Doubts and Desires: French Present Subjunctive
What’s your mood?
The subjunctive is a “mood” (or “mode”) in the grammatical world, which is similar to a tense, but rather than expressing when something happened, it expresses the speaker’s attitude toward the subject. A few other grammatical moods are indicative (used for declarative sentences), conditional (expressing possibility or doubt), and imperative (expressing a suggestion or command).
These moods combine with tense to pack a whole lot of information into one verb: both when something occurred and an underlying, subjective mood that the speaker wants to express. The “subjective” mood or attitude toward the topic could be one of desire, an opinion, or feeling. Notice that these subjunctive sentences always have two verbs (in bold). Check out a few examples:
J’espère que nous allions au cinéma ensemble. (I hope that we can go to the movies together.)
J’aimerais que tu m’apportes un verre d’eau. (I’d like you to bring me a glass of water.)
Je suis content que vous ayez aimé ma performance. (I’m glad you liked my performance.)
Il est dommage que ce ne soit pas la bonne taille. (It’s a shame it’s not the right size.)
Il faut que tu étudies beaucoup pour réussir l’examen. (It’s necessary that / You must study a lot to pass the exam.)
This isn’t to say that choosing when to use the subjunctive is subjective or that it’s used as an additional voluntary feature; in French there are certain situations and verbs which always require the subjunctive. In this guide, find out both how to form a few of the most common subjunctive tenses and when to use it!
When to Use the Subjunctive
Syntax deals with the structure of a sentence. For the majority of cases, the dead giveaways of subjunctive case are:
A. a dependent clause using qui or que B. two different subjects in the main and dependent clauses
Je doute qu‘il vienne. (I doubt that he is coming.)
A. Dependent clause: When combined with il, que becomes qu’il. The que functions in the same way as “that” in English in this sentence. B. Two different subjects: The subject of the main clause is je (I), the subject of the dependent clause (underlined) is il (he). The verb of the main clause (douter) is in the present indicative. The verb of the dependent clause (venir) is in the present subjunctive.
Elle cherche un homme qui aime le monopoly. (She is looking for a man who loves monopoly.)
A. Dependent clause: This dependent clause starts with “who” or qui. B. Two different subjects: The subject of the main clause is elle (she); the subject of the dependent clause (underlined) is an unknown person, represented by qui. Since she’s just looking for one person, the verb is conjugated in the il/elle form aime. Though searching for someone may not seem like a subjective attitude, the syntactic environment of a dependent clause and two subjects makes this sentence require the subjunctive. You could also think about the fact that the sentence expresses a possibility (and there is inherent uncertainty) about whether she’ll find this fellow monopoly-lover.
Je veux qu‘il vienne à la fête. (I want him to come to the party.)
A. Dependent clause: Note that in English the que/qui (that) is not necessary with “want,” but you can see how the translation implies an unspoken “that,” as in “I want/would like that he come to the party.”
Il est important / Il faut que que vous conduisiez avec précaution. (It is important / It is necessary that you drive carefully.)
B. Two different subjects: The subject of the main clause is “it,” which is sometimes called a “dummy subject” because it serves as a subject without having any real meaning. Many subjunctive sentences use this dummy subject. The usage of the English dummy subjects “it is” and “there is/are” is very similar to the French il, il y a, and c’est.
Il pleut. (It’s raining.)
C’est facile à faire. (It’s easy to do.)
Il y a deux biscuits dans l’assiette. (There are two cookies on the plate.)
This doesn’t mean that you always use subjunctive after que or qui. Keep your eye out for the “moody” subjective meaning of the sentence (more examples below), and combine that with the syntactic triggers (A and B above) to decide when to use subjunctive. Here are a few examples of sentences with the correct syntactic triggers, but that don’t use the subjunctive because they are not “subjective” enough; namely, they are expressing too certain of a fact.
Je vois qu‘il a mangé tous les cookies. (I see that he ate all of the cookies.)
J’ai entendu que le train arrive en retard. (I heard that the train is arriving late.)
Coupled with your expertise on syntactic situations involving the subjunctive, you can use these meaning-based (semantic) triggers to know when to use the subjunctive. Subjunctive is commonly used with the following verbs expressing desires, hopes, judgments, opinions, uncertainty, and surprise.
adorer que: to love that aimer que: to like that apprécier que: to appreciate that avoir honte que: to be ashamed that avoir peur que*: to be afraid that craindre que*: to fear that déplorer que:to deplore that détester que: to hate that être content que: to be happy that être désolé que: to be sorry that être étonné que: to be amazed that être heureux que: to be happy that être surpris que: to be surprised that être triste que: to be sad that il est bizarre que: it is odd that il est bon que: it is good that il est dommage que: it is too bad that il est étonnant que: it is amazing that il est étrange que: it is strange that il est heureux que: it is fortunate that il est honteux que: it is shameful that il est inutile que: it is useless that il est rare que: it is rare that il est regrettable que: it is regrettable that il est surprenant que: it is surprising that il est utile que: it is useful that redouter que*: to dread that regretter que: to regret that se réjouir que: to be delighted that
*These verbs are used with the ne explétif
accepter que: to accept s’attendre à ce que: to expect chercher … qui: to look for (this implies doubt, as you’re not sure whether you’ll find the person you’re looking for) détester que: to hate douter que: to doubt that il est convenable que: it is proper/fitting that il est douteux que: it is doubtful that il est faux que: it is false that il est impossible que: it is impossible that il est improbable que: it is improbable that il est juste que: it is right/fair that il est possible que: it is possible that il est peu probable que: it is improbable that il n’est pas certain que: it is not certain that il n’est pas clair que: it is not clear that il n’est pas évident que: it is not obvious that il n’est pas exact que: it is not correct that il n’est pas probable que: it is improbable that il n’est pas sûr que: it is not certain that il n’est pas vrai que: it is not true that il semble que: it seems that il se peut que: it may be that le fait que: the fact that nier que*: to deny that refuser que: to refuse supposer que: to suppose, hypothesize
*This verb is used with the ne explétif when it is negative
Advice/Orders/Statements of importance:
aimer mieux que: to like better / to prefer that commander que: to order that demander que: to ask (someone to do something) désirer que: to desire that donner l’ordre que: to order that empêcher que*: to prevent (someone from doing something) éviter que*: to avoid exiger que: to demand that il est à souhaiter que: it is to be hoped that il est essentiel que: it is essential that il est important que: it is important that il est naturel que: it is natural that il est nécessaire que: it is necessary that il est normal que: it is normal that il est temps que: it is time that il est urgent que: it is urgent that il faut que: it is necessary that il vaut mieux que: it is better that interdire que: to forbid that s’opposer à ce que: to oppose that ordonner que: to order that permettre que: to permit that préférer que: to prefer that proposer que: to propose that recommander que: to recommend souhaiter que: to wish that suggérer que: to suggest that tenir à ce que: to insist that vouloir que: to want that
*These verbs are used with the ne explétif
Positive Vibes Only
The following verbs express doubt in the affirmative, but when combined with a negation (ne…pas) their meaning is the opposite, meaning that there is no longer the implication of possibility. When used in the negative, these verbs do not use the subjunctive.
ne douter que: to not doubt that il n’est douteux que: it isn’t doubtful that
Negative Vibes Only
Certain phrases express a certain fact when used in the affirmative but express a possibility when used in a negative sense. This means that when using the following phrases in a negative or contradictory way, often when asking a question to check the speaker’s understanding, the subjunctive is required.
Note that these verbs are left in infinitive in this list, though you would need to conjugate the first verb in the relevant tense (you would never use ne être… without combining a verb which starts with a vowel with the previous consonant (n’être)).
ce n’est pas que: it’s not that/because ne connaître (personne) qui: don’t know (someone) that ne croire pas que: to not believe that ne dire pas que: to not say that n’espérer pas que: to not hope that n’être pas certain que: to be uncertain that n’être pas sûr que: to be sure that il n’est pas certain que: it isn’t certain that il n’est pas clair que: it isn’t clear/obvious that il n’est pas évident que: it isn’t obvious that il n’est pas probable que: it isn’t probable that il n’est pas exact que: it isn’t correct/true that il n’est pas sûr que: it isn’t certain that il n’est pas vrai que: it isn’t true that il ne me (te, lui…) semble pas que: it doesn’t seem to me (you, him…) that il ne paraît pas que: it doesn’t appear that ne pas penser que: to not think that ne pas savoir pas que: to not know that ne pas trouver que: to not find/think that ne pas vouloir dire que: to not mean (to say) that
How to Form the Subjunctive
The situations in which the subjunctive is appropriate will probably take some time and lots of exposure to French to master. But luckily, the conjugation for subjunctive verbs is fairly easy! Plus, there’s no future subjunctive tense; the present tense can be used to talk about future topics.
- Start with the ils (third person plural) present tense indicative
- Remove the -ent ending
- Add the subjunctive present ending
|Subject||Subjunctive Present Ending|
|il, elle, on||-e|
|Infinitive||Choisir (to choose)|
|1. Start with the present ind. ils||choisissent|
|2. Remove the -ent ending (stem)||choisiss-|
|3. Add subjunctive present ending||que je choisisse, que tu choisisses…|
|Example sentence||Je doute qu’il choisisse correctement. (I doubt that he’ll choose correctly.)|
Irregular subjunctive verbs often follow this pattern as well, especially stem-changing verbs, which use their new stem (already implied by step 2) to form the subjunctive.
|Infinitive||Venir (to come)|
|1. Start with the present ind. ils||viennent|
|2. Remove the -ent ending (stem)||vienn-|
|3. Add subjunctive present ending||que je vienne, que tu viennes, qu’il vienne…|
|Example sentence||Je doute qu’il vienne à l’heure. (I doubt that he’ll come on time)|
Common Irregular Subjunctives
Avoir (to have) and être (to be) are two of the most common verbs, not only for their basic (lexical) meanings as verbs, but also as auxiliary or helping verbs which combine with main verbs to form different types of tenses (such as the subjunctive past below).
avoir (to have)
|tu aies||vous ayez|
|il, elle, on ait||ils, elles aient|
être (to be)
|je sois||nous soyons|
|tu sois||vous soyez|
|il, elle, on soit||ils, elles soient|
Within the same category of subjunctive mood, we have both present and past tense. The subjunctive past is used in the same types of sentences as the subjunctive present. The only difference is that the dependent clause took place in the past. Keep in mind that the main clause could still be occurring in the present tense.
Il ne me semble pas qu’ils aient nettoyé la maison. (It doesn’t seem [present] to me that they cleaned [past] the house.)
Just like the passé composé, to form the subjunctive past, use the appropriate auxiliary verb in subjunctive present plus the past participle. If you’re not sure what that means, check out this French verbs guide to find out how auxiliary verbs are paired with main verbs.
J’apprécie que tu sois revenu me voir. (I appreciate that you came back to see me.)
Ready to get moody and let everyone know your hopes, dreams, and desires? Il faut que tu sign up for Lingvist’s online French course to practice using the subjunctive mood today!