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The past subjunctive in Spanish

As well as the present subjunctive, Spanish has past subjunctive forms:

  • the past subjunctive forms are based on the preterite (simple past);
  • they're generally 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" (see below);
  • in the subjunctive, the tense/aspect system is simplified as we'll see below.

The past subjunctive also has one or two special uses that can't quite be explained as "combination of subjunctive plus past".

Note for French speakers: in French, the past subjunctive (forms such as que je demandasse) is now obsolete and other tenses (mainly the present subjunctive and conditional, plus compound subjunctive forms such as qu'il ait demandé) have taken its place.

In (most varieties of) Spanish, the past subjunctive is a normal verb form that comes intuitively to native speakers and is used in everyday speech.

In a moment, we'll explore the points listed above, including the forms of the past subjunctive for different verbs. But first, it's worth looking at a couple of simple examples that illustrate common cases where the past subjunctive is used in Spanish.

Examples of the past subjunctive

Example 1: "if I had time, I'd help you"

Our first example is in some way one of the "special cases" we 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", we use the conditional form of the verb. For ayudar, this becomes te ayudaría.

To say "if I had time", we probably expect 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 tiempo = if you have time). And we might expect to have to make a decision between the different past tenses, in particular between the imperfect vs preterite (simple past)— in other words, to worry about whether to say si tenía tiempo or si tuve tiempo. Well, it turns that the choice between the different indicative past tenses here is irrelevant. Here is what a usual translation of our examle looks like in Spanish:

si tuviera tiempo, te ayudaría
"if I had time, I'd help you"
Feedback Suggest a change / Cambios sugeridos

As you've probably guessed, the form tuviera is the past subjunctive of the verb tener. In this type of sentence consisting of a hypothetical 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"

This is arguably a more straightforward case, where we need a combination of "past tense" plus "subjunctive". Shifting this sentence into the present, we would have:

lo termino antes de que llegue
I'll finish it before she arrives
Feedback Suggest a change / Cambios sugeridos

The form llegue2 is the present subjunctive form of llegar ("to arrive"). It's subjunctive because antes de (que) is generally followed by a subjunctive. (See the summary of when to use the subjunctive.) When we shift things back into 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
I finished it before she arrived
Feedback Suggest a change / Cambios sugeridos

In this example, we see that the subjunctive can refer to a "real" event in the past rather than a "hypothetical" one3.

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)4. 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.

Some varieties of Spanish actually have an alternative past subjunctive form (e.g. tuviese instead of tuviera) that we'll see later.

Another more subtle feature of the past subjunctive is that it often merges the aspect distinction5. That is, in the subjunctive, there's no distinction between the imperfect, which generally conveys a "state" or "start/middle" of an action, and preterite, which generally views its "endpoint". 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.

Next: steps to learning the past subjunctive

On the following pages, you can learn more about the forms and uses of the past subjunctive in Spanish:

1. Technically, of course, the subjunctive occurs in the subordinate clause.
2. Note the u, inserted as an accident of the spelling system. But essentially, this form is the regular stem lleg- plus the regular subjunctive ending -e.
3. In line with the theory that the subjunctive epxresses a non-assertion, we would say that the action is presupposed rather than stated; but the difference is arguably subtle in this case!
4. When the stem ends in -j, the i is dropped: produjera etc. Also, ser has fuera etc.
5. It is still possible to construct a continuous verb form in the past subjunctive. However, there's no equivalent in the past subjunctive to the distinction between estaba/estuvo caminando.

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