How to Use the Subjunctive: it’s a mood

Clare Davies is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Atlántico, Colombia.

I remember the first time I learned about the subjunctive in Spanish class in high school.  Although the subjunctive does exist in English, it is rarely taught in school, and I had never heard of it.  I was not even aware that moods existed in grammar. Grammatical moods convey tone or intention (as opposed to tenses, which express time). The indicative mood is for facts, certainties, descriptions, observations, or statements of opinion. I left my stable and lucrative job to join the Peace Corps. I will spend the next two years in Colombia. Some people think that I’m crazy. While the subjunctive mood is for uncertainties: what could be, might be, or may happen. From my desk in a high school classroom in the Midwest, the subjunctive seemed unnecessary. Why did I need to memorize entire new sets of verb conjugations? Can’t we just talk about what we know?

As an American, I am much more comfortable in the indicative mood. I schedule obsessively, and I don’t doubt that I will see my plans through, keep my appointments, and achieve my dreams. Growing up in the U.S., I was taught to assert myself, to ask for what I want, and to express my feelings and desires clearly and confidently as if they were facts. If we speak with certainty, leaving no room for doubt, we can better convince others to buy whatever we’re selling or believe whatever we’re telling.

For me, trying to use the subjunctive correctly requires an extra, unnatural and philosophical step: gauging how certain I am that what I say will come to pass. Moving to a new country, with a new job, in a new language, has made me quite uncertain that I know much of anything, so I often find myself in the subjunctive mood…

  1.     With Recommendations and Requests

My old life had a routine: wake up at a certain time, get to work by a certain time and leave the office at a certain time. My days here are structured by recommendations and requests, which take the subjunctive because no matter how wise the recommendation, or urgent the request, there is no guarantee that the person will follow through. During PST, they recommend you do everything you can to integrate into your community.  They suggest you meet with community leaders. They advise that you interview people to get to know them better and learn about your community.  In my town, the tourist association proposes that I come camping with them this weekend. In my new home, my host mom insists that I try her cooking.  At the party, the ladies demand that I put on the marimonda costume and dance champeta. Other volunteers recommend that I say yes to everything, and so I do.

  1.     For Wishes and Desires

Perhaps more than most jobs, that of the Peace Corps volunteer is filled with wishes and desires, which of course take the subjunctive because wishes are not the same as reality.  I juggle my own, sometimes competing desires. I hope that my community likes me. I hope they understand what I’m saying. I hope it’s not too hot today. I hope it rains today. I hope my Spanish improves. I hope that today is productive. I hope the internet works today. I also juggle the desires that members of my community share with me. I wish there were a park in our neighborhood for our kids to play. I wish there were more cultural programs for youth. I wish there were better mental health services.

  1.     Expressing Emotions

I don’t think I’m the same person in Spanish. I’m quieter and more cautious. I’ve avoided expressing emotions since sometimes emotions, especially negative ones, can feel like judgments, and the last thing I want is to be seen as stuck up or rude. I don’t laugh as much, sometimes because I don’t understand the joke, sometimes because I do, but don’t understand why it’s funny, and other times because I don’t want to be seen as mocking. In my mind, the only safe emotions are the obvious ones and even these must take the subjunctive since one’s emotions are subjective and sometimes have little to do with fact. I’m sorry that your grandmother has passed away. I’m grateful you invited me. I’m happy that you came. I’m glad Peace Corps sent me here.

  1.     With Impersonal Expressions

I do, however, use a lot of impersonal expressions, not out loud or in Spanish, but in my head as I process my new reality. If I were to speak them aloud in Spanish, they would take the subjunctive because they are basically the same as expressing emotion. It’s nice that people here have so much pride in their community. It’s good that there are so many creative and engaged community leaders. It’s important that I meet more people, interview more people, get out more. It’s crazy that I’ve been here nearly five months already.

  1.     With conjunctions

Some days are long, and other days I can’t believe it’s already time for bed.  Sometimes two years seems like a long time, but other times I feel acutely aware that my time here is limited and how will I possibly do everything I want to in just twenty-two months?  Time is tricky, and it is also uncertain, especially future time, so adverbial phrases expressing time or future events take the subjunctive. When my site mate leaves in October, I will continue her work here. After the holidays are over, work will pick up again. As soon as I get internet, I will be more productive. 

  1.     For Doubt and Denial

Doubt feels like a slippery slope. Once I start questioning whether I can really do this, how long until I’m on a plane home? Better not to let my mind wander at all. But the subjunctive is all about doubt, and maybe doubt doesn’t have to be forbidden or scary.  Maybe instead of letting my doubts whirl around in my head, I can express them, sending them out into the world to drift away on the evening brisa. I can acknowledge their existence without letting them consume me. I’m not sure that anyone will show up.  I don’t think this meeting will be productive. I doubt the correleja will be fun. I’m not sure this is right. I don’t think this is how it’s supposed to go. 

  1.     Ojalá

Ojalá is one of the many words that came to Spanish from Arabic when Spain was ruled by Muslims. It is derived from the phrase “law sha Allah”—if Allah should want. Ojalá is now usually translated as “hopefully” or “if only”, but essentially ojalá expressions are prayers, which take the subjunctive because it is impossible to know what Allah should want. I have yet to use it in the wild, but I will share one prayer now: Ojalá que using the subjunctive will empower me to have a healthier relationship with doubt.

The subjunctive mood is just thata mood, a state of mind.  The allure of the subjunctive mindset is that it leaves room for all of life’s unexpected occurrences, for the possibility that things might not turn out as we plan, that others might not do what we ask or feel the same way we do. The subjunctive mood is humbling. It is unafraid of doubt. It is not demanding nor concerned with the merely factual. It embraces the tenuousness of our daily existence. It acknowledges our place in the world. We are humans. We are not in control.  There is so little of which we can be certain. As much as this is true for life in general, it seems particularly true for me now in this new life I have chosen for myself. I hope that practicing the subjunctive mood will bring more comfort with the daily doubts I experience: what is the best way to spend my time today? Am I doing enough? Will all this work pay off? At the end, what will I have to show for it?  This I do know: I will stumble over subjunctive verbs as I find my way through this job for the next two years. Ojalá I (and my Spanish) will be better for it.


Note: For the structure of this piece, I was inspired by Michele Morano’s essay “In the Subjunctive Mood” from her book Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain.


For more awesome content from PCV Clare, check out her personal blog here

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