French Language Blog

An Introduction to the Subjunctive Posted by on Jan 26, 2015 in Grammar

Just the mention of the subjonctif can make French learners tremble in their boots.  However, this grammatical mood is very common and exists in many languages, including in English.  In French, the subjonctif is used very often and serious French learners need to be familiar with it (although there are grammatical ways of getting around using the subjunctive, which will be the topic of a subsequent blog post).

In all languages, the subjunctive mood expresses anything that is not an assertion (called the indicative mood) but, rather, a doubt, wish, possibility, or judgment.  While it is not as common in English, it does exist; for example, in the phrase: “I suggest that you be careful.”  Here you can see how the subjunctive mood is normally found in the subordinate clause of the sentence, which comes after “that”.  Without the subjunctive, the verb be would be are, such as in “you are careful”.  However, the subjunctive here is necessary because it is expressing a suggestion rather than an assertion.

Another example in English is “I wish that she were here right now”.  Here, the were is in the subjunctive mood; otherwise, the grammatically correct verb form would be was as in: “she was here”. The subjunctive must be used in this sentence because it expresses a wish.

The French subjunctive works in a similar way.  Whenever doubt or possibility is expressed, le subjonctif is required.  Due to the construction of the French language, this occurs a lot.  However, there is a silver lining to the difficult French subjunctive: You can recognize it ninety percent of the time because it will nearly always follow a que, as explained in the last post.  You can see that English works in a similar manner: In the examples above, “I suggest that” and “I wish that” trigger the use of the subjunctive mood.

It’s also important to note that le subjonctif is NOT a tense, but a mood.  This means that the tense does not always need to be specifically defined in the clause that uses the subjunctive.  The present-tense subjunctive form expresses both present and future tenses, and the past-tense subjunctive form is used more rarely.

Here are some more rules for the use of the French subjunctive:

  • The sentence must contain a main clause and a subordinate clause in order to use the subjunctive
  • There must be two different subjects in a sentence that uses the subjunctive.  For example, “I” is the first subject in both examples above, while “you” and “she” are the second subjects.
  • The clauses must be joined by que or, in very special circumstances, qui.
  • And, finally, as stated above, the sentence must communicate a want, wish, need, desire, doubt, emotion, possibility, or denial.

Phew, that’s a lot.  But, before going into the details of the French subjunctive, I want to make sure that you know when and why it is used.  Recognizing when it should be used is the hardest part of using the subjunctive.  But, as you’ll see next week, the French subjonctif is especially difficult because the subjunctive verb forms are so very different from the regular indicative verb forms.

Please leave any questions you have in the comments and I’ll help to clarify before we move onto specific examples using le subjonctif next week.


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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!