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If You Had Read This: Verb Tenses in Spanish

Some students discover that practice is more helpful than grammar books when it comes to learning conditional tenses in Spanish

Spanish Pinpointed

A good many Mexicans, when returning from an extended stay in Spain, get into the habit of saying hubiese instead of hubiera, hablase instead of hablara—and some even pronounce the ‘s’ almost as an ‘sh.’

Now if there’s one thing that’s liable to get friends and family wound up, it’s talking as if you had been born and bred on the peninsula. The reasons for this could be historical, or cultural, or a bit of both. The point is that applying the preferred Iberian usage of the imperfect subjunctive tense in Mexico is considered pompous at best.

The imperfect subjunctive in Spanish

The imperfect subjunctive is very common in Spanish and it’s easy to mix it up with the conditional tense.

The imperfect subjunctive is formed by taking the root of the past historic tense, and adding the endings iera, ieras, iéramos etc. for “er” and “ir” verbs and ara, aras, áramos, etc. for “ar” verbs.

Also correct are the endings iese, iésemos, ase, ásemos, etc. The conditional tense is formed in a similar way as the future tense. The endings ía, ías, íamos, etc. are added to the infinitive of the verb—with certain exceptions for irregular verbs. In any case, Spanish conjugation tables are readily available online.

The two tenses in practical use

The two tenses —imperfect subjunctive and conditional— are used together when dealing with “if … then …” constructions. For example:

“Si supieras la razón, no preguntarías por qué” – if  you knew (imperfect subjunctive) the reason, you wouldn’t ask (conditional) why.

In Mexico, it’s most common to hear the imperfect subjunctive used instead of the conditional in these cases. Whether or not correctly is probably a matter of taste, since the usage is quite widespread.

So instead of saying “si no hubieras venido, yo habría entendido,” (if you hadn’t come, I would have understood), people will say “si no hubieras venido, yo hubiera entendido.” In fact, the conditional “habría” (from the auxiliary verb haber – to have) is almost always replaced in Mexico with “hubiera.”  This isn’t as often the case with other verbs.

The unconditional imperfect subjunctive

There are also a number of uses of the imperfect subjunctive without the conditional “if,” although the conditional is frequently implicit in the meaning:

“Hubieras hablado antes de venir” means you should have, or ought to have, called before coming;

“Bueno fuera” can be translated as, if only (it were true).

Quisiera (from querer) hablar contigo” means I would like to talk to you. “Quisieras ser rico” can mean you would like to be rich, but more than likely means you wish you were rich (the tone of voice will clarify that).

Implicit caveats in conditional tenses

The conditional tense also has uses beyond the basic “would.” In newspapers it’s frequently used to convey the entire idea of reported fact (or fiction) without needing to specify an origin or source:

“La economía crecería 1%” quite compactly expresses the idea that the economy would grow 1% if whatever reason for assuming so, or whoever says so, is correct;

“Habría más de 40 arrestados tras partido de futbol” means there were reportedly 40 arrests after the football game;

What the conditional tense does is rather neatly add an implicit caveat to the information presented.

Verb tenses and Mexican Spanish

Mexican Spanish plays fast and loose with the different verb tenses, particularly where the conditional and subjunctives are concerned. To learn all the different ways, practice is ultimately better than a thick grammar book, particularly one people speaking the language won’t —or wouldn’t— have read.

See also: Variation on a Theme: The verb “poder”

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