The past simple subjunctive in Spanish- The Explanation

Subjunctive in Spanish

  • The past subjunctive forms are based on the preterit or simple past
  • The past subjunctive we generally use it with the conditional
  • They’re mainly used when the syntax requires a subjunctive but in a clause that denotes one of the following:
    • a point of time in the past;
    • a “hypothetical point in time”

We are going to see the grammar part of this new use of the subjunctive conditional with past simple of subjunctive …

…but first we are going to see the uses of it, when do you use it? which I think is the most important than grammar. It is nice to see the context first and examples.

The past subjunctive also has one or two special uses, that we will see on the following examples.


Examples of the past subjunctive

Example 1: “if I had time, I’d help you” “Si tuviera tiempo, te ayudaría”

Our first example is in some way one of the “special cases” was mentioned. But it’s also a very common use of the past subjunctive in Spanish. We want to say in Spanish “if I had time, I’d help you”. For “I’d help you” = “I would help you”, which would be the conditional. If it is translated to Spanish, woud be  ayudar, that becomes te ayudaría.

When we mention “if I had time”, it would be probably expected to use a past tense of some kind. We might reasonably expect to use the indicative, since si is generally followed by an indicative (as in si tienes tiempoif you have time). Or we might expect to have to make a decision between the different past tenses, in particular between the imperfect vs preterite (simple past)—but in this combination, of conditional and past simple subjunctive it works different. It is true it doesn’t exist in English that is why maybe you think it is difficult, but if you understand it in context it won’t be hard. Here is what a usual translation of our example looks like in Spanish:

“If I had time, I would help you” Si tuviera tiempo, te ayudaría

As you’ve probably guessed, the form tuviera is the past subjunctive of the verb tener. In this type of sentence consisting of ahypothetical condition followed by the hypothetical result of that condition, a common pattern in Spanish is to use a past subjunctive in the first part of the sentence and a conditional in the second, as here1.

Example 2: “I finished it before she arrived” “Lo terminé antes de que llegara”

In this case we need a combination of “past tense” plus “subjunctive”. Shifting this sentence into the present, we would have:

  • Presente de subjuntivo…..

lo termino antes de que llegue
I’ll finish it before she arrives

The form llegue is the present subjunctive form of llegar (“to arrive”). It’s subjunctive because antes de (que) is generally followed by a subjunctive. When we change this same sentence to the past, we use a past tense in the main clause (terminé) and after antes de, we use the verb form that is simultaneously past and subjunctive: the past subjunctive! In this case, the past subjunctive form is llegara:

lo terminé antes de que llegara (subjunctive)
I finished it before she arrived

In this example, we can see that the subjunctive refers to a “real” event in the past rather than a “hypothetical” one.

Features of the past subjunctive illustrated by these examples

These examples illustrate a couple of general features of the past subjunctive. Firstly, the form: we see that the past subjunctive generally ends in -ra, and in fact in either -ara (-ar verbs) or -iera (other verbs). These would have the usual Spanish person endings (-aras-áramos etc). We also see that for an irregular verb such as tener, the stem (tuv-) comes from the preterite, so don’t “worry about that you already have seen that at this point.  For example: “Si tuviera novio, no  me sentiría tan sola”  I I had a boyfriend, I wouln’t feel so lonely”

Another more subtle feature of the past subjunctive is that it often merges the aspect distinction. That is, in the subjunctive, there’s no distinction between the imperfect and preterite.  In the first example, the indicative equivalent would probably have been tenía (imperfect); in the second, llegó (preterite). But in the subjunctive, there’s a single form carrying either value.



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