¿Subjuntivo . . . Indicativo . . . Infinitivo?

I can't remember when I first came up with my "subjunctive lesson." It was sometime in the real early 80s . . . 83 or so, I think. I'm sure that it underwent a few revisions/polishings and such during my years of teaching. I'm sure some "naturalists" would have a fit and fall it about this methodology, but they aren't in my class, neither do they have a clue about how my students in this particular class are learning. Until structure is imprinted on the brain -- how one goes about doing this will always be a subject of debate -- meaningful communication cannot take place. That's what I think, that's what I believe, and that's the way it is. . . . .

Here's the chronology of how I do this:

When I give this lecture -- one of only two that I give, the other being DOs & IOs -- I start out by telling my students that all Spanish verbs have both MOOD and TENSE. I chat with them about the fact that all our verbs have been in the INDICATIVE MOOD. I point out that we have used three different tenses -- PRESENT, PRETERITE, IMPERFECT -- in class. I give them some example sentences to refresh their minds regarding the difference in the same sentence by virtue of the TENSE I used:

Yo hablo español con mis amigos
Anoche yo hablé con mis amigos
Antes yo hablaba con mis amigos
Once I see the signs of recognition of what I'm referring to, I chat with them about MOOD. I ask them what is the root of the word INDICATIVE, invariable they say "indicate." I then give a few examples in the target language of "indicating" sentences. For example: Nosotros vamos al cine...Me gustan las vacas...Yo puedo jugar al golf muy bien.... you get the idea. Up to this time I haven't mentioned the words "emotion, wishing, doubt, needing, etc." Then I ask them "What is the root of the word SUBJUNCTIVE and don't say 'subject'." Many times the students need a hint in order to get them to say "subjective." I return to the "indicative" and tell them that it might also be thought of as "objective." We then discuss what an "objective opinion" is. I then ask them what a "subjunctive opinion" is. The words "feelings" and "emotion" are always mentioned I use the example from the criminal justice system, asking them if they were in a courtroom and on trial for their life, would they rather have 'objective' or 'subjective' testimony given? Of course, they always say 'objective.' I then return to the SUBJUCTIVE word and again ask my question, "What, then, is the root of the word SUBJUNCTIVE?" They always say "subjective." and that's my starting point for discussing the subjunctive formula and TRIGGER verbs with them. . . .

The following is the formula I give my students so they "see" the structure of this somewhat difficult grammatical concept. This way my students get the chance to memorize the formula and "plug in" the correct elements that make a "good" subjunctive sentence. As they enjoy the success of correctly creating sentences, they gain confidence, and I'll be darned if they don't become comfortable with it!

verb tenses
         present, future -------------------------------------------------------------------- present tense
        preterite, imperfect, conditional ------------------------------------------------------- imperfect tense
                       1st subject       +         1st verb      +        QUE     +     2nd subject      +      2nd verb        +       ROTS
Indicative Mood Different from 1st subject Subjunctive Mood

A couple of things will happen while you write the formula on the board:

  1. Soon after you write ROTS on the board, they'll start asking what that stands for. I finish filling out the second and third lines of the formula before satisfying their curiosity (It's no doubt obvious to you that I write out the formula one line at a time, beginning with the main line, then putting in the verb tenses part, then the "Indicative Mood...." line. It just seems to flow better mentally for the students....). I used to tell them that it stood for "the Rest Of The Story...Paul Harvey... Good day!" -- mimicking Paul Harvey's lilting voice as I said it. Lately tho', not many of the kids know who Paul Harvey is, neither have they heard the little Rest of the Story segments of his broadcasts; it seems they don't listen to the same radio stations as I do! So I've had to tell them that it means "the rest of the sentence"...and thus I lose another good teaching gimmick to progress and Nintendo.

  2. They will have no clue what is meant by "TRIGGER" in the formula, and their curiosity is the starting point for getting them to rack their brains for verbs of emotion that I can then write on the board.

The next thing I tell them is:

"There are certain verbs in the Spanish language that when you see them ...hear them...plan to speak them, the whistles, bells and sirens start going off in your mind: 'This could be...It might be... It's real possible that...this is going to be a subjunctive sentence!!!' We call them "TRIGGER" verbs because they trigger your mind to start thinking about the SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD. These verbs are those that deal with wanting...desiring...wishing...hoping...needing...liking...loving... lusting...hating... doubting...not believing...insisting... refusing...permitting...prohibiting...recommending . . . commanding...denying...begging...supplicating and so on...."
[Of course I am modulating my voice and do a little "emoting" as I go through the list!].

I then ask them which of the verbs that they've learned thus far in their Spanish class would be considered a "trigger" verbs. You'll always get querer, desear, and gustar... maybe esperar and necesitar. As they say 'em, I write 'em on the board, under the "TRIGGER" word in the formula. I fill in other 'trigger' verbs when they've exhausted their supply. I also point out that we have impersonal expressions that 'trigger' the subjunctive mood in Spanish. I start the list with es importante and es necesario, writing these on the board to the left of the 'TRIGGER' verb infinitives, and they will usually come up with two or three more on their own. Again, I will fill in as many as I think they need to get the idea of the uniqueness of those impersonal expressions which "TRIGGER" the subjunctive mood.

To my way of thinking, it is imperative that students understand that, with impersonal expressions, the "1st SUBJECT" is "IT," and that Spanish does not have a subject pronoun which is the equivalent of our "IT" in English. I mention the subject pronouns yo . . . tú . . . él, ella, usted and ask them if they see any "IT" among them. I tell them that in impersonal expressions the subject pronoun "IT" is understood, and that with all impersonal expressions they will be using the él, ella, usted conjugation of the verb SER. If they've been exposed to direct and indirect object pronouns, then I review with them the fact that LO is a direct object pronoun and that "we know that no DO or IO will ever be the subject of a sentence, right?" Their minds always search for a subject pronoun that corresponds to "it" as they generate sentences using the impersonal expression concept. They're still stuck in the English language framework of "It is important that. . . ." -- sometimes they will refuse to say any sentence in the target language without having that comfortable subject pronoun present. In their anxiety to find and hold onto a subject pronoun they are led astray by their logic: "Hey," their mind says, "I know what word means 'it' in Spanish! It's LO or LA!! "Sadly, in their excitement of having remembered "IT," they forget to remember that LO/LA are direct object pronouns, not subject pronouns. So, I've found it helpful to prevent their mind from tricking themselves by bringing up and clarifying the subject pronoun question before they're left to their own devices . . . and destruction.

Es importante querer
Es preciso desear
Es interesante esperar
Es posible dudar
Es probable no creer
Es necesario gustar, importar, fascinar, et.al.
Es mejor prohibir
Es preciso permitir
Es dudoso mandar
Es maravillosa. . . . odiar
suplicar. . . .

Once we've got a few "trigger" verbs on the board (the more cognates the better!), I then write an example sentence under the formula and verb/impersonal expression list -- making sure that the verbs are easily recognizable to the students, in spite of the slightly different spelling. Don't start out with a subjunctive sentence that uses oiga, or quepa or that kind of stuff! I make sure that the words in the example sentence fall directly under the elements of the formula so the students can see how the formula really does work, and that there's a "plugging in" feature to creating solid subjunctive sentences:

verb tenses
         present, future -------------------------------------------------------------------------- present tense
        preterite, imperfect, conditional ------------------------------------------------------- imperfect tense
                       1st subject       +         1st verb      +        QUE     +     2nd subject      +      2nd verb        +       ROTS
Indicative Mood Different from 1st subject Subjunctive Mood
Yo quiero que mis padres coman en mi casa

I then take a moment to show them why I spelled coman like that, instead of comen. There is no taking nothing for granted -- nice double negative, huh? -- when you teach the subjunctive. You have to show them every individual step that needs to be done inside their brains as they seek to create good subjunctive sentences. They will accept the fact that they need to "train" their brain before they can actually do things in the subjunctive. I often use the analogy of free-throw shooting in basketball: unless you have taken the time to train each muscle in your body to work in total coordination during the free throw action, you will never be consistent at it. I tell them -- writing them on the board! -- that the steps their brains go through to reach the correct spelling of a subjunctive mood verb are these:

1.Find the infinitive
2.Conjugate into the "Yo" form, PRESENT tense, INDICATIVE mood
3.Drop the "-o"
4.If it's an "-ar" verb, add: If it's an "-er" or "-ir" verb, add:
-e -emos -a -amos
-es -éis -as -áis
-e -en -a -an

In later chapters, when we're looking at the imperfect subjunctive, I bring them back to the original formula, writing it on the board. While I put the complete formula, with respect to the tense of the verb elements, up on the board, I do not give the students examples of the imperfect subjunctive at that time -- there's no need to do it!! We make our example sentences using trigger verbs and impersonal expressions in the preterite, imperfect and/or conditional tense in 1st verb position. Of course, I have to teach them how to find the correct conjugation of the imperfect subjunctive verbs:

1.Find the infinitive
2.Conjugate into the "ellos, ellas, ustedes" form, preterite tense, indicative mood .
3.Drop the "-on".
4.For all verbs, add:
-a -amos
-as -ais
-a -an

The students are ecstatic to learn that they only have to remember one single set of verb endings, and that they look a whole heckuva lot like present tense, indicative mood "-ar" endings!

It is important to point out that when we translate a SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD sentence from Spanish to English, the Spanish SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD verb always comes into the English language as an INFINITIVE. I give a few examples by translating some simple subjunctive sentences, then I show them just how stupid it sounds-- in English -- when we attempt to do a word-for-word-drop translation on a subjunctive sentence. For example, I might say, Yo quiero que mi hermana baile 'el Jerk' conmigo. I then translate that into "I want that my sister dances 'the Jerk' with me." I ask my students what would be a "good" (normal speech pattern) English translation of this Spanish sentence. They always say "I want my sister to dance the "Jerk" with me." We do a couple more of these, and when I'm sure that "the lights" have gone on, I have them orally translate some English sentences to Spanish.

I ask them if the following sentence is a "good" (follows the formula) SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD sentence: Yo necesito que yo vaya a la tienda. Some will spy the TRIGGER verb and the QUE and say "Yes," others will point out that the "2nd SUBJECT" isn't different from the "1st SUBJECT" so it can't be subjunctive. I then show them how dumb the sentence sounds in English: --- I need that I go to the store." I ask them how a normal English speaker would say this, and they immediately come up with "I need to go to the store." "So," I ask them, "how do we say this in correct Spanish?" Usually, someone will say "Use the infinitive," but if they don't, I tell them that this is one of the very few times they can do a word-for-word translation from English to Spanish and have it turn out correctly: I need -- Yo necesito -- to go -- ir -- to the store -- a la tienda. I let the students supply the Spanish. . . .

Finally, I walk around the room and assign a TRIGGER verb to each student and, at the same time, I give them a subject pronoun or subject noun. I then ask them to "make me" a subjunctive mood sentence, using the subject and verb I gave them. When I see that about half the class is done, I announce that they are to put their sentences on the board. I go find a chair in the audience and I make the last student at the board the "correcter." I firmly believe in the adage "You wrote it, you read it!" so, one by one, the students read their sentences and I let the class decided where the corrections need to be made. This exercise reinforces all that I've been teaching them: they get to look at thirty original subjunctive mood sentences and decide if there are any mistakes and how to correct them. By the end of the hour, the students walk out the door believing that, if they don't have a handle on the subjunctive at that moment, they can "get it."

My goal is to remove the fear that seems to accompany this difficult grammar concept. Whether it's the lack of correspondence to the grammar of their native language or just the sheer enormity of the "details" they have to learn/remember in order to make a "good" subjunctive mood sentence that scares 'em, I couldn't say for sure. I just know that the simpler the explanation, the better and the more humor/light-heartedness that is present during the explanation, the less stressful it is on 'em.

Here's a link to a cogent and clear explanation of the subjunctive I found out on the WWW

Some present tense, subjunctive mood worksheets for you:

0,   I,   II,   III,   IV,   V,   VI,   VII,   VIII,   IX,   X,   XI,  

Some imperfect tense, subjunctive mood worksheets for you:

I,   II,   III,   IV,   V,   VI,   VII,   VIII,   IX,   X,