When to use the past simple subjunctive in Spanish

Subjunctive in Spanish

When to use the past subjunctive

The past subjunctive  falls  into one of two categories:

  1. Past subjunctive = subjunctivepast

Straightforward cases of a syntactical need for a  subjunctive combined with a past time frame;

2. Past subjunctive with a hypothetical time frame A time reference of hypothetical rather than actual “pastness”.

(1) Past subjunctive = subjunctivepast

First use

Numerous uses of the past subjunctive are straightforward cases where the subjunctive is used, combined with the fact that the time frame of the subordinate clause is “logically in the past”. A usual, but not necessary, case is that the main clause is situated in the past. The “action” in the subordinate sentence may be seen as happening at the same time or after the action in the main clause (just as is the case when both verbs are in the present tense):

Let’s see some examples of this use:

No había (past imperfect) nadie que me pudiera ayudar
“there was nobody who could help me”
Dudaba  (past imperfect) que lo pudieran (subjuntivo in the past) hacer tan rápido
“he doubted that they could do it so quickly”
Tuve (preterite simple) que salir antes de que llegara (subjuntivo in the past)
“I had to leave before he arrived”
Le presté (preterite simple) mi máquina para que terminara (subjuntivo in the past) el documento
“I lent him my computer so he could finish the document”

However, there are some cases that you can use the present simple and the past in the subjunctive. Let see the example “I doubt he did it so quickly”, even in English you use present and past. In Spanish you will use the present and the past in subjunctive because you are using “Dudo” que goes with subjunctive. Let’see in Spanish”

Dudo (present simple) que lo hiciera (past subjunctive) tan rápido

On rare occasions it’s just about possible to have the main verb in the future or at least periphrastic future (the ir a + infinitive construction) and have the subordinate verb in the past subjunctive:

They are rare though

“he won’t like the fact that you didn’t want to come”

No le va a gustar (future) que no (negation) quisieras (past subjunctive) venir

These examples show that in general, the choice of present vs past subjunctive follows the logic of the sentence. There’s certainly no requirement for “subjunctive tense X because the main verb is tense Y” as is sometimes dictated in sequence of tenses analyses. In those cases you should ask your teacher. To be honest even expert people that are in constant study of the better way to teach Spanish as Second language, haven’t found a way to simplify more the explanation of the Subjunctive topic. The ones we are presenting in the section of this website are the latest one approved by the MRE

When the main verb is in the conditional

A slight difficulty arises when the main verb is in the conditional (when it is arguably neither “present” nor “past”). In this case, there is a tendency for the past subjunctive except when the time frame is “strongly present”, in which case either past or present subjunctive seem possible: For example, vengas sounds odd (at least for native speakers) in the first of these cases, but is acceptable in the second:

More future than present

me gustaría que vengas/vinieras este fin de semana
I’d like you to come this weekend
Strongly present

me gustaría que vengas/vinieras ahora
I’d like you to come now

(2) Past subjunctive with a hypothetical time frame

Second use

In English, the past tense can be used to denote a “hypothetical” point in time rather than a real point in the past, but in Spanish the past subjunctive is the one that does that role. In this usage, it is generally used in an if clause or si clause in Spanish. For example:

if I ever won the lottery, I’d donate the money to charity
if I had more time, I’d do my shopping at the market

In English you use the past, and in Spanish the past subjunctive. The past subjunctive generally carries this “hypothetical” role inside a si clause:

Si tuviera  (past subjunctive) más tiempo…
“if I had more time…”

However, past indicative forms are used with si to describe not a “hypothetical” event, but an event that actually did occur. In this case, yes we do use the past, but only when was an even that did occur not an “hypothetical” event

Let’s contrast in particular the first two of these examples:

Hypothetical condition

si tuviera hambre, comería este pastel
“if I was hungry, I’d eat this cake”
(talking about a hypothetical condition)

 

But there are some cases that when you use SI, you can say it in the past, but it is not an Hypothetical condition, is a fact that actual happened that is why we do it that way.
Cuando era niño, si tenía hambre, comía pastel
“when I was a child, if/whenever I was hungry, I’d eat (=used to eat) cake”
(talking about an actual event that occurred in the past)
si compré esta computadora, fue para trabajar
=”the reason I bought this computer was for doing work on it”
(talking about an actual event that occurred in the past)