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!

women dreaming in car

When to Use the Subjunctive

Syntactic Environments

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.)

Semantic Environments

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.

Emotions

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

Doubts/Opinions:

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

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

Subjunctive Present

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.

  1. Start with the ils (third person plural) present tense indicative
  2. Remove the -ent ending
  3. Add the subjunctive present ending
Subject Subjunctive Present Ending
je -e
te -es
il, elle, on -e
nous -ions
vous -iez
ils, elles -ent
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)

j’aie nous ayons
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

Subjunctive Past

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!