Relative clauses with the indicative and the subjunctive (subordinate relative clauses)

Relative pronouns, whether Spanish or English, are introduced by a relative pronoun. In Spanish, this is generally "que".

In Spanish these subordinate clauses may take the indicative or the subjunctive. 

Relative clauses with El Indicativo

We use the indicative when "que" is referring to someone or something that we know exists and/or is known to us. Here are some examples:

Saldré con el chico que tiene ojos azules.
I will go out with the guy who has blue eyes.

Voy a invitar a mi fiesta a la gente que vive en mi barrio.
I am going to invite people who live in my neighbourhood to my party.

Las personas que han reservado con anticipación pueden pasar por esta ventanilla.
People who have booked in advance may go to that desk.

In all the examples above, the speaker knows of the existence of:

  • a specific guy who has blue eyes (...que tiene ojos azules)
  • some people who live in his neighbourhood (...que vive en mi barrio)
  • people who have definitely booked in advance ( ...que han reservado)

Relative clauses with El Subjuntivo

We use the subjunctive when "que" is referring to someone or something that we do not know exists and/or is not known to us. Here are the same examples as above but this time using the subjunctive:

Saldré con un chico que tenga ojos azules.
I will go out with a guy who has blue eyes.

Voy a invitar a mi fiesta a la gente que viva en mi barrio.
I am going to invite people who live in my neighbourhood to my party.

Las personas que hayan reservado con anticipación pueden pasar por esta ventanilla.
People who booked in advance may go to that desk.

In all these examples the speaker doesn't really know:

  • a specific guy with blue eyes; she is not thinking about a specific guy she already knows.  (...que tenga ojos azules)
  • who lives in his neighbourhood. She may be new in the area and hasn't met anyone around yet (...que viva en mi barrio)
  • if anyone has booked in advance, but there may be some people among the group who did. ( ...que hayan reservado)

This concept is sometimes difficult for English speakers to understand as there is no grammatical distinction between the two situations: the known and unknown fact explained above. However, we could add "may/might" to the English sentence when we use the subjunctive in Spanish to convey that "unknown fact", for example:

Las personas que hayan reservado con anticipación pueden pasar por esta ventanilla.
People who may have booked in advance can go to that desk.

Here are some more examples:

Regamos todas las plantas que estaban secas.
We watered all the plants that were dry. (indicative- known)

Informamos a los padres de los niños que habían llamado para preguntar.
We informed the parents of the kids who had called to enquire. (indicative- known)

Pedí el menú que era más barato.
I ordered the menu that was cheaper. (indicative- known)

Ofrecieron ayuda a los afectados que se hubieran quedado sin nada.
They offered help to victims who had been left with nothing. (subjunctive-unknown)

Abrimos las puertas a aquellos que quisieran entrar.
We opened our doors to those who wanted to come in. (subjunctive- unknown)

Teníamos que hacer una presentación que fuese interesante para todos.
We had to make a presentation that was interesting for everyone. (subjunctive- unknown)

Bear in mind that the most common relative pronoun is "que" and it can refer to both things and people. However there are other relative pronouns, e.g "el cual" or "quien".

See also Que/ el cual/ la cual/ los cuales/ quien/ quienes = who, that, which (relative pronouns)

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Saldré con un chico que tenga ojos azules.
I will go out with a guy who has blue eyes.


Voy a invitar a mi fiesta a la gente que viva en mi barrio.
I am going to invite people who live in my neighbourhood to my party.


Abrimos las puertas a aquellos que quisieran entrar.
We opened our doors to those who wanted to come in. (subjunctive- unknown)


Pedí el menú que era más barato.
I ordered the menu that was cheaper. (indicative- known)


Las personas que han reservado con anticipación pueden pasar por esta ventanilla.
People who have booked in advance may go to that desk.


Informamos a los padres de los niños que habían llamado para preguntar.
We informed the parents of the kids who had called to enquire. (indicative- known)


Saldré con el chico que tiene ojos azules.
I will go out with the guy who has blue eyes.


Ofrecieron ayuda a los afectados que se hubieran quedado sin nada.
They offered help to victims who had been left with nothing. (subjunctive-unknown)


Teníamos que hacer una presentación que fuese interesante para todos.
We had to make a presentation that was interesting for everyone. (subjunctive- unknown)


Las personas que hayan reservado con anticipación pueden pasar por esta ventanilla.
People who booked in advance may go to that desk.


Voy a invitar a mi fiesta a la gente que vive en mi barrio.
I am going to invite people who live in my neighbourhood to my party.


Regamos todas las plantas que estaban secas.
We watered all the plants that were dry. (indicative- known)


Q&A Forum 1 question, 1 answer

EmanuelB2Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

han or hayan reservado

Let us imagine the following scenario. There is a crowd of people at a cinema. what would the ticket controller use to invite those who had bought tickets in advance. haya or han comprado/reservado?

Asked 1 month ago
InmaKwiziq team member

Hola Emanuel

The ticket person would most probably say:

Aquellos que hayan comprado tickets por anticipado, por favor, pasen por aquí.

(Those who bought tickets in advance, please, come this way.)

The subjunctive is most likely to be used because the ticket person doesn't know for sure if there are actually people who have bought tickets in advance. There might be some, there might be no one.

However, if the ticket person knows for sure that among the crowd there are (or most probably there are) some people who have bought tickets in advance, then he'd say:

Aquellos que han comprado tickets por anticipado, por favor, pasen por aquí.

(Those who bought tickets in advance, please, come this way.)

So it all depends on the certainty or uncertainty of whoever is speaking.

But we do have a lesson on these clauses that use the indicative and the subjunctive. One of our examples is precisely this one. Here is the lesson.

Saludos

Inma

han or hayan reservado

Let us imagine the following scenario. There is a crowd of people at a cinema. what would the ticket controller use to invite those who had bought tickets in advance. haya or han comprado/reservado?

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