Tense Sequences

In the page about the subjunctive mood you have learnt that in Spanish some main clauses trigger the subjunctive mood if followed by a subordinate clause. Now you will learn more about which subjunctive tense you should use. The tense of the subordinate clause depends on the tense of the main clause in the indicative mood. In other words, the tense of the two clauses follow a prescribed sequence.

Tense Sequences in the Present

main clause (indicative) subordinate clause (subjunctive)
present
or future
present (simultaneous or following action)
or
present perfect (prior action)

When the main sentence (indicative mood) is in the present or future tense, the subordinate clause (subjunctive) must be in a present tense as well.

If the subjunctive clause is simultaneous with or following the indicative clause, the present subjunctive (simple) is used. This means that the action in the subordinate clause happens at the same time or after the main clause.

No es justo que uno piense que debido a donde él creció, que él va a tener que quedarse.
It is not fair that one thinks that because of the place where he has been raised, that he has to stay there.

If the subjunctive clause is prior the indicative clause, the present perfect subjunctive (compound) is used. This means that the subordinate clause happens before the main clause.

No creo que haya tenido… no creo que haya habido interferencia del inglés en mi español.
I do not think that I have had… I do not think that there has been any interference from English in my Spanish.

Tense Sequences in the Past

main clause (indicative) subordinate clause (subjunctive)
past tenses imperfect (simultaneous or following action)
or
pluperfect (prior action)

When the main sentence (indicative mood) is in a past tense, the subordinate clause (subjunctive) must be in a past tense as well.

If the subjunctive clause is simultaneous with or following the indicative clause, the imperfect subjunctive (simple) is used. This means that the action in the subordinate clause happens at the same time or after the main clause.

Yo le pedí que hiciera algo.
I asked her to do something.

If the subjunctive clause is prior the indicative clause, the pluperfect subjunctive (compound) is used. This means that the subordinate clause happens before the main clause.

Me molestó que mi hermana hubiera ido a la fiesta sin mí.It bothered me that my sister had been to the party without me.

Tense Agreement

As a summary we could say that if we start with a present or future tense in the indicative clause, we must continue with a present tense in the subjunctive clause, while if we start with a past tense in the indicative clause, we must continue with a past tense in the subjunctive clause. This is the concept of tense sequences or tense agreement.

Moreover, if the action in the subjunctive clause happens at the same time or after the indicative clause, we must use a simple (one word) tense, while if the action in the subjunctive clause happens before the indicative clause, we must use a compound (two word) tense.

Sometimes deciding in which chronological order the two actions in the main and in the subordinate clause happened is not very easy. However,  some key words and connectors can be used as a hint. For example the word ya (already) usually indicates that the subordinate clause happened before the main clause, so a compound tense (present perfect or pluperfect subjunctive) will be used.

Me molestó que mi hermana ya hubiera ido a la fiesta sin mí.It bothered me that my sister had already been to the party without me.