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Cuando With Present Indicative vs. Subjunctive

To start this lesson, let's take a look at a couple of very similar sentences with the Spanish word cuando (when) plus the verb ir (to go) where one is conjugated in the present indicative and the other in the present subjunctive:


Present Indicative:

Cuando voy a Barcelona, voy a la playa mucho

When I go to Barcelona, I go to the beach a lot.


Present Subjunctive:

Cuando vaya a Barcelona, pienso ir a la playa mucho. 

When I go to Barcelona, I plan to go to the beach a lot. 


Although the translation is the same for both Cuando voy and Cuando vaya (When I go), in the second Spanish sentence, the verb ir is conjugated in the present subjunctive for a specific reason. Let's find out what it is!


Cuando + Indicative

The word cuando is used in Spanish with verbs in the present indicative when speaking about habitual actions or general truths. Let's see a couple of examples:


Cuando están encendidos, dan luz.

When they're on, they give off light.

Caption 37, El Aula Azul Adivina qué es - Part 2

 Play Caption


Cuando lo hacemos con carne, podemos poner carne de cerdo, carne de ternera o pollo.

When we make it with meat, we can put in pork, beef, or chicken.

Captions 9-11, El Aula Azul Adivinanzas de comidas - Part 1

 Play Caption


The indicative is used in these examples because, in the first caption, it's a general fact that when the streetlights in question are turned on, they give off light. In the second example, the speaker describes the habitual action of preparing paella with different ingredients.


Cuando + Subjunctive 

On the other hand, the word cuando is used with verbs in the present subjunctive when speaking about actions that will happen in the future, that may or may not happen, or that some other action depends upon. To illustrate this point, let's take a look at sentences with the same verbs used previously, this time conjugated in the present subjunctive.


Bueno, OK, eso lo hablamos cuando estés acá,

Well, OK, we'll talk about that when you're here,

Caption 3, Yago 11 Prisión - Part 3

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Cuando lo hagas correctamente, será verde.

When you do it correctly, it will be green.

Caption 26, Tutoriales de Yabla Consejos para usar Scribe

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The subjunctive is employed with cuando in these examples because they both describe future events that have not yet taken place and upon which other events depend. 


When Cuando Can Be Used With Either Indicative or Subjunctive

It is worth noting that while the aforementioned examples quite clearly fall into the categories of habitual vs. future actions, there are some cases where either the indicative or the subjunctive could be used in the same sentence, giving it a slightly different nuance. Let's take an example where someone is teaching us to bake:


Present Indicative: 

Cuando las galletas están doradas, las saco del horno

When the cookies are golden brown, I take them out of the oven. 

Nuanced Meaning: Habitually, when the cookies are golden brown, I always take them out of the oven. 


Present Subjunctive: 

Cuando las galletas estén doradas, las saco del horno

When the cookies are golden brown, I'll take them out of the oven. 

Nuanced Meaning: At the moment when the cookies turn golden brown, I'll then take them out of the oven. 


Quite interestingly, while the English translations are nearly identical, the choice of the indicative vs. the subjunctive in Spanish gives the two sentences slightly different meanings. 


With this food for thought (pun intended!), we hope that you now know the reason for the different conjugations of the verb ir in the two introductory sentences and you understand when to choose the present indicative or subjunctive with the word cuando. Don't forget to write us with your questions or suggestions


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