Learning to Love the Subjunctive

Learning another language is less about acquisition than a long process of letting go. You think adjectives should go before the nouns they modify? Let it go. That grammatical rule seems illogical? You think irregular verbs should be outlawed? Let it go. Why are things that way? They just are. Let it go. Besides, the more Spanish I learned, the more logical it seemed and I pitied folks who were trying to learn English. English makes no sense whatsoever.

Most people fare pretty well through Spanish 1 and 2 – adjectives, present tense, past tense, commands, imperfect (which sounds baffling, but is actually one of the easiest tenses)…Then comes…THE SUBJUNCTIVE.

The subjunctive exists in English, but we could say it has atrophied from lack of use. What better example than Justin Bieber’s new song “If I was your boyfriend”? The grammatically correct phrase would be “If I were your boyfriend,” because the status of boyfriend is currently NOT locked down…it’s not out of question, but that it is currently contrary to fact that Bieber is this lady’s boyfriend…right now, the Biebs is in more of a hopeful, wishful state. That’s the subjunctive – a perfect blend of hopefulness, uncertainty and ambiguity.

As it turns out, English-speakers (and Americans especially) are not too big on ambiguity. For the past ten years, it has bothered me that Mexicans don’t have different words for cantaloupe, honeydew and crane melons. They’re all just…melón. Ditto with lemon vs. lime. This doesn’t bother Mexicans in the slightest however. So if my head explodes over that, you can imagine how well I took to the subjunctive. Americans also have some rude and demanding tendencies. Using the subjunctive will instantly make you more solicitous and humble. There is more than a linguistic gulf between the phrases: “I think she’s totally preggers” and “¿Podria ser que este embarazada?”

Americans are culturally averse to the subjunctive. Which is why I listened with such interest to this lecture “Can Diverse Societies Cohere?” Sociologist Richard Sennett argued that in order for very different people to get along and cooperate, three things need to happen. 1) Our conversations need to be less of a dialectical tug of war and more about listening to get at what people are REALLY saying behind the words they’re using. Basically the opposite of “Crossfire.” 2) We need more subjunctive in our lives. 3) We need less sympathy and more empathy. He has an interesting definition of empathy that is more akin to a caring curiosity for others, not pretending you get everything about them and where they’re coming from, but caring enough to wonder.

Why the prescription for more subjunctive? Because it’s gray and unclear, it leaves space. Let’s say you’re next to a stranger on the bus. If you say, “Look at that girl’s outfit. Teenagers these days. I think they need not only a little more clothing, but a little more God,” the conversation probably isn’t going to progress very far. You already stated your piece. If you instead opened with, “How about that outfit? Wonder what it could be that inspired that…” There’s space to converse. (Sorry for the poor example. That’s how little we use the subjunctive in English!)

For us Americans, the subjunctive is confusing and ambiguous. That’s exactly why we might possibly need a little more of it in our lives. ¿Podria ser?

Thoughts? C’mon friends – based on your recent rants on the Oxford comma, I’m pretty sure  that you all have strongly held opinions about my favorite (and almost everyone else’s least favorite) part of Spanish.



Filed under Mexico, Weirdness

7 responses to “Learning to Love the Subjunctive

  1. Only you could connect Justin Bieber and el subjuntivo!

  2. Megan

    My favorite is when you try to talk to native Spanish speakers about the subjunctive and they usually have no idea what you are talking about. It’s something they just do, but gives me such a headache to even try to use!

  3. Hello, subjunctive, my old friend. First, I can’t believe you have Biebs linked to your blog. JK, good post and good explanations. I, too, have thought about the subjunctive’s (non-)use in English and I agree that a bit more gray could be the mesh that brings us closer together. Though, with all of the empty thoughts begin vocalized by many people these days (mostly adolescents, mostly my nieces and nephews) there does not seem be lack of space–rather a lack of content. I don’t think that even the subjunctive and all of its flexibility can compensate for the hollow utterances spewing from the mouths of many.

    Regarding some of the semantic but not necessarily syntactical equivalents between English and Spanish, I agree that there is a gulf between “she’s totally preggers” and “puede/podría que esté embarada”. Though, in this case we do have a subjunctive equivalent; one could say “might she be pregnant?”. Of course there are many, many ways to skin this particular cat but another example where the subjunctive is used in one language but not necessarily in the other:
    “Necesito que vayas….”
    “I need you to go…”
    Semantically they are the same, in that they achieve the same meaning but they have two distinct syntactical forms.
    In your example of the (seemingly) scantily clad teenager, I cautiously think that perhaps there is a bit of confusion between the subjunctive and the use of the modal verb. I am not sure, but I don’t sense the subjunctive in “[I] wonder what it could be that inspired that…”, I see simply a use of the past tense of the modal verb “can” utilizing one of its senses that overlaps heavily with the functions of the subjunctive–that of probability, the unknown and/or tact. I would have to think harder about that one. Puede que tengas razón.

    Thanks for the mental floss, Spi. It’s always a pleasure reading your work! Check this one out on “lest” if you haven’t seen it yet 🙂


    • Love the musings and the blog post (Like Gillian, I’m all about nerding out). Your post gave me some insight into how the subjunctive has sort of faded out of common conversation. The phrases you used as examples of the subjunctive in English were so Downton Abbey! That is to say – polite, British and old-school, which got me working on theories for the change… Possibilities: We’re revolting against the British! We’re hip and modern and edgy! We’re uncouth! Our public education system is in decline!

  4. syntaxrick

    Very well written! You had me laughing in various parts. Being Mexican myself, I brought it up to my other Mexican buddies that we don’t have a different word for lime vs lemon and I think cucumber vs pickle (at least not to my knowledge!). About 4 years ago when I started learning Russian, I remember a friend looking through the book I was using, and she had a curious look on her face when she looked at the Russian alphabet. I told her that several letters where exactly the same as the ones we use in English, and few others that look different, produce sounds we have in English. Her look of curiosity changed instantly to what looked to be disgust. “Why can’t they just use our alphabet if you are saying that some letters represent sounds we already have in English” I felt saddened that she couldn’t understand that there are differences in the world, which make it unique and it’s perfectly fine. Ahh well, to each his or her own! Anyway, great post 🙂

    • Glad you liked it! Sorry to say it took me a while to REALLY appreciate all these linguistic differences. I remember thinking the Chinese alphabet was clearly not as good as a phonetic one, then learning that, well, yes, it is very hard to learn, but people speaking tons of different dialects who might not be able to communicate very well in conversation with each other can still read the same written material. I thought that was pretty extraordinary and showed how all languages are different, none are better or worse and all have something special about them – which is why we should all become bilingual!

      • @slynnmx Bilingual at the very least! 🙂
        @syntaxrick For the most part in Spain “pepinos” are cucumbers and “pepinillos” are pickles–don’t ask me why a simple diminutive suffix sours the fruit 😛

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