Indicative vs subjunctive: 4 uses that will drive you crazyIf we did a survey about what is the hardest topic for our students at, we’re sure that they would answer ‘the subjunctive mode’.

During these years, we’ve analysed many uses of subjunctive from a functional point of view: how to express wishes, opinions, probabilities…, but also giving syntactic reasons.

Today, we’re going to focus on the speaker’s intention, which forms a fine line between indicativo and subjuntivo.

The Spanish language is as complex as Spaniards’ nature. Actually, languages, as a representation of the culture in a civilization, are a mirror of their speakers’ idiosyncrasy. Maybe in Spain, we play with hidden intentions as we do when we speak. Let’s see 5 of them.

1. Relative clauses

For a general explanation of these kind of sentences, you can read our series of articles (I, II, III). If we want to express that the antecedent of the clause is specific and known by us, we just need to use the indicative in the subordinative clause. However, if we mean that this term doesn’t exist or it’s not definite, we should use the subjunctive.

(In a store)

  • ¡Buenos días! Busco una camiseta que tiene una imagen de Star Wars (you, indeed, know that the shirt is in that store, maybe you saw it another day or a friend told you, and the clerk will bring it to you).
  • ¡Buenos días! Busco una camiseta que tenga una imagen de Star Wars (you don’t mean a specific shirt; you expect the clerk to bring you some of them to choose one, or even, it’s possible that there isn’t any shirt like that in the store).

2. Concessive clauses

Concessive clauses are introduced by conjunctions like aunque, a pesar de que, por mucho/poco que… (although, even if, even though…). If your intention is to downplay the obstacle that the clause shows, you can use the subjunctive. On the contrary, if you emphasise that obstacle, or you want the other person to focus on that information, you should use indicative.

  • Aunque me duele la pierna, voy a jugar contigo al fútbol (you want me to know that your leg hurts and playing with me is a sacrifice for you).
  • Aunque me duela la pierna, voy a jugar contigo al fútbol (That pain is not a real problem for you; you’re going to play no matter what).

3. Probabilities

We’ve already dealt with this issue before, nevertheless we’re going to focus on the level of certainty that we want to express using linking words like posiblemente, probablemente, quizá

  • Probablemente el examen ha sido difícil, ¿verdad? (we suppose that the exam was difficult but we’re quite sure, and we only expect your confirmation).
  • Probablemente el examen haya sido difícil, ¿verdad? (we can guess that but we’d not be very surprised if you disagree with us).

4. Verbs of communication

These verbs express the action of speaking: decir, afirmar, confesar, asegurarWe’ve learnt that we should use indicative, if they are in an affirmative form and subjunctive if the sentence is negative (Digo que hace calor / no digo que haga calor). However, sometimes we can change our intention and use the indicative in a negative sentence, too. If we mean that the information is true we need the indicative.

  • El acusado no confesó que había matado a la víctima (the accused didn’t confess the crime although we do know he did it).
  • El acusado no confesó que hubiera matado a la víctima (the accused didn’t confess the crime and we don’t know wether he did it or not).

The problem with all of these uses is not learning the rules, but applying them automatically in a conversation. That is a work for years, and we’ll be very pleased to help you. No decimos que será fácil (because we know it’s not), and quizá tengas muchas decepciones (although there is no certainty about that), but, aunque pienses que es imposible, you’ll get it (no matter what). So, choose a course que sea adecuado para ti (there are many options), or reserve a free trial lesson via Skype here, and start speaking real Spanish.