivo)
The subjunctive mood is also employed when referring to past actions, events and states. In Unidad 3 we learned about when the subjunctive 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.
The imperfect or past subjunctive is formed via the 3rd person preterit—specifically 3rd person plural (ellos/ellas/ustedes). Review these forms: repasar estas formas.
- Begin with the preterite 3rd person plural
- Remove –ron to establish the root of the imperfect subjunctive
- Add the endings below to these new roots
|Endings for the Imperfect Subjunctive||hablar||comer||vivir|
- As you can see, these endings work for –AR, -ER, and –IR verbs.
- The vowel before the “nosotros” ending is always accented.
- If a verb has an irregular stem in the 3rd person plural (ellos) form in the preterit, it is maintained in the imperfect of the subjunctive. For example, “dormir” has a stem change in the 3rd person forms of the preterite: durmió, durmieron. The imperfect subjunctive will therefore be “durmiera”. Review the common forms with irregular roots in the preterit. There are a lot of them!
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 Acceso Hub: Forma y Función (LingroLearning) 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.
|Endings for the Imperfect Subjunctive||hablar||comer||vivir|
Uses of the Imperfect Subjunctive
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.
- To express doubt:
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.
- Era/Fue imposible que ... It was impossible ...
- Era/Fue (im)probable que ... It was (im)probable ...
- No era seguro que ... It was not certain ...
If a reaction or opinion is expressed in the main clause, the subjunctive is used in the dependent clause. Often, impersonal expressions that begin with “ser” prompt the use of the subjunctive.
- Era/Fue bueno ... It was good ...
- Era/Fue malo ... It was bad ...
- Era/Fue triste ... It was sad ...
- Era/Fue horrible ... It was horrible ...
- Era/Fue fantástico que ... It was fantastic that ...
- 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.
Note: 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.
- To express preferences, desires, hopes, requests, recommendations (in noun clauses):
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.
- To indicate that something doesn’t exist or that one is not sure if it exists (in adjective clauses):
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).
Imagine that during class the teacher needs to make an urgent phone call in German but does not speak German. She says:
- 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.
- To express interdependence (in adverb clauses):
Up to this point, we have only used “que” to connect the main clause and the dependent clause. It is also possible to use adverbs as conjunctions that unite both clauses. In this situation, the adverb is used to express the relationship between the main clause and the dependent clause.
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!
Review the conjunctions that motivate the subjunctive and the contexts in which they are used. 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.