Very Polite Independent Clauses Using Subjunctive

Let's go back to the subjunctive just a little. Did you know that one characteristic that sets apart the subjunctive mood from the indicative, conditional, and the imperative is the fact that the subjunctive is found primarily in dependent clauses? (Of course, the other moods can occur there as well.) Let's illustrate this with an example from one of our videos:

¿Que estás queriendo que se muera más rápido?

What are you wanting for him to die faster?

Caption 12, Yago - 9 Recuperación - Part 9

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This is a classic example of subjunctive, right? It's being used to talk about a wish, a hypothetical situation. We have highlighted the subjunctive muera in bold and underlined the indicative queriendo to clearly show you the way the subjunctive is used as part of compound sentences: the indicative queriendo plays the main role as the independent clause (the action of wanting), while the subjunctive muera refers to the action that depends on it (the action of dying). This is the way the subjunctive is used most of the time. 


But the subjunctive is sometimes used in independent clauses. One of the most interesting cases is when the imperfect subjunctive is used to replace the conditional forms of the verbs poder (to be able), querer (to want), and deber (must) as part of what in Spanish is called el subjuntivo de cortesía (the courtesy subjunctive). As its name indicates, this construction is used to make a request or a suggestion in a more gentle, polite, or deferential way. This type of subjunctive is very, very common, so it's a good idea to memorize the corresponding conjugation for each verb. you can find full conjugations of these verbs on this page.


You might also want to explore the following examples. Note that the use of this subjunctive is usually combined with another verb in infinitive:


Quisiera saber si los perros tienen cosquillas.

I would like to know if dogs are ticklish.

Caption 102, Animales en familia - Señales de calma y cosquillas en los perros

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¿Pudieras pasarme la leche?

Could you pass me the milk?

Angélica debiera bajar a comer.

Angelica should come down to eat.

Caption 15, Muñeca Brava - 36 La pesquisa - Part 5

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All these expressions would still be correct if you used the conditional forms (querría instead of quisierapodrías instead of pudierasdebería instead of debiera); the use of subjunctive just makes them more polite, refined. It's a subtle difference, really. Think of it this way: using the conditional podrías pasarme la leche could mean, in theory, that the speaker is actually doubting whether the other person is able to pass the milk or not, instead of just asking for a favor. The use of the subjunctive leaves no room for doubts that you are making a polite request.


We can't stress enough how common this substitution of conditional with subjunctive is. But make no mistake, this is no conditional, and it only uses these three verbs. You may bump into similar constructions that are just incomplete compound sentences, for example incomplete si (if) clauses:


Si yo supiera...

If I only knew...

Caption 72, Muñeca Brava - 33 El partido - Part 4

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The subjunctive is not used as an independent clause here. Grammatically speaking, this expression is just missing its main clause, in this case a conditional. If we add it, for example: si yo supiera te lo diría (if I only knew I would tell you), we have a classic case of conditional plus subjunctive, as seen in one of our previous lessons on the subject.   


The same happens with the following example. It's a tricky one, because even though it uses the verb poder (to be able), this is not a case of courtesy subjunctive. To prove it, we have completed the sentence with a conditional in brackets:


Si pudiera bajarte una estrella del cielo [me amarías]

If I could lower down to you a star from the sky [you would love me]

Caption 5, Enrique Iglesias - Cuando me enamoro

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Another interesting use of the subjunctive used as an independent sentence happens when it's used with words that mean “perhaps,” like tal vez and quizá


Tal vez cure el tiempo las heridas.

Perhaps time may heal the wounds.

Caption 20, Reik - No desaparecerá

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Of course, it's also possible to simply use the indicative here and say: tal vez cura el tiempo las heridas (perhaps time heals the wounds). The use of subjunctive just stresses the idea that the action is improbable or doubtful, it's also more poetic. However—and this is just an exercise of the mind—another way of understanding these type of expressions is to recall that the words tal vez and quizá mean es posible (it's possible) and thus play the role of the main clause in a classic example of indicative plus subjunctive, where the subjunctive que cure... is the subordinate clause. Just saying.


Es posible que cure el tiempo las heridas.
It's possible that time will heal the wounds.

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