For the last couple of weeks I've been studying the uses of the subjunctive intensively for a couple of weeks, wading through inane comments like "it's just something only natives know for sure; to everyone else it is invisible magic" (a very unfortunately common and reductive opinion I've seen around), scouring forums to study how people use it, reading guides and books and the whole thing. Not much seemed to be working; the whole thing still seemed arbitrary, impossible to predict, and totally random.
But last night I had a breakthrough, and damn near everything fell into place. I read a few things; I read a great write up on how in spirit English uses the "idea" of the subjunctive mood in various auxiliary verbs from "I think…" to "could", etc, and how it often parallels things in Spanish. I then read through a whole chain of spanishdict questions and answers on the topic, and someone made a comment talking to a new learner who used the indicative in the context of questioning whether or not she had popped a ball when she should have used the subjunctive. His comment was "if you're uncertain that the ball was popped…then why is your next sentence TELLING ME that the ball was popped?"
I frowned. "Why would that say that?" I asked myself. "It wasn't as if she was literally telling him that the ball was popped from her perspective, instead she was just…she was…just…"
Finally it all hit me; the subjunctive mood makes NO SENSE… on its own. The fatal flaw — one that comes down to a critical misunderstanding between how english's and Spanish's primary moods operate — isn't that I didn't understand the subjunctive per se
It was that I had no real idea what the hell the indicative mood really was, nor how well-learned Spanish people interpret it to their ears.
How could I? Nobody had explained it well to me. EVERYONE only talks about the subjunctive but never the indicative. Because it's obvious, right? It's the same in English as it is in Spanish, right? Let's barely even touch on it when discussing the subjunctive, how could they be related? It's like English, the subjunctive is just a weird thing dangling from under it.
No it's not. Guys, the indicative mood is far stronger than english's. It isn't about an implication of rules, it isn't about an implication of concrete reality. It is ABOUT reality, truths, and our perceptions of that truth, directly. There is no implication, it's the outright direct meaning. ANY time we use the indicative, we communicate that what we are saying is a FACT to our perception, and everyone else will hear us like that's what we're saying even if the sentence would imply otherwise; it doesn't act subordinate to the sentence context, so if you use it in the wrong context they crash into each other.
This is the key. The subjunctive isn't about being emotional, it isn't about possibilities, it isn't about hypotheticals per se.
It is about NOT being the indicative, and literally the only real "rule" to the subjunctive is "do I want to give my sentences a strong meaning of truth, factual declaration, and concrete reality here? Or would that focus hurt my sentence?" The subjunctive is a mood of avoidance. It's used to AVOID the implications of the indicative. It can only properly be understood by contrast to spanish's usage of the indicative mood, and once you properly grasp that it's the easiest thing in the world to see.
I was up till 5 am checking all the examples I could find, reading Spanish forums online and all their usages. I couldn't find one that didn't make sense to me anymore, not a single damn one. All those weird irregularities? Sensible. The reasons for why it seems to spread over so many theoretical topics? Sensible. I had done it, I'd cracked the meaning behind things. And regardless of what some people on forums had claimed, it's absolutely not magic or something you can only get by speaking for 10+ years. What it is is simply misexplained by means of being talked about in a vacuum.
And with it came a LOT of sudden, cascading realizations about Spanish and how it truly differs from English. I will explain all of this below to help my fellow English-to-spanish people.
First off: "Nice catch", you probably think, "but it's so abstract. How does realizing the implications of the indicative mood help me?"
Allow me to demonstrate. First off, it must be said that the indicative is way simpler than the subjunctive in terms of its scope. In fact the entire reason why the subjunctive seems to cover so many things in theory is just that it is nothing more and nothing less than a reflection of everything the indicative is not, so covers more topics on paper (even if it's used far less frequently in reality) Like I said, literally all of it makes sense when you just flip things around and denote subjunctive as "that thing that gets called when the STRONG indicative mood would ruin things with its overwhelming presence." We can interrogate sentences in Spanish, piece by piece, and I'll show you exactly how it lines up.
Let's take the classical example. "Estoy feliz que estés aqui!" Let's NOT ask ourselves why the subjunctive is here…instead, let's ask ourselves why the indicative ISN'T here.
Indicative comes off as — again, not merely implies like equivalent statements in English but outright states a purpose of — declaring facts, discussing concrete reality of the here and now, our declarative plans, etc.
Can you see why this would be "wrong"? It is in fact not wrong, at all — it's just incongruous in context. If you said "estas aqui" with the mood that declares facts…well, at best you just announced to them that they are here, carrying the meaning of you wanting to let them know this fact. Rather bizarre under most circumstances, seeing as how they damn well know that they are already here and don't need us to declare this for them! So, normally we won't do it unless in context we really do want to declare this to them for some reason.
"Es posible que él es aqui"Let's apply the same process! "Why wouldn't the indicative be good here?" Well let's look at the first half. "Es posible que…" alright so what we say next is possible! And next we say "es aquí". As in, we used the declarative, factual, concrete reality mood. In other words if we used "es" here, we would be outright saying that we firmly believe — that it is a fact to us — that this man is here
Well if we firmly believed that already, then why the hell did we lead with "it's possible?" This is just an incongruous statement! Therefore, we don't use it like this (unless we really do want to make such an incongruous statement).
Talking about an object that doesn't or may exist? Well when you refer to it with the indicative, you DIRECTLY STATE that to you that object might as well be reality. Poetic, but also rather delusional. Therefore, we don't use the indicative.
Making conditional plans, like "we will go to the mall once grandma arrives?" If you use the indicative on the latter half, you directly state that her arriving is your reality…even if she hasn't arrived yet. See what I said above about being delusional.
And so on and so on. Whenever you are confused about why a subjunctive is used, the proper question is not "why is it here". The proper question is "why is the indicative not here?" It's a subtle difference — but an important one.
What we have to understand is that Spanish is not a neutral-statement language. It is binary. You ARE asserting reality. Or you are not; those are the only options, and to speak in the indicative is to presume to be asserting your interpretation of facts for others to hear. It is not a subtle effect or theory, this is how the spanish-trained brain will unconsciously view your sentences and why it will tell them that 'something' is off about what you said. You indicated to them that you wish to discuss something factual that is in fact not, and their / our-future-brains aren't really sure how to interpret that. In fact, if you aren't already thinking of the indicative in this manner or interpreting sentences with that subtext, it's time to start; that's how the spanish speaking mind will interpret its usage, and if we want to learn this language well we need to interpret it as that as well.
Those are the examples off the top of my head. I will now explain why, in terms of the structure of english and spanish, this idea is so hard to get across to native english speakers.
This entire effect is a direct contrast to English, which is why it's alien to use until properly explain, and why to native Spanish speakers our confusion is foreign. To both of you — english-to-spanish students and people who speak spanish first, i will note the following lingual truth that most people don't realize by virtue of not thinking about it: english is a flexible, and often neutral language. Let me repeat that; english is NEUTRAL by default. We DON'T communicate this kind of meaning with our basic sentences, ever. English is like a buffet rather than a binary. Its base forms are almost always implicationless by design specifically so that we can choose to insert auxiliary words to enchant it with such meanings as English speakers please. This is likely also why most of its true subjunctive mood has faded into niche forms; English genuinely has no real need of it with so many ways of putting a sentence together. Spanish, by and large, has 2, and you will not escape from them nor their implications. (Well and imperative, but I'm not talking about it because both of our languages share that one nearly identically in concept). A statement is a statement, indicative is your reality and your attempts to declare facts for others to hear and discuss, and subjunctive is the only way to indicate that what you speak of isn't that. That's it. That's all there is to it.
Also, I'll tell all spanish-first readers who happen to read this the same thing i told my Spanish friends irl: you have no idea how confusing the subjunctive is when you are coming from a place where the "primary" prose can imply anything due to a) that being what we think of thanks to English b) most people not going out of their way to firmly correct this misconception. It would be damn near useless and indeed extremely random to perceive in usage if not for its reflections on the indicative, which is different from what we think at first. THIS is why your English speaking friends who are trying to learn Spanish struggle so hard with the concept, while you just know it. (And on the flip, why none of my Spanish-first friends realized the neutrality underlining English until i directly pointed it out to them. A lot of us aren't aware of the underlying mechanics; this is fine going from Spanish to English since English is flexible as hell, but not so much the other way around, unfortunately for us.)
Now, after all of this, can I make a request to the general community: can we PLEASE not presume that the subjunctive is magic and that the indicative is so obvious? That kind of common notion is at least in part why a lot of English-to-spanish students wrestle with the concept. For some reason we're often taught (I sure was) that the indicative in Spanish is synonymous with English and to not think more on it in comparison to its bizarre cousin, when in reality the differences between English normal prose and Spanish's indicative are both easy enough to explain and also EXACTLY why the subjunctive exists. Trying to explain how and where to use the subjunctive is like trying to put a car together with a wrench and a few bolts; good luck figuring it out easily with so much essential context missing. Maybe my teachers just didn't think about it? Do people in general not just realize this crucial difference between English's loose neutral structure and Spanish's much stricter and meaning-laden structure? Who knows.
And no, realizing this doesn't mean we don't have to practice. I'll forget use cases, not be able to realize when I needed to switch moods until hindsight, etc. I recommend "demystifying the subjunctive" for a book, it helped me out immensely. But at least now we understand it. Learning, as Spanishdude on YouTube says, is just an act of giving context to things we already know, and now we can do that without being lost. It IS a simple and easy to grasp concept at its heart, it's just not usually explained well and requires explaining what precisely is the difference between how english approaches delivering information and how Spanish does. Former is neutral, latter always communicates a meaning. The indicative in particular always imparts a sense of speaking of concrete reality no matter what sentence it happened to be in, and the subjunctive is nothing more than its replacement for when the indicative's strong statements on reality simply don't work with the matters being discussed. Of the two, the indicative is both more strict and also more narrow, and thus the clause of 'use indicative until its determinate attitude of only being used to address factual reality shits the sentence up' reigns best for the quickest and easiest way to conceptually grasp the subjunctive.
It is all about the indicative; always has been.
Anyway that's all I got. I'm finally going to bed, work will suck tomorrow but oh well, I'm too happy to care. After that I'll…maybe finally learn some decent vocabulary. I'm a heavily grammar based learner, so this was actually one of the first stops on my way through my new language, so I've still got a lot of learning to do. Still, now that i get this, I am much more confident of the rest of the way onward.
Couple of more fun tidbits, if anyone is still reading. I also realized the English conditional is WAY wider than Spanish's, and that this is in part because in English it has come close to replacing separated subjunctive grammar in a lot of cases. If you ever notice how often we through "can" and "could" around, it is in part because of this.
I also realized that in a theoretical sense, the "true" purpose of future tense in Spanish is to discuss plans for the future, not to indicate that it will happen. Technically a small detail and probably obvious to most, but for some reason I needed this realization to realize why the subjunctive isn't triggered by its speculation; merely declaring plans is a concrete thing, after all. For some reason in English I get the subtle sense of trying to will over the future when I use it. Might be a slight language difference in intent, or maybe I'm just presumptuous about the future in English.
Finally, just a piece of trivia I liked; I realized "to think" and "creer / pensar" aren't really good translations for each other in implication. You ever wondered why it doesn't trigger the subjunctive in a positive usage? This helps to reinforce one last bit; for such things when it comes to certainty vs uncertainty, it's likely just a concept being used slightly differently in Spanish. While they mean literally the same thing, their connotations are nearly inverted. Spanish uses it to affirm that you believe something to be true (hence why it's also translated as to believe), while English uses it to instead imply subjectivity and impart doubt to a clause. It would absolutely be a subjunctive trigger in Spanish if it were transplanted directly since our usage of it in spirit is completely synonymous with Spanish's own usual triggers, but well it isn't. My Spanish speaking colleagues thought that one was interesting in particular for some reason, maybe they didn't really know how i had meant it this whole time?