Subjunctive with Adjective Clauses

Spanish subjunctive
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Subjuntivo con cláusulas adjetivas

Adjective clauses are relative clauses: a relative pronoun (usually que) + some description that modifies a noun. Some adjective clauses require the indicative, while others need the subjunctive. What’s the difference? Reality and existence of the noun described by the adjective clause.

Verbs related to wanting and needing (e.g., buscar, comprar, deber, necesitar, querer) often require the subjunctive – but not always. Whether or not to use it depends on the speaker’s perception of reality: in essence, whether the speaker knows the subject exists.

 Compare:

Busco el libro que estoy leyendo.   I’m looking for the book I’m reading.
(I know it exists = no doubt = indicative)
Busco un libro que me interese.   I’m looking for a book that interests me.
(It may not exist = doubt = subjunctive)
     
Quiero el perro que tiene ojos negros.   I want the dog that has black eyes.
(It’s sitting right here.)
Quiero un perro que esté domesticado.   I want a dog that is housebroken.
(Does the pet store have one?)
     
Compramos su coche que cuesta menos de 10.000 dólares.   Let’s buy their car that costs less than $10,000.
(We test-drove it yesterday.)
Compramos un coche que cueste menos de 10.000 dólares.   Let’s buy a car that costs less than $10,000.
(I hope they have one like that.)

 When it comes to adjective clauses with the above sorts of verbs, there are some clues that can help you decide between the indicative and subjunctive:

These are just indicators, so you can’t always count on them. What you you can always rely on is the fact or fiction of the statement:

Los estudiantes que han terminado pueden salir.   Students who have finished can leave.
(I’m looking at two who have already finished.)
Los estudiantes que hayan terminado pueden salir.   Students who have finished can leave.
(I’m not in the room and don’t know if any have finished.)

More examples

 Questions and negations can also call for the subjunctive – see variable subjunctive.

Conozco a alguien que habla italiano.   I know someone who speaks Italian.
(This person definitely exists)
¿Conoces a alquien que hable italiano?   Do you know anyone who speaks Italian?
(I don’t know if this person exists)
No conozco a nadie que hable italiano.   I don’t know anyone who speaks Italian.
(This person doesn’t exist for me)

 More Spanish subjunctive

Conjugations

Usage

Spanish Subjunctive Tenses

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Spanish subjunctive with adjective clauses