You´re learning Spanish. You make it through the present, past and future tenses; you can even say stuff like "I have walked" or "I am walking." You´ve overcome the natural Anglo inability to accept that nouns have a gender in Spanish, you may even understand the difference between the three "Excuse me"´s, "Con permiso," "Disculpa," and "Pérdoname."
Then one day you walk into class, feeling on top of the world, and your Spanish teacher with an evil gleam in the eye and a wigged-out smile says, "Okay class, today we´ll be learning about the subjunctive." To which everyone replies, "The what?" Which is understandable because: a) Teaching grammar was out of educational fashion when we went through school, b) In English, we practically never use the subjunctive and pretty much only unconsciously.
As my Spanish teacher explained it, "The subjunctive is a state of mind." You can put that in your pipe and smoke it, but the subjunctive is still going to kick your ass. I´m going to sum up about an entire painful month of classes on The Subjunctive as best I can.
The short story: We use the subjunctive in Spanish to talk about things that we aren´t entirely sure are going to happen or things that are contrary to fact. For instance, if I say: "I want you to clean the plates," I would say, "Quiero que laves los platos." Not lavas, but "laves" because, well, I want you to do it, but that doesn´t necessarily mean you will now does it?
Here's an example of where we use the subjunctive in English: "If I were you, I´d give that boy a beat-down." Did you notice how we don´t say, "If I was you, I´d give that boy a beat-down"? Well, actually a lot of people do, but it sounds kind of country-bumpkin. That´s the subjunctive my friend. Another example: "Were I to go to South Dakota, I would definitely go to Mount Rushmore." And that´s pretty much as far as we Angloparlantes go into the twisted reality of the subjunctive; However Hispanohablantes basically live there.
It´s a whole other reality, littered with uncertainty and hopes and dreams that may not come true.
"Espero que mi novio deje de ponerme las cuernas."
I hope my boyfriend stops cheating on me.
"Algún día, espero que mis hijos tengan una vida mejor que la mía."
I hope my children have a better life than I did.
"Quiero que mi abuela gane la lotería."
I want my grandma to win the lottery.
"Papá, quiero que me des un caballo."
Daddy, I want you to give me a pony.
Initially, I hated the subjunctive like any good American. It seemed so unnecessary. Why so much uncertainty? Why so many irregular verbs? Why does my Spanish teacher seem to be enjoying this so much?
We speak pretty forcefully in English. If you say, "If we win the game..." there´s probably a 50% chance someone´s going to say, "Ah, ah, ah - When we win the game... You´ve got to think positively." That´s all well and good, but life´s not necessarily going to go my way just because I´ve changed my diction.
After about a year living in Spanish, I´ve come to embrace the subjunctive state of being and the light uncertainty that crinkles the edges in a país tropical. It´s not a lack of volition - it´s acknowledging what´s out of my control. Maybe in his next reincarnation, the Dalai Lama will be a Spanish-speaker.