Language Learning, Article 24: Subjunctives in English, German, French and Spanish. By David Bolton
Learn a Foreign Language by speaking




Subjunctives in English, German, French and Spanish

When we native-English speakers learn a foreign language, we can get confused when it comes to subjunctives. One of the reasons for this is that our past subjunctive forms - for example, the "were" in the if-clause "if I were you, I wouldn't do that" - for all English verbs other than "to be", are exactly the same as the forms of the simple past.

Therefore, we have:

"I went to the store yesterday." ("went" is the simple past of "to go")

"If I went to the store right now, I would buy a book." (Here, "went" is not past tense, but rather the subjunctive form of "to go". Obviously, this sentence is not in past tense, since the speaker is talking about going to the store right now, and not about having gone in the past.)

Another example:

"I talked to your brother the other day." (simple past)

"If I talked to your brother tomorrow, I would tell him he's a great guy." "Talked" is subjunctive, and refers here to a future time: there is no "future subjunctive" form in English, so we use the same form that we would use if we were referring to the present. Thus, we say:

Referring to the present: "If I went to New York now,..."

Referring to the future: "If I went to New York tomorrow,..."

In both examples, the subjunctive form "went" is used. No wonder some people get confused about the English subjunctive, or about subjunctives in general when learning a language. After all, as these examples show, we use the past tense form (went) to express a hypothetical situation (subjunctive) that happens in the present, or the future!

But precisely these past tense forms are used in English as the subjunctive forms in if-clauses that refer to the present or future.

Spanish leaves no room for confusion in such cases, since it has a full set of distinct subjunctive forms for speculative sentences. Examples:

"Yo fui a la tienda ayer." (I went to the store yesterday: simple past)

"Si yo fuera a la tienda ahora mismo…." (If I went to the store right now...: present tense, subjunctive form)

In English, we would use "went" in both these situations, and for all persons: I went, you went, he/she/it went, we went, you went, they went; if I went, if you went, etc.

In Spanish, however, one must distinguish between simple past and subjunctive, and in addition, one must use different forms for the different persons:

Simple past: yo fui, tú fuiste, él/ella/ello fue, nosotros fuimos, vosotros fuisteis, ellos fueron

Subjunctive: yo fuera, tú fueras, él/ella fuera, nosotros fuéramos, vosotros fuerais, ellos fueran

To make matters worse, there exists a second set of subjunctive forms that are used in exactly the same contexts as the first:

Subjunctive: yo fuese, tú fueses, él/ella fuese, nosotros fuésemos, vosotros fueseis, ellos fuesen

Somehow, it doesn't seem fair, does it? I mean, when a Spanish-speaker learns English, he or she only has to learn the past tense of a verb - one single word, "went", for example - and may then use it for all the persons of the past tense, and also for all the persons of the subjunctive in if-clauses. We, on the other hand, when we learn Spanish, are forced to learn 18 verb forms instead of just one!

Both German and French are a bit more merciful, since they don't have as many forms as does Spanish. Nonetheless, they also present us with quite a few forms to memorize.

Now, Part 4, we shall have a short look at how French and German deal with such if-clauses that require the subjunctive.

Part 4:

French, like English, uses the simple past form (sometimes called the "imperfect" form) in the "if" clause of a speculative sentence, and thus does not have distinctive forms for this type of sentence:

Si tu me disais la vérité, je te croirais. (disais: simple past form, though here "present" in meaning!)

If you told me the truth, I would believe you.

Of course, you must learn the different persons in the past tense of the verb you wish to use, but at least you won't have to deal with memorizing extra forms for this type of "subjunctive" situation.

German presents a higher order of difficulty. On the one hand, many German verbs (the so-called "weak" verbs") use the form of the simple past for the subjunctive in if-clauses. Example:

"Wenn das Kind öfters spielte, wäre es fröhlicher." "If the child played more, he would be merrier."

"Spielte" is the simple past form of "spielen", and is also used as the subjunctive in if-clauses.

On the other hand, the German "strong" verbs do have distinct subjunctive forms (usually known as "Konjunktiv II") for use in such clauses; these forms may be similar, but are not identical, to the simple past forms. Examples:

Infinitive: gehen (to go)

Simple past: Ich ging, du gingst, er ging, wir gingen, ihr gingt, sie gingen.
Subjunctive: Ich ginge, du gingest, er ginge, wir gingen, ihr ginget, sie gingen.

As you can see, the first and third persons plural (gingen) are alike in past tense and subjunctive, whereas the other forms differ.

Gestern ging ich in die Stadt. Yesterday I went to the city. (past tense)

Wenn ich in die Stadt ginge, würde ich mir etwas kaufen. (present tense, verb in "Konjunktiv II") If I went to the city, I would buy myself something.

Okay, after all that grammar, let's get down to practical business: how can you learn to correctly say sentences such as "If you did that, I would get angry" (or any other such sentence in the subjunctive) in German, French, or Spanish?

Of course, in this article, I can't go into the correct forms of all the verbs you'll need in three languages!

What I can and will do, however, is to tell you how to mentally approach the topic so that you will, on your own, be able to learn, and eventually master, these forms.

1) Think about "if clauses" in English, and consider exactly what they mean. For instance, "If I were you, I would not do that." Be aware that this sentence is not in the past tense (despite the past form of the verb!), but is rather present tense; the verb is a subjunctive ("unreal": I am not you, but if I were you...)

2) In your foreign language grammar book, find the chapter that deals with such clauses, and look at the examples given. Find a list of verb conjugations that give you the forms you need for a certain verb.

3) Study one such sentence in the foreign language very well, to get a "feel" for how the verb forms are constructed.

4) Next, construct a new sentence yourself, using different verbs, but making sure that you use the correct corresponding forms of those verbs.

Instead of trying to memorize the subjunctive forms for hundreds of verbs, limit yourself in the beginning to the most common verbs: to be, to have, to go, to come, to say, etc. If you learn the subjunctive forms for ten very common verbs, you will be able to say a great number of things:

"If I were....", "If we went..." "If you said..." Not a bad start in your new language!


"Like" this article by clicking below...

And now, an article for all of you who aren't in the Navy...
Speaking English as a foreign language: avoid the f word!

Language Learning Book

How to learn grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation is just one of the many things you will learn when you read my book. Perhaps best of all, I show you how to increase, and maintain, your motivation for mastering a foreign language...

Your approach to language learning will take on a whole new dimension!

"Language Learning - Outside the Box!"

      Click the cover to see what I mean...

Return to Index of Articles

You can contact David at:

Copyright © 2012, David Bolton, The information on this page may not be reproduced or republished on another webpage or website without my express permission. Please LINK TO THIS SITE instead (I'll feel lucky when you do: no need to ask for permission!)