When you're learning French, you'll come across a few sticky points of grammar that can be a little challenging to grasp.
And among these, one of the most notorious is the French subjunctive.
For native English speakers at least, this reputation may come partly from the fact that the subjunctive in English has all but disappeared, so you can't compare it with anything.
But, although the concept might seem strange and unfamiliar, it really isn’t so hard.
So here, I’ll make this mysterious verb form clearer and show you why there’s really nothing much to be afraid of.
In fact, once you've got over your fear of using the subjunctive, you'll experience a huge fluency boost, as you'll be able to express many finer points of meaning such as wishes, preferences and doubt.
There are many different levels of understanding when it comes to the subjunctive.
While grammarians may enjoy debating the finer points of its use, we don’t need to lose ourselves in that level of detail.
Our goal is simply to be able to use it and understand it correctly in French.
To keep things simple, let’s start with English. Have you ever noticed some of the more peculiar expressions we use, like:
They're a bit strange, right? But have you ever wondered why we use the “wrong” form of the verb in these situations?
Why don’t we say “God saves the Queen!” or “if I was you…”?
These sentences would seem correct, wouldn’t they? Except we just know instinctively that they’re wrong.
The reason is that in these sentences, we're seeing the last remnants of the English subjunctive.
English has practically lost its subjunctive and now it only ever appears in a few set expressions such as these.
In French, however, it is still commonly used – although much less than in closely related languages like Spanish and Italian.
As is usually the case with grammar, trying to explain the subjunctive makes it sound abstract and complicated.
But with a few of good examples, it suddenly becomes much easier to understand. So that's what we're going to focus on here!
Before we look at the examples, let me give you a brief explanation of what the subjunctive actually is, just so you know what to expect.
The subjunctive is usually referred to as a mood rather than a tense, as you use it to show a certain amount of emotion or personal interpretation of what is being said.
A tense, on the other hand, is for indicating when something happened, such as the past, present or future for example.
So right away, we can see that the subjunctive is different because it is a mood, instead of a “normal” verb form (known technically as “indicative” forms) which are usually used simply to state a fact.
In a nutshell, the subjunctive expresses:
You can also use it to talk about hypothetical situations.
In short, the subjunctive is usually found when what we are saying is something other than a simple statement of fact.
That’s the theory, but in practice, it’s a little easier to understand because, in modern French, the choice of subjunctive or indicative is almost entirely determined by what comes before it.
The simple rule is that some verbs are followed by the subjunctive and some are followed by the indicative.
This means that all you have to do to master the basics is to remember which verbs take the subjunctive. There’s no real need to think about whether you're talking about hopes, desires, fears etc.
Ok, so now you know what the subjunctive basically is. But how does it actually work?
Don’t worry too much if it still seems quite vague. With a few examples, everything will become much clearer.
As we just saw, the most frequent occasion when you will meet or need to use the subjunctive is after certain verbs.
Since there's usually no choice of whether to use the subjunctive or the indicative, you simply need to follow the rule.
You'll notice that verbs taking the subjunctive are verbs that express some kind of emotion, like desire, fear, or preference, etc.
At the beginning, remembering this will help you learn which verbs require a subjunctive. After a while, knowing which verbs are followed by a subjunctive will become instinctive.
Here are some common examples to get you started:
Some common impersonal verbs also take the subjunctive:
Il faut que j’aille chercher ma mère – It is necessary that I go and collect my mother
(In English, this is more naturally translated as “I need to go and collect my mother”.)
There are a few verbs that only take the subjunctive with the negative forms:
Notice that in English, very often, it's more natural to use an infinitive (the “to” form) with the verb. In French, however, this is not possible, so we must use que + subjunctive:
Note also that the verb espérer (to hope) doesn't take the subjunctive even though you might expect it to since it's a verb of “hoping”. This is just a strange exception so try to memorise it and move on!
Another common use of the subjunctive in French is following certain linking words and expressions (also known as “conjunctions”).
This is actually very simple as it's just a rule you need to follow– there’s no need to try to understand why it is this way. It's just the way it is!
Some of the most common examples are:
The full list is longer, but these are some of the most useful examples.
Since there are not so many of them, you should just treat them as fixed expressions and remember that they are always followed by a subjunctive. That way, you won’t have to expend too much brainpower thinking about why!
* Notice the addition of ne here – à moins que, avant que and some others add ne in written French and careful speech without changing the meaning. In informal spoken French, native speakers often drop it.
One piece of good news is that many of the subjunctive forms in French are the same as the ‘normal’, indicative forms.
The largest group of verbs in French is the –er verbs. And the first-person forms are the same for the subjunctive and the indicative, meaning you don’t even need to think about the subjunctive when you use them! Easy!
However, the French-re and -ir verbs change slightly, so you should learn them and get used to using them.
For example, if we add the endings above to the -ir verb partir (leave) to make the subjunctive forms, we get:
In the indicative, or normal verb forms, the equivalents are
The subjunctive belongs to a higher register of speech in French, so it sounds more formal or more educated than everyday colloquial speech.
In many situations, native speakers avoid it in favour of something simpler. Take this sentence in English:
In French, you could translate this by saying:
But two other ways to say this might be:
These two sentences use the infinitive, avoiding the subjunctive altogether.
In many cases, it's preferable and more natural to avoid the subjunctive, which in certain situations could sound a bit pompous or contrived.
French also has a perfect (or past) form of the subjunctive, although you won't often come across it.
You form it in the same way as the “normal” perfect tense. But you use the subjunctive version of avoir or être rather than the indicative forms. Here's an example of a simple sentence where you need to use it:
Note also that this is another example of the verb croire (to believe) requiring the subjunctive in a negative sentence. In a positive sentence, you would say it like this:
There are two additional subjunctive forms in French, the imperfect subjunctive and the pluperfect subjunctive. However, before you panic, there’s more good news – these two forms are now considered literary or obsolete! No native speaker would ever use them in normal speech.
And the only time you will ever come across them is when reading works of literature.
This means that if your goal is simply using French for communication, you'll never have any reason to learn or use them.
So hopefully you have seen that the subjunctive in French is relatively easy. As the French say:
In other words, it's “as easy as saying hello”, or “as easy as pie” to use an equivalent English expression.
It’s just a case of remembering which verbs and conjunctions take the subjunctive.
As I said at the beginning, you can lose yourself in the theory. But since all we want to do is use French to communicate, there’s really no need.
And if you’re still feeling a little puzzled, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s still a lot easier in French than it is in Italian or Spanish! And remember, like all other aspects of French, mastering the subjunctive takes time. So stick with it and it will soon start to sink in.
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After all that, what are your thoughts on the French subjunctive? Is it a structure you feel you could use confidently in your French after reading this article? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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