The subjunctive is most often used when expressing volition. Using English and Spanish as examples:

The doctor recommends that you eat vegetables and fruits.

El médico recomienda que comas verduras y frutas.

Sometimes it is used in Spanish, but the indicative is used in English (generally when expressing doubt or emotion):

I doubt that it is so easy.

Dudo que sea tan fácil.

And sometimes vice versa (generally for a hypothetical in present tense using "if"):

If he be alive (archaic)

Si está vivo"

There are other examples, like:

I want him to tell me the truth.

*I want that he tell me the truth. (not that tells would work here either)

Quiero que me diga la verdad.

Here, the English usage of "want" has been completely rewritten to use a different grammatical structure which uses neither the indicative nor subjunctive (but rather the infinitive), and I'm not interested in that.

My question is: How do various languages choose whether to use the indicative or subjunctive under what is otherwise the same grammatical framework? Are there any differences at all among Romance languages? Feel free to bring up anything that suits the topic, be it Latin, non-Indo-European languages, etc. (yes, I just used the subjunctive there).

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    Languages choose these things by accident. Use of subjunctive, like infinitive or gerund, is just a detail of the conditioning predicate or construction. In English very few predicates require or allow infinitive that-clauses, and fewer constructions still. Plus, in Spanish every verb is distinguished in form between subjunctive and indicative -- i.e, you an always tell one from the other -- whereas in English there's no special subjunctive form of any verb, just weird usages of normal tensed forms out of their usual context. The English subjunctive is like whom -- functionally dead.
    – jlawler
    Jul 19, 2015 at 15:55
  • English may have a subjunctive construction but it no longer has a subjunctive mood which makes the comparison invalid. This question is also too broad.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 19, 2015 at 22:13

1 Answer 1


In some Bantu languages, it is used to indicate "almost doing", which isn't a subjunctive use I know of in Romance (maybe I just don't know about it). Part of the problem is that there isn't an independent, robust test for whether something is a "subjunctive". I suspect that if a verb form were used for realis moods, it would not be labeled "subjunctive". So while I think it is an interesting question what variation there is, there is a presupposition that we independently know what a "subjunctive" is, as distinct from an optative, conditional, potential, or even "future". Perhaps the key is to identify predicates that always call for a "subjunctive" in their complements, and then understand the semantic properties that distinguish that from more general irrealis.

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