Grammar / Learning

When to NOT(!) use the Subjunctive

This will be a review for anyone who has studied the subjunctive, but with emphasis on when NOT to use it as well. I think the problem many students have is they learn the conjunctions that trigger the subjunctive, but then become confused when the the conjunction is not followed by the subjunctive; so this post will be a little bit of a review of such conjunctions as well.

By the way, section 1 of this post covers Past-Present subjunctives and section 2 covers Past-Future subjunctives.  In case you didn’t know, you can divide all uses of the subjunctive into these two categories!

1. Present and Past Subjunctives: Conjunctions (x4)

As you might recall, there are situations in which the subjunctive is ALWAYS used, e.g., after the following conjunctions (complete list?):

embora/ainda que/mesmo que/nem que/se bem que, para que/a fim de que, antes que, sem que, caso/no caso de que, contanto que/desde que, a não ser que/a menos que, fazer com que (Use present or past subjunctive depending on sense)

Note: When “desde que” means “since” in the sense of, “Desde que ele teve o acidente… = Since he had the accident…”, it is NOT followed by the subjunctive.

Similarly, the subjunctive is ALWAYS used after Talvez.

The subjunctive will follow after certain impersonal phrases, but note that the list below is by no means complete (thus now you must learn to recognize phrases which cast doubt and make value judgments, we must also distinguish these from affirmative expressions in section 1.1):

É possível que, É provável que, É natural que, É bom que, É lógico que, É pena que, É duvidoso que, É estranho que, Convém que, É importante que, É incrível que,  etc… (Use past subjunctive when cast in past time)

We have also cases where the subject of the subordinate clause is different from that of the main, occurring with certain verbs, but again the list is not complete:

esperar que, prefirer que, pedir que, recomendar que, permitir que, sugerir que, mandar que, aconselhar que, deixar que, impedir que, exigir que, insistir que, proibir que, etc… (Use present or past subjunctive depending on sense)

and similarly for certain verbs that express an emotional reaction:

lamentar que, temer que, ter medo de que, estar contente que, etc… (Use present of past subjunctive depending on sense)

1.1 Present and Past Subjunctives: Negative or Affirmative?

It gets a little less straightforward when we start dealing with what are called “negative expressions”, e.g.:

A Maria duvida que ele tenha aquele livro.

“Duvidar que” would be considered non-affirmative/negative. Again, one cannot make a complete list, but other negative expressions are:

não é que, não é porque, é falso que, não acreditar que, não achar que, não pensar que, negar que, etc (Use present of past subjunctive depending on sense)

Notice that if you just remove the “não” you create an “affirmative” expression, which does not invoke the subjunctive:

A Maria achava que ele tinha aquele livro.

Other affirmative expressions are:

acreditar que, imaginar que, saber que, pensar que, parecer que, é verdade que, é certo que, é óbvio que, é evidente que, achar que, apostar que, etc.

Clearly, you can use this to your advantage to avoid the subjunctive: “Eu acho que ele não sabeversusEu não acho que ele saiba(I don’t agree that he knows.).  But to be more precise, anytime you suppose something, it requires the subjunctive (though many Brazilians ignore this).  For example, “Eu acho que ele vá ao jogo” or “Acredito que ele vá ao jogo”.  Even though it is technically correct, it will sound confusing to Brazilians, so one easy around is to use, when applicable, “eu suponho que…(subjunctive)” or “eu acho que, talvez, …(subjunctive)” instead of “eu acho que”.  Also, for the example given, you will be considered correct (and easily understood) if you say “Eu acho que ele irá ao jogo”.

Another example is “assumir que“, again, this sounds like it’s introducing a supposition and should require the subjunctive, but you’ll find that in most cases it does not.  So, so as not to confuse yourself, try substituting “imaginar que” or another expression that is more clearly affirmative in your way of thinking.  Sentences starting with “Será que…“, in my way of thinking, also seem like suppositions, but again, you’ll find that the subjunctive is never used.

As you can see, afirmative expressions can invoke the subjunctive.  The opposite is also true: negative expressions don’t always invoke the subjunctive.  For example: Eu não acho que sou bonito.  In this case, you are not supposing anything, you know what you think of yourself, so the subjunctive is not used.  Even this might sound a little strange to a Brazilian, for starters, it would have been easier to have said Eu não me acho bonito, secondly, because Eu não acho que eu seja bonito exists, but has a slightly different meaning (bonito from an outsider’s perspective).

Other common cases where an “affirmative” conjunction will invoke the subjunctive (which is more common in everyday speech) is for the past tense of “pensar que“, “imaginar que” and (less frequently) “achar que“, when it turns out that what you supposed was mistaken, the subjunctive is used.  The two examples below illustrate the difference:

Quando ele disse isso, pensei que ele era um cara sério. (no subjunctive, there is certainty in what was thought)
When he said that, I thought he was a reliable guy.

Pensei que ele fosse um cara sério, mas acabei me decepcionando. (subjunctive, what was thought was mistaken)
I thought he was a reliable guy, but I ended up being disappointed.

1.2 Present and Past Subjunctives: Non-Specific Object

Next, we have cases where the object is non-specific, e.g.,

Precisamos de um recepcionista que fale russo.
Há algum programa que sirva para criança?

But this can get just a little bit tricky, for example when using a very non-specific-sounding word such as alguem, when in fact such a person is known to exist, e.g.,

Eu conheço alguém que quer alugar uma casa.

It should be fairly obvious to understand, but note how similar two sentences can be, one using the subjunctive, the other not:

Vou ver um filme que você recomende. (adjective clause uses subjunctive) (I’m going to see a movie, if there is one at all, that you may recommend.)
Vou ver o filme que você recomendou. (indicative does not)

In the case of the subjunctive, the movie is not part of the speaker’s experience and may or may not exist.

1.3 Present and Past Subjunctives: Indicative

Next, we have the conjunctions até que, de modo que, and de maneira que.  The first thing I’ll say about these is that sometimes they make me want to use the future subjunctive, for example:

Repita até que todos entenderem entendam bem.

But also, these conjunctions are common in cases where the indicative (more on this later) may be used:

Ele se comportou de modo que agradou a todos., versus:
O Pedro falava de modo que atraísse as moças.

Not limited to just these conjunctions, with slight modifications, the indicative can be applied to many of the conjunctions we already learned (personal infinitive) and carries with it the advantage of helping to make the subject more clear:

É preciso que ele . versus: (It is necessary that he go)
É preciso ele ir. (It is necessary for him to go)

Ele insistiu que nós ficássemos para o jantar., versus:
Ele insistiu até nós ficarmos para o jantar.

É uma vergonha que vocês não saibam a lição., versus:
É uma vergonha vocês não saberem a lição.

O papai pediu que ficássemos com a mamãe., versus:
O papai pediu para ficarmos com a mamãe.

Ele entrou em casa sem que nós percebêssemos., versus:
Ele entrou em casa sem nós percebermos.

Não vou a lugar nenhum antes que vocês telefonem., versus:
Não vou a lugar nenhum antes de vocês telefonarem.

2. Future and Past Subjunctives: “Se”

The future subjunctive is actually slightly more interesting.  You’ll probably recall how the future subjunctive is used in phrases like Se quiser… (when the main clause refers to future time) and the past subjunctive when expressing unreal (contrary-to-fact, unfulfilled, remote) conditions like Se tivesse o dinheiro….  The caveat is to NOT use the subjunctive in the sense of “whether” to introduce an indirect question, e.g.,

Não sei se ele vai poder nos ajudar. (I don’t know if/whether he’ll be able to help us.)

Ela me perguntou se eu era louco. (She asked me if I was crazy.)

O Mário não sabe se irá à faculdade amanhã. (Mário doesn’t know if he will go to school tomorrow.)

Você pode me dizer se tem visto meu cachorro? (Could you tell me if you have seen my dog?)

Imagino que deva ter uma curiosidade enorme de saber se ainda está lá. (I imagine he must have a huge curiosity to know if it’s still there.)

Likewise, (1) an admitted fact, (2) something that has already happened,  or (3) when the situation is “as such” in the present, will NOT use the subjunctive:

(1) Se ele esteve em casa ontem, ninguém viu.
(2) Se ela chegou da viagem ontem à noite, ela deve estar cansada.
(3a) Se é assim, não tem muito o que fazer.
(3b) Se ele não quer ir, é porque ele é preguiçoso. (he has already decided not to go)

But don’t be too confused by “indirect questions”, a good rule is to ask yourself if the word ‘whether’ could be used.  However, note for example that a question within a question is not an indirect question and will use the subjunctive:

O que você vai fazer se ganhar o prêmio?

2.1 Future and Past Subjunctives: Conjunctions

We have the various conjunctions that invoke the past and future subjunctives, but NOT always (complete list?).

quando, da próxima vez que, quanto (however much), enquanto, onde, conforme, depois que, assim que/logo que, a hora que, como, sempre que

Note 1: sempre que, as used here, means whenever, but can also be used as an alternative to contanto que to mean provided that.
Note 2: Some people will use the present subjunctive after logo que and depois que, but it’s possible to always use the future subjunctive without causing too much confusion.

Let’s look at some examples for the conjunction enquanto:

1) Tome banho logo, enquanto a água ainda está quente! (very near future implied)
{Esquentei a água do seu banho, tome banho enquanto a água estiver quente, senão você pode adoecer. (conditional future)}
2) Sempre tomo banho enquanto escutando música.
3) Neto planeja tomar banho enquanto a água ainda estiver quente.
4) Enquanto a água está quente, Yara fica assistindo TV.
5) Vamos tomar banho enquato a água ainda está quente. (let’s go right now… very near future implied)
6) Ele tomou banho equanto a agua estava quente.
7) Ele tomava/tomaria banho enquanto a agua estivisse quente.

In (1) and (5), the main clause is a command to take a bath now, in the very near future, thus there is no futurity implied (not dependent on future events), and the subjunctive is NOT used. (2) is an example of a habitual action, thus the subjunctive is NOT used. In (4), Yara watching TV has nothing to do with the water being hot, thus it implies no futurity, and the subjunctive is not used. Only in example (3) do we have the classic example of when the future subjunctive should be used. The rule for when to use the future subjunctive after a conjunction is when the action of the temporal clause (what follows the conjunction) has not happened at the time of the main clause. Examples (6) and (7) demonstrate the indicative (expresses reality) versus the subjunctive (in adverbial clauses).  More on this below.

2.2 Future and Past Subjunctives: Indicative

Below is a similar example of the indicative but instead using the conjunction como:

Eu fiz o jantar como você pediu.
Eu faria o jantar como você pedisse.

Such examples of the indicative can be constructed using the last set of conjunctions given but the meaning is different (i.e., the indicative, representing reality, is often in the past tense), so these aren’t necessarily alternatives to the subjunctive, but you should be aware of the construction to avoid the trap of thinking you have to use the subjunctive.

Eu vou ao Brasil quando você estiver lá.
Eu fui ao Brasil quando você estava lá.

Ela vai trabalhar depois que se formar.
Ela começou a trabalhar depios que se formou.

Nós ficaremos aqui enquanto pudermos.
Nós ficamos enquanto pudemos.

Paulo iria onde você estivisse.
Paulo foi onde você estava.

2.3 Future and Past Subjunctives: Uncertain Identity

Finally, we have the case of uncertain identity (whoever / whomever / whichever /whatever / those who / those which).  There might be confusion precisely because it is similar to the non-specific objects in section 1.2.  For example, which is correct?

Não importa o que eu diga.
Não importa o que eu disser.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide.  Let’s look at a few more examples:

Os funcionários que ficarem (The workers who stay)
Os alunos que estudarem (The students who study)
O time que ganhar (The team that wins)
quem quiser trabalhar (whoever wants to work)
o que eles acharem melhor (whatever/whoever they think best)
o que ela decidir (whatever she decides)
os que vocês quiserem (whichever ones you guys want)
aqueles que começarem amanhã (those who begin tomorrow)

For the most part, you’ll see this used with the future subjunctive.  It can also be used with the past, such as “eu fazia o que ele quisesse” (I would do whatever he asked), but many Brazilians might ignore the slight difference in meaning also say instead: “eu fazia o que ele queria” (I always used to do what he would ask).

Now, let’s compare to the example section 1.2, is the difference clear?  The meaning is similar, however, this new construction is more easily understood for this example:

Vou ver um filme que você recomende. (I’m going to see any movie that you may recommend -> non-specific)
Vou ver o que você me recomendar, or, O que me recomendar, vou ver. (I’ll see whatever you will recommend -> uncertain identity)

When else can this be confusing?  Take for example: “Tentarei descobrir o que é” (I’ll try to find out what it is).  Though this seems like a case of uncertain identity, note that we’re referring to a specific something, in English, we have not used whatever, but take note of if we instead said: “I’ll try to find out whatever I can” (Tentarei descobrir o que for possível)


So, don’t be ashamed to NOT use the subjunctive if you’re not sure!  You could be right!

Although memorizing grammar rules is not such an efficient use of time (since you’ll just forget it again someday), it helps to at least do it once so that it will come back to you easily upon review.  To categorize all the different subjunctive types in your brain, I suggest the following observations:

  • With few exceptions, there are two main groups of conjunctions, 1) those that invoke the Present-Past, and 2) those that invoke the Past-Future.  Most of them fall into the 1st category.  For the second type, the only conjunctions were only 12 conjunctions lised (quando, enquanto,… and “se”).
  • Only with the very first set of conjunctions (embora, ainda que… and “talvez”) can you easily make a complete list of conjunctions that will ALWAYS invoke the subjunctive.  So, it’s only worth your time to try to memorize these, as opposed to recognizing the context.
  • Take a look on your own at the Present-Past conjunctions; there’s the 4 common types.  Ignoring the technical names, can you think of an example of each?  I suggest such an exercise until you have a catchy example in your head of each type, such as: a não ser que ele goste, é possível que ele goste, eu espero que ele goste, lamento que ele não tenha gostado.
  • Of all of the exceptions to the subjunctive noted above, by far the most common in real life is the indirect question: “Não é complicado saber se ele foi ou não”.  Luckily, it’s fairly easy to recognize by asking yourself if “whether” can be used.
  • If it’s an event that’s already taken place, if it’s a habitual action, if there’s no room for doubt, if you’re referring to a specific-identified something, or if your not supposing anything, then you probably won’t use the subjunctive.  And in cases where it’s possible to use the indicative, you should; you’ll sound more natural that way anyway.

When speaking with a Brazilian, try to use the subjunctive naturally but also verify it with them from time to time.  For common errors, turn your mistakes into a flashcard for repeated review to eliminate the problem.  This is much easier than memorizing grammar rules.

By the way, this post is not a complete summary of the use of the subjunctive, but the exceptions are few.  Other uses commonly include commands (Vá embora), idiomatic expressions (seja como for, o mais que puder), fixed expressions (Pelo que eu saiba…, Tomara que não chova.), in the main clause (Deixe que ela pague!), and hypothetical conjunctions, which, to my knowledge, pretty much always invoke the subjunctive, so I could have included them in the very first list of past-present conjunctions: por mais que (however much), como quer que (however), onde quer que (wherever), quem quer que (whoever), and por muito que (however much, more common in Portugal).

13 thoughts on “When to NOT(!) use the Subjunctive

  1. Ela me PERGUNTOU se eu era louco

    – PEDIR é um verbo transitivo direto e indireto. Quem pede, pede algo à alguém. Ex.: Ela pediu uma informação ao motorista.

    Você pode me dizer …

    – Perfect tenses from English are tricky in Portuguese. We would use “JÁ” in the explample “você pode me dizer se você (JÁ) tinha visto o meu cachorro?”

    – we usually ask “você pode me dizer” to ask about something we´re looking for. ex.: “você pode me dizer se tem visto meu cachorro? não consigo encontra-lo” / “Você pode me dizer se tem visto meu cachorro? Irei dar um banho nele”. And it´s followed by a comment in the present or future.

    Nice post! it can be very handy for brazilian teachers who teach portuguese for forigners!

  2. Pingback: Practice with the Subjunctive « On Learning Brazilian Portuguese

  3. Pingback: Learning Brazilian Portuguese: “Best of…” « On Learning Brazilian Portuguese

  4. “eu fazia o que ele quisesse” (I would do whatever he asked)
    “eu fazia o que ele queria” (I always used to do what he would ask).

    I’m not sur that the traduction in english are ok, could someone confirm ?

  5. The first translation is pretty straight forward, the second is somewhat exaggerated in order to get the point across, one could translate it more simply as (when in the sense of telling a story of something that happened in the past): I did whatever he asked.

  6. Great material. The truth is that when speaking and your attention is to express yourself and your ideas is quite difficult to remember all this rules…
    What work for me is try to identify the various rules while I’m listening native speakers and then just copy the expression used…

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