Because of unfamiliarity with the use of the little-used subjunctive mood in the English language by the average person, it can become burdensome when studying a language which requires its diligent application. Books and websites may try to convince the learner of its simplicity, and this document may well be going down that same path with its pretensions – but at least, from the theoretical point of view, we hope to provide a new insight – and just perhaps, that insight will be of some advantage in learning the unfamiliar mood of another language, keeping us in better humour than would otherwise be the case. The text sets out to show that the mood under discussion shares characteristics with the conditional. Whenever some kind of transformation into a conditional sentence is possible, it is probably advisable to use the subjunctive mood. This we can best show with a language such as the Spanish, to which constant reference will be made – although at least a passing reference will be made to German, French, and Portuguese.
.The subjunctive mood, as used in English, is in such a comatose state, that even H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford, 1927; “Subjunctives”) probably would disparage a sentence such as might be heard in a Western, “And who would you be?” Its correct use would be limited to an educated group, but the limited familiarity that one will have with its presence in the English language will become an obstacle, once the option is undertaken to study a language in which the use of the indicative mood for the subjunctive becomes a sign of faulty education. To make matters worse, anyone exposed to more than one language with this seemingly complex construction (we say “seemingly”, on the oft-stated assumption that those born into a language have no such difficulty) there exist inconsistencies in the application of the rules. Perhaps E. S. Jenkins in his French Grammar (Sevenoaks, Kent: Hodder & Stoughton, 1961) is closer to the truth when he stated, “Everyone, even French people, finds it difficult to use the subjunctive correctly”. (p. 92). With the exception of the words eût and fût, often found as an elegant literary substitute for aurait and serait, (p. 95) we are made to believe, when comparing his description of usage with that of the Spanish, that they are identical (see further below for a dissenting view). We here do not want to give an unnecessary regurgitation of information which must be available in hundreds of sources, some of these on-line. What we do want to show is that an analysis of sentences used subjunctively reveals that these have an element of the conditional, which may be proposed as a sort of litmus-test when the time comes to decide which is the appropriate mood of a given verb.
As this writer has limited resources, he cannot verify the prior existence of a similar analysis, or the number of writings which may exist on the subject. Should we have failed to be original in our thesis, it can still be hoped that it remains more available to the public at large than those unobtainable reference works.
We have already, on our subdomain of this website dedicated a page indirectly concerned with the conditional. While it may not be absolutely necessary for the reader, should there be any interest in seeing it, the name of the relevant article is:
Reported Speech and Conditional Sentences
We know that the conditional is usually characterized by that little word, “if”, save for the very hypothetical sounding constructions which have non-interrogative sentences beginning with “were”, “should”, or “had”.
Zero Conditional Contrasted with the Three Conditional Forms
We will take this opportunity to show the zero or false conditional to be a pretender:
1.) If you heat paper to 451 degrees Fahrenheit, it burns, (with the option of using “will burn”).
The standard explanation is that the substitution of the word “if” by “whenever” proves that this is not a conditional. It must be emphasized that “whenever” must be used, and not “when”, as we will show that this latter conjunction does not necessarily stray from the idea of the conditional, while its suffixed form necessarily does.
Were we to take a marking pen, put a period in place of the comma, capitalize the following word, and cross out the “if” and the subject of the sentence, we remain with:
2.) Heat paper to 451 degrees Fahrenheit. It burns, (or, It will burn.)
Should the subject have been “the instructor” of another noun, noun phrase, or pronoun of the third person singular, the verb, the verb must lose its inflectional ending, or desinence.
We could say that this applies to natural laws: It does not apply to legislation. In the following sentence, we only have a threat, no guarantee of the outcome: In any event, the “whenever” test fails.
3.a. If you exceed the speed limit, you will get fined.
Understood by the above is another conditional:
3.b. If you exceed the speed limit, you will get fined, if you get caught.
Our analysis of the preceding sentence should then look at its reworded form:
3.c. You will get fined if you get caught exceeding the speed limit.
That may seem like a major deviation from the original, so we could say, we really had two ccnditionals required for the conclusion:
3.d. If you exceeed the speed limit, and (if you) get caught, you will get fined.
We might prefer to put that into the unreal conditional of the present (second conditional):
3.e. If you exceeded the speed limit and got caught, you would get fined.
Because of potential confusion, the sentence may best be reworded:
3.f. Were you to exceed the …..or Should you exceed, etc.
One more sentence to conclude this part:
4.a. If the experiment with water is done at high altitude, it will boil at a lower temperature.
Applying our marking pen, and making the necessary grammatical corrections:
4.b. The experiment is done at high altitude. (The water) will boil at a lower temperature.
This shows that our test may be affected by using passive voice, and that the subject of the sentence may have to be moved to the second part. In any event, comparing our sentences of scientific laws to those of our legislation, it becomes clear that Mother Nature cannot be conditioned, but we may be, as in our sentence about speeding, Pavlov’s dogs (if we opt to obey), or the trainers (if we have the power to force a certain behaviour).
We have one more method for analyzing the conditional, especially to eliminate confusion between the zero form and the others, but that will be a separate article.
The Conditional Sentences
By a conditional sentence, we mean one which contains an “if” clause, or one which would, were the sentence to have been reworded in such a way that the conjunction becomes unnecessary; and finally, any sentence which lacks the clause, but it may be understood elliptically. Some works refer to this part of the sentence as the protasis
Excluding the “zero conditional”, we have the real conditional in the present, the unreal conditional in the present, and the unreal conditional in the past, sometimes labelled Conditional I, II, and III, or First Conditional, etc.
Some authors acknowledge that the difference between the first two may often simply be ones of our psychological state at a given time. Here is an example to show that the difference is often slight:
5.a. If I follow the advice given to me in my youth, and use a large bill to pay for a ten-dollar drink, I will get a lot of attention …. .
5.b. If I followed the advice given to me in my youth, and used a large bill to pay for a ten-dollar drink, I would get a lot of attention … .
Please, do not accuse me of plagiarism on that, this advice was given to me by an employer on how to get myself a woman interested in me. He ignored, however, that I do not frequent bars. That must be another “if” sentence!
It may be noticed, that the difference in the two sentences is very slight.
While reviewing a text for the Latin language, an interesting idea came to my attention. It was only necessary to adapt it to the question at hand. If I were writing in Spanish, I would say, that I needed to acondicionar la idea.
Latin Grammar – Use of After in Time Clauses
We were reminded of something we learned in secondary school, and may well have shaped the way we speak and write English – a construction from, let’s say, two thousand years ago. We will not challenge the reader with an actual selection from Latin, but explain what happens in that language.
Let us imagine, keeping with our theme of history, that some Roman writer or leader had said:
6.a. After we have conquered Gallia, we will subdue Britannia.
I doubt that they knew about Britannia before entering the territory presently occupied by the French, but maybe they heard a rumour about some island even further away.
The point is – any book on Latin grammar will inform the student that the correct form to translate this into Latin would be – as it were, to assume that the English version of the sentence was:
6.b. After we will have conquered Gallia, we will subdue Britannia.
The same logic holds, if we were to replace “after” with “when” or “if”. While the specific conjunction would be different in each of the three examples, the rest to the sentence, in Latin, would be identical.
It is relatively easy to see that at times, “when” does mean “if”. How about “after”? For this, our largest dictionary, Webster’s Third International, suggests that “after” is a conjunction meaning “after that”, in turn meaning “subsequent to a time when”. We would say, if that subsequent time is considered to be in the future, its very subsequentness is conditional upon its occurring, or, since we have already state, that at times “when” means “if”, then, “subsequent to a time when” occasionally must mean, subsequent to a time which, if it comes to be … “
We do not want to pretend that there may be subtle differences in the choice of words, and we could even have said:
6.c. Once we have conquered Gallia, we will subdue the Romans.
Our Webster’s Collegiate failed to provide a proof of our thought, but it was found in our Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary – “once” may mean “as soon as; when”, and it is easy to see that this is an event that depends upon undefined conditions. Whether or not these have been defined, we have already stated, that “when” can mean “if”. (That comes through Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary 1991, and while we may be accused of cherry-picking, the basic argument here employed, in our opinion, is solid.)
We hope to have shown that the defeat of Britannia was conditioned upon the prior subjugation of the Gauls, whatever our conjunction might have been.
What we have stated above has immediate application to both the “zero” and the first conditional – the real conditional in the present.
7.a. When we heat water to 100 degrees centigrade at normal atmospheric pressure at sea level, it boils. (Refer to the section with sentences 1. and 2. for further information.)
The preceding statement is a fact. Were we to substitute when with “if”, the fact would not change, hence, it is a false conditional. It may not have been sufficiently stated to students, why the condition of normal atmospheric pressure at sea-level should not be considered relevant to our question, to which we might answer, it is an irrelevant condition to our essential question. Hence, let us reword:
7.b. I we heat water to 100 degrees centigrade, (and if the air pressure is equivalent to the pressure at sea-level), then it boils.
As shown in the preceding, we have reduced the condition to a subordinate clause. It is irrelevant to our main idea of boiling at one hundred degrees.
Therefore, our sentence:
Once we have conquered the Gauls, we will subdue the Britannia, (6.c.)
which does not state a fact, can justifiably be understood as
8.a. If we conquer the Gauls, we will subdue Britannia..
According to the rules for Latin, this last sentence must be translated, literally, from word which in English would read:
8.b. If we shall have conquered the Gauls, we will subdue Britannia.
According to the work which gave us the impetus for the present article (Teach Yourself Latin, F. Kinchin Smith, 1948), the Latin construction is more logical than the English. We do not want to omit that we remember our secondary school Latin text, Latin for Canadian Schools, with whatever page dealt with the same topic.
What we really see here is that by substitution of the present tense verb form in the protasis of the first conditional, we end up with future forms in both clauses. Similar cases will be seen in the examples from the Spanish language, given further below.
From the preceding, and based on the argument, that one using the Latin language is forced to be more precise than in English, it would seem that no confusion could arise from the real and unreal conditionals in the present.
If I follow the advice given to me in my youth, and use a large bill to pay for a ten-dollar drink, I will get a lot of attention …. .(5.a.)
More correctly, the other alternative, as suggested on my other webpage, would be:
5.c. If I were to follow the advice given in my youth, and used a large bill to pay for a ten-dollar drink, I would get a lot of attention … .
That, instead of the misleading second conditional or unreal condition in the present:
5.d. If I followed the advice given to me in my youth, and used a large bill to pay for a ten-dollar drink, I would get a lot of attention … .
According to what I have said here, following the logic of the Latin language, what I should say, as unnatural is it may sound, is:
5.e. If I will have followed the advice given to me in my youth, and have used a large bill to pay for a ten-dollar drink, I will get a lot of attention.
As I am hot happy with the sound of the preceding, I must change it into something more Anglicized: Furthermore, at present, this is a past event.
5.f. If I were to have followed the advice given to me in my youth, and were to have used a large bill to pay for a ten-dollar drink, I would get a lot of attention … .
It must be emphasized, that this is in no way meant to compete with the following, genuinely unreal conditional:
5.g. If I had followed the advice given to me in my youth, and had used a large bank-note to pay for a ten-dollar drink, I would have gotten a lot of attention.
The last of these is clearly a third conditional, and unreal conditional in the past.
What does this have to do with the subjunctive?
First of all, the unreal conditional in the present, in a language such as Spanish, requires the use of the subjunctive mood.
Furthermore, the same is true when we use “when” in the future meaning, instead of using it to refer to a past event.
On the supposition that the “if” in the present really refers to a hypothetical future event, and that “when” can be its equivalent, then, because of the preceding, we can see the “subjunctive” mood in both of these situations.
This leads us to consider if there is a similar working of some kind of conditional in other uses of the subjunctive. We believe this to hold true in at least some cases.
We shall start by considering polite forms of request, and then, go back in time when courtesy was replaced by implicit, if not explicit threat.
The Subjunctive in Spanish: Real and Implied Imperatives
9.a. Please close the door, in formal Spanish:
9.b. Por favor, cierre la puerta.
We will leave the Spanish sentence for a while, and concentrate on the English.
Our sentence really is an elliptical construction for:
9.c. If you please, close the door.
In the preceding, the meaning of “please” is “want”. We could now render the sentence into Spanish with the more polite form, substituting for 1.b:
9.d. Si quisiera, cierre la puerta, or a shade less politely,
9.e. Si quiere, cierre la puerta.
We thus can understand the polite forms of the question:
9.f. ¿Qué quisiera?, or what this author hates to hear:
9.g. ¿Qué quiere?
To this latter form, this writer tends to retort, in Spanish, that he does not want anything. It is the questioner who has the want: the need to make a sale, and that sale is subject to conditions of price, quality, and courtesy!
Using mandatory complete sentence structures, our answer to the Spanish question becomes:
9.h. Quisiera que se cierre la puerta, which becomes an equivalent to our sentence 9.b in terms of courtesy, or if we understand the following elliptically,
9.i. Cierre la puerta, which may be comprehended as a reduced form of
9.j. ¡Qué se cierre la puerta!
Understanding the Imperative as a Type of Conditional Sentence
From what has been stated above, it can be seen that any imperative sentence in a language such as French or Spanish is implicitly a type of conditional sentence, that is, one in which the politeness has been removed. We will now show that the same is true if we skip any pretence of being polite.
Let us go back to the times of savage capitalism (or do these still exist?) or colonial wars (ditto the last question):
- a. Work faster!
The implicit idea here becomes:
10.b. If you do not work faster, you will lose your job!
or, to avoid giving too violent a spin on war-time:
10.b.i. If you do not work faster in building the fort, you will be put in a punishment brigade.
We could consider the wishes of absolute monarchs, or other tyrants.
11.a. Bring me evidence of his death!
The implication to the above is:
11.b. If you do not bring me evidence of his death, you know what will happen to you!
Sometimes, it is sufficient to consider parents or teachers.
12.a. Do your homework!
The child or student to whom these words are addressed may well understand some kind of punishment to be implicit:
12.b. If you do not do your homework, (i) you will not have supper
(ii) you will be placed in detention.
From the preceding, it should be clear that all cases of wanting someone to do something, regardless of the word chosen (tell, order, command, advise, request, etc.) are implicitly conditional sentences. The polite forms may, indeed, merely be placing a veneer of democratic respectability on what still remains a veiled threat. The teacher, with authority to punish, or the employer, who instructs a subordinate with few worker’s rights, may use “please” to sound less offensive, but the clever person to whom such a sentence was made does not literally believe that there is any option other than to comply.
A question may remain: how is sentence 1.c. a conditional, as there is no future verb?
To this, we must reply, first of all, that this cannot be the “zero” conditional, because there is no idea of whenever. This explanation may be putting the cart before the horse, which may, at times, be beneficial:
13.a. If you please, put the cart before the horse.
The reason for this may be that the door of the stall broke down, and by placing the wagon crosswise across the opening, the horse will not be able to push it away!
A Question of Will, and about that Word in the Conditional
A sentence such as the preceding is just one of the forms of the first conditional, the conditional which is usually taught as having the present in the “if” part, and the future in the other clause. In any event, the “putting” will be in the future. We might say,
13.b. Will you put the cart before the horse?
As much as the preceding sentence uses “will”, this is not so much a question about the future event taking place, but if the person being addressed has the will, or desire, carry out the action. We could have said, as in the Spanish question to which our objection has been stated:
13 c. Do you want to put the cart before the horse?
The stablehand should, of course, not give any reply, save one in the affirmative!
The German reply:
“Ich will nicht”, will not do.
We are reminded of the words (speaking about tyrants and the like) of the poem by Goethe, set to music, by among others, as the Lied, Der Erlköng,
Und bist Du nicht willig, so brauch’ ich Gewalt!
(And if thou art not willing, then I shall employ force!)
Restating our translation to:
13.d. And if you will not, I shall use force.
The sentence is interesting, not only from the point of view of an alternate form of a first conditional sentence, but considering the argument, more common in British circles, that futurity is expressed by “shall” for the first person singular and plural, and “will”, on the contrary, for the other grammatical persons. Reversing the procedure, prescriptive grammars state, means we are speaking about will or intention, such as in 13.d. Then comes the complaint, which justifies American usage, that even Shakespeare was not consistent in his choice of auxiliary verbs.
Thus, we could make clear the true meaning of 5.d., rewriting it as:
13.e. And if you do not intend to do so, I intend to use force. This makes clear that “will” does not have the force of an auxiliary verb here.
We now move on to other cases of the subjunctive, and will try to show some implicit condition.
The German Subjunctive for Reported Speech
While German has two subjunctive forms, Konjunctiv I and Konjunctiv II, from a practical point of view, the verb forms are usually so close to the indicative mood, that the only mystery, in that there seems to be some Germanic exceptionalism in this, is that reported speech is rendered in a special subjunctive form. The theory is that the speaker denies any and all liability for the truth of what is being reported.
14.a. Sie sagten, sie kämen sofort.
14.b. They said that they were coming immediately.
The original sentences, both in German and English, would here be in the present indicative tense;
14.c. Wir kommen sofort. / We are coming immediately.
We may see that the condition becomes:
14.d. If they are telling the truth, they are coming immediately.
This may be variously translated to give the same idea, let us try:
14.e. If their words are true, then, according to what they said, they are coming immediately.
14.f. If they spoke the truth, then (according to what they said), they are coming immediately..
- g. Sollten ihre Worten wahr sein, dann, so wie sie sagten, kommen sie sofort.
Here we have switched the conditional from the reported speech to the question of the truthfulness of the words.
Thus we have shown that reported speech in German is in the subjunctive, in that it parallels conditional sentences, such as in Spanish, Let us take a translation of 14.d.:
14.h. Si dicen la verdad, vendrán inmediatamente.
To prove our case, we must suppose an unreal conditional in the present:
14.i. Si dijeran la verdad, vendrían inmediatamente.
There we have an “if”, followed by the imperfect subjunctive, with the conditional form of the verb “to come”. It may be translated into English by making the necessary changes of 6.d. to the present unreal conditional (Conditional II, or second conditional.).
We can even take an entirely different approach. We could use, in Spanish, the impersonal expression, es improbable, or the expression of doubt, es dudoso, or es incierto. We shall yoke these expressions to emphasize the subjunctive nature of our claim.
14.j. It is improbable, and therefore doubtful, (what they said), that they are coming immediately.
Before we translate this, we would like to say why we would want to claim the preceding, other than to force some kind of parallel with the German reported speech.
An irrefutable reason would be that talking about the future implies a wager on our part that things will turn out as expected. Because of the unexpected, people take out insurance. There is no insurance on our choice of words, other than to select them with care, and to convey our meaning in such a way that twisting them out of context becomes difficult. While this may not be necessary in day-to-day conversation, correct use of language is extremely important for effective business and legal communication.
So, especially if someone wanted to deny, after suggesting, words attributed to another person, prudence dictates:
14.k. It is improbable, and therefore doubtful – to some degree – what they said, which was that they would come immediately, because the weather may suddenly become inclement, or a chunk of some satellite might accidently fall down, or who-knows-what-kind-of-calamity may befall them, from a routine traffic stop, a heart attack, a mugging …
The list could go on, and be valid for any type of future. Granted, speaking in such terms is an exaggeration. This unwieldy formula can be replaced in most cultures, by some reference to a deity, or luck.
- l. They said – and may God grant that it be so – that they are coming immediately.
14..m. Dijeron – ojalá que pase así – que vengan en seguida.
Note: “ojalá”, is roughly pronounced, aspirating the following “h”,
Oh! Allah!, hence, O, God, the true meaning coming from the Arabic
Inshallah, “if God be willing”, “if God wills it”
In simple, agnostic German, we could then transform the above to:
14.n. Si sagten, si kämen sofort – und hoffentlich!
Spanish Relative Clauses with an Indefinite Antecedent
To the beginner in the Spanish language, the use the word “a” in a sentence like the following, may surprise:
15.a. Visito a un profesor que habla varios idiomas.
15.b I am visiting a professor who speaks several languages.
Suddenly, the student is hit with this:
15.c. Necesito un profesor que hable varios idiomas
15.d. I need a professor who speaks several languages.
The nonplussed learner may assume, incorrectly, that what happened is that we have the present continuous tense in the first case, and not in the second. The conclusion would be false, and this is why allowing students to come to their own conclusions, without sufficient guidance, is a disservice to them.
In 15.c, the subjunctive was used. Of course, its use is always blithely explained by summing up the fact that the indicative is used for facts, the subjunctive when there is something subjective about the situation. As we have seen further above, in the example of reported speech in German, subjectivity depends not on a concrete understanding of what that may be, but on how subjectivity is viewed in the mind of every particular body of grammarians of a language. Their idea of subjectivity, in fact, is quite personal, until the grammarians codify it, and the pedants among us spread the gospel – no “good news” to the majority of pupils!
We need something better, but we will be honest. We must think according to the rules of the language under study. Rules for the use of the subjunctive will be even more complex for someone studying French, for example. We will remain with Spanish, because writing one type of accent is enough of an inconvenience, without bothering to try to write three different types, and it is a language with fewer exceptions to the rules.
Our problem with how sentences 15.c. and d. are understood, is that the student may well imagine that the need for the professor is a fact. It becomes harder to establish that no such savant may exist, as any reflection upon such a question would diminish the speed at which a sentence can be written or spoken, until such time that the grammatical point becomes completely embedded in one’s mind.
We can only offer an analysis, and hope that it may be more helpful than others.
We again resort to the idea of a condition. Should the student, subconsciously, after incorporating the following on the deliberate level, be able to think:
15.e. I need, if such a person exists, a professor who speaks various languages.
The objection may be raised, “But surely such a person does exist!”
We can get around that by emphasizing that we mean, here and now. It is somewhat similar to the rule for the present perfect tense in English, where we say, in simplified terms, if an action can happen again in the future, of the type specified in our sentence, then we must not use the simple past, no matter how unpalatable the sentence may be to our personal idiosyncrasies.
Nevertheless, another thought has come to us. By making sentences containing relative clauses, preceded by “who”, “which” or “that”, (meaning, in Spanish, que), and considering the construction as a wordier:
15.f. I need a person, if that person exists, who … . In this case, we substitute the type of person needed, for example, professor. We could substitute “thing” for “person”, if needed. While we have not added much to what we have already stated in 15.e., other than giving an outline procedure for analysis, we can point out that in an earlier time, the thought was probably along such lines, as it still is in the rather complex, to English ears, formula for questions in French, Qu’est-ce que c’est? Here we have six words to ask a three word question, “What is that?” Que repeats twice, as does est and ce. We postulate a similar, now disappeared idea, for the relative clauses of the type discussed in this section.
The preceding is the way we have reformulated the traditional teaching on the subject, and we, as we are in Latin America, often subject to military regimes in the past, have taught as an example:
16.a. This country has had a military dictatorship.
No matter how revolting the idea may be to the student that such an event could be repeated, no matter how objectionable it may be the one’s political outlook, unless specific time in the past is mentioned, we must stay with the perfect construction here.
16.b. Life forms have been extinguished on earth by cataclysmic events.
Our fear that we may be affected by the next such occurrence is irrelevant. Only if we understand dinosaurs literally, with no imagined comebacks such as in Hollywood films, can we state, in the simple past tense:
16.c. Dinosaurs were extinguished on earth by the supposed impact of a meteor.
From the preceding, it may be deduced that there is a psychological element to the correct choice of grammar. It, however, is not what we choose, but what grammarians want us to think. It is like as if, on an evaluation, you are asked what you see in an ink-blot, and you reply, “A butterfly”, to which the examiner replies, “Wrong answer, try again!”
The conclusion of the preceding is that no assumption can be made about anyone existing, unless such existence is first ascertained from the context. Let us consider the following:
16.d. I visited a park where they had what looked like real dinosaurs.
16.e. I want to visit a park where they have what look like real dinosaurs.
In the second sentence, we must first establish that such a place can be found.
16.f. I want to visit the park where they have what look like real dinosaurs.
Our last example is perhaps not sufficiently emphasized in the texts. There would be no subjunctive in the Spanish, because the antecedent is definite. It would be ridiculous to state:
16.g. I want to visit the park, if it exists, where they have what look like real dinosaurs, (and I’m not saying this out loud, but I know it exists!)
The grammar of the definite article supposes either concrete, hence existing things, or a specified type of abstraction, such as “the knowledge of Greek”. Personification is another exception, but the present article only wishes to emphasize.
While on the subject of things indefinite, let us mention words like however, whoever, whenever, or words ending in –quiera in Spanish.
- Whoever disputes the words of this court, shall be found in contempt.
We can apply the same thinking to this sentence as to our rational for 7.e. How dare there be such a person.
This may not be as apparent for the other prefixes, because up to now, references have only been to people. Nevertheless, the same logic applies, easily enough, to whatever, and there should be no difficulty in seeing the extension of the application to the adverbial prefixes, when, where, and how. For the first two, if such a time exits, if such a place exists, while for “how”, if such a means or method exists. We have thus solved the problems of the Spanish constructions with quienquiera, cualquiera, cuandoquiera, dondequiera, and comoquiera.
While we could apply the test indicated above to several Spanish expressions which contain a subjective element, we could also simply skip the insertion of the conditional clause, and substitute the phrase, “in my opinion”.
Thus, the series of expressions based on necessity, possibility, and certain adjectives, preceded by the Spanish “es”, could become:
18.a. Es posible (en mi opinión), que habrá una gran tormenta mañana.
18.b. Es bueno (en mi opinión), que la tormenta arrastre la suciedad de las calles afuera de la ciudad.
18.c. Es malo (en mi opinión), que nos den tantos deberes para hacer.
We will not translate the preceding series, the sentences should be clear for those who know some Spanish, and are otherwise largely irrelevant.
Can we make this agree with what was previously argued here?
The phrase, “in my opinion”, to take the egotistical edge off, could be rendered, “if you please (to accept my opinion)”. We have therefore come full circle!
Is it possible to do the same with expressions of doubt or uncertainty?
This is a little more difficult, but there is a solution. To make the case more vivid, let us assume that we are back in the times when royalty had much more power than now.
We will accordingly modify our expression, “if you please”, to “if it please your Majesty”, and hope that it does agree with him!
19.a. It is doubtful that we will win this battle.
It hardly sounds prudent to say so!
19.b. Es dudoso que nosotros ganemos esta batalla.
19.c. If it please your Majesty, it is doubtful that we will win this battle.
19.d. Pluguiere a su Majestad, (pero) es dudoso que ganemos esta batalla.
His Majesty would prefer to hear no doubts, and hence, these are not in the subjunctive – they are the royal will.
There is a series of expressions in Spanish, which can be considered as equivalents of “if”, the difference being that they cannot be substituted in the three types of conditional sentences, therefore they are followed by the subjunctive as a matter of course. We will limit ourselves to giving the example, provided that, “con tal que”. However, in making this assertion, we base ourselves on study material for students, and our personal feeling that there is more flexibility here, should not be followed without first obtaining the opinion of one’s instructor.
We are left with some words which may or may not be used with the subjunctive, and therefore require careful analysis.
One group is that of expressions of purpose, e.g. “de modo que”. This we may take as an extension of what we have said about “comoquiera”.
20.a. Comoquiera que Usted arregle la máquina, no funcionará bien.
20.b. (However you fix the machine, it won’t work well.)
We are forcing our idea in order to agree with the preceding idea, so the reader may forgive us if it sounds unnatural:
20.c. Usted arreglará la máquina de modo que no funcionara.
Our conditional sentence would be,
20.d. Si Usted arregla la máquina, será de modo que no funcionara.
We must point out, that if the facts are concrete, we then could have:
20.e. Usted arregló la máquina de modo que no funcionó,
which is what was predicted in the first place, for our “fixer-upper”!
Another problematical group is conjunctions of time. Here, the subjunctive is used when the main clause is in the future. Let us consider “cuando”, as we have under “cuandoquiera”.
21.a. Cuandoquiera que salga, busca problemas.
Forcing a fit between the preceding to a plain “cuando”, we get:
- b. Buscará problemas cuando salga,
We have already mentioned an affinity between the idea of “when” and “if”, the only difference being, that grammatically, the conditional sentence becomes:
21.c. Buscará problemas, si sale.
Were the sentence to be in the past tense, nothing remains of any condition:
21.d. Buscó problemas cuando salió.
Dubious Use of the Spanish Subjunctive
Schaum’s (op. cit.) has two uses of the subjunctive which we have not been able to verify with a clear statement to that effect in other sources. We could concede that the text is partially correct on one point, in that it is claimed that the subjunctive must be used in relative clauses after superlative adjectives, because these are considered exaggerations. Bello y Cuervo’s Gramática de la lengua española (Buenos Aires: Anaconda, 1945), (p. 273), a rather complete book, says that this is applicable only when expressing something hypothetical or in the future. We may take as an idea of hypothesis:
- Courts customarily allowed tax avoiders the most favourable of the loopholes which precedent may have set.
We will not translate the above into Spanish, and only remark that such loopholes no longer seem to exist, and in any event, the sentence makes clear that their existence was not an established fact – that is, the existence of such a “most favorable” one.
The above sentence, though, passes our conditionality test.
We can see, the validity for futurity, in
- Courts will retroactively punish, with the harshest penalties available, anyone found guilty of any violation which will be published during the time that this government is in session.
In fact, a sentence such as you might here in a used-car lot, “This is the best car that we have,” fails to have any inherent element which could allow it to be turned into a conditional sentence, unless we force the ridiculous idea, “if you can believe me”!
Our source then goes on to state that under probable French influence, the subjunctive is frequently applied even when not required. (ibid., para. 1034).
A similar case of exaggeration is allegedly found in the use of negative expression followed by relative clauses, such as:
24: There is no court on earth that would absolve him.
Bello y Cuervo (op. cit, p. 304, para. 1142) make no clear statement about this, but their examples show that it is true. Furthermore, considering the affinity between Spanish and Portuguese, we can state from J.W. Barker’s (Dorothy M. Atkinson, ed.) Portuguese, [Sevenoaks, Kent: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969], (p. 118), that after nada que and ninguém que, in the interrogative, the subjunctive is used. Schaum (p. 76) said nothing about the interrogative, limiting the comment to relative clauses following similar Spanish expressions.
Notes on Differences in French and Spanish Use of the Subjunctive
We have already pointed out a significant difference in the use of the subjunctive by the Germans.. To complete this article, and to show how rich this topic is for exploration, we now make some quick references to the French.
The first thing that comes to mind, is that the imperative, where it follows the present subjunctive mood in Spanish, follows the present indicative mood in French.
Jean Bouzet, in his Grammaire espagnole, (Paris: Bellin, 1980), p. 223, is of the opinion that Spanish is more precise in the use of the subjunctive than the French. We find particularly interesting his emphasis on “cuando vengas” as more correct than the French, because we have already criticised the incorrect usage of this expression in another article on this website. On the same page, he points out the careful way Spanish distinguishes between real and hypothetical time with the expression “aunque”, as the French “bien que” would here always use the subjunctive.
That author ignores, on the following page, 224, that the future subjunctive is still in use in very formal documents. Perhaps it is no longer the case in Spain.
The French translation for the English “please” is more literal (if we examine the elliptical form which the English represents), than the Spanish, s’il vous plaît.
A contribution on the topic of the subjunctive after the superlative is given, (p. 375), suggesting that this use is only when considering possible outcomes, and not real ones. This contradicts what is found in Schaum’s Outline of Spanish Grammar (1972), where it is stated that the subjunctive follows the superlative. There are discussion boards on the Internet with this question, with not very authoritative answers.
It has been shown that in a language such as Spanish, which has had its grammar well-codified, as well as in fragments from other languages, when the subjunctive is used according to the rules, it can usually be understood as having an underlying conditional thought. Our contribution, through an idea given to us in Latin grammar, was to be able to show that almost any use of the subjunctive, in Spanish – and we assume the same to be reasonably true for Portuguese and French – implies the possibility or rewording the sentence in such a way the an “if” clause can be deduced. This then, for students, is a clue to the correct grammatical mood, and there is no need to study of lists which pretend to simplify what texts already would have one believe to be not such a difficult topic. In dedication to those writers who assert the preceding, I keep the previous sentence not so difficult! I stop here with clearly spoken English!
July 18, 2018