In English, the subjunctive is very rare (I wish I were in Paris – like the girl in the picture!).
In French, it is quite common. However, if you are a beginner in French, I would not worry about the subjunctive right now but concentrate on the tenses of the indicative.
So, now, let me answer this question: “what is the French subjunctive?”
What is the Subjunctive?
The subjunctive is a mood: a grammatical term which describes the subject’s attitude.
In English, using the subjunctive is rare and formal. Nowadays, most people no longer use it.
The subjunctive in French is very common. It shows the subject’s mood (wish, hope, fear, uncertainty…) toward a fact or an idea – often involving another person.
The French subjunctive in a nutshell:
You will need to memorize by heart which expressions are followed by the subjunctive (versus the expressions followed by the indicative) – I will explain why certain French phrases use the French subjunctive , and why others use the indicative + provide lists of subjunctive French phrases.
This is a long lesson. I suggest you take your time to go through it, let the concepts sink in, and bookmark it for future reference. You won’t conquer Subjunctive in one reading!
How To Memorize the French Subjunctive?
In my opinion, to memorize your French irregular Subjunctive forms, drilling with audio is the only solution: you need to create reflexes, “hear” the form in your head.
Concentrate on the most common verbs : aller, être, avoir, prendre.
This is pure memorization, it has nothing to do with understanding, so I won’t talk about it here.
The French subjunctive uses and conjugations are explained in depth in my Advanced French audiobook learning method, and then illustrated by an ongoing novel recorded at several levels of enunciation (traditional French and modern spoken French).
Does Que = Subjunctive in French?
The conjunction that is followed by the subjunctive is mostly “que”.
Yet, a sentence with que doesn’t mean the verb is going to be in the subjunctive. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy! This is why you need to understand the conditions that need to exist to have a subjunctive in French.
French Subjunctive = 2 Conditions
To have a Subjunctive in French, you need to have 2 conditions:
- At least 2 subjects = subject 1 wanting, wishing, ordering, fearing… that subject 2 do this action.
- or an expression which is specifically followed by the subjunctive (list below to be learned by heart)
6 French Subjunctive Examples
Let’s take some examples of sentences using the Subjunctive and the Indicative and examine the conditions of the situations.
- Je veux que vous fassiez la vaisselle.
(me wanting you to do it = several involved = subjunctive)
- Je veux faire la vaisselle.
(me wanting me to do the dishes = only me involved = infinitive)
- Il faut que tu fasses la vaisselle
(this condition applies only to you = subjunctive)
- Il faut faire la vaisselle
(true for everybody = infinitive)
- Je suis contente que tu fasses la vaisselle.
(me being happy that you do the dishes = 2 people – subjunctive)
- Je suis contente de faire la vaisselle.
(me being happy that I do the dishes = one person = indicative)
No interrogative Form With the French Subjunctive
You can use a subjunctive clause in a question, for example « Voulez-vous que je vienne avec vous? », but there is no way to turn a subjunctive clause itself into a question.
Now that the ground rules are established, let me explain in details the French Subjunctive.
What follows works most of the time, I’m sure you’ll find exceptions, but I hope it helps making most cases clearer.
French Subjunctive Uses
The French Subjunctive States 2 things:
1 – One person influencing/having feeling for a DIFFERENT person’s action.
- Je veux que tu fasses la vaisselle.
I = first person, want = verb of influence, you = different person, do the dishes = the action the first person is trying to influence.
- Je suis contente que tu fasses la vaisselle.
I = first person, am happy = feeling, you = different person, do the dishes = the action the first person has a feeling about.
2 – The percentage of chance FOR THE SPEAKER of this wish/fear/order/… becoming a reality.
- Je constate qu’il est là.
Actually, I can see him, FOR ME, this is a 100% sure thing = indicative.
The actual reality is that he is an holographic projection… but the truth lies in the eyes of the beholder…
- J’aimerais qu’il soit là.
But I know his plane is stuck in NY.
Probability of my wish becoming a reality is almost zero = subjunctive.
So, between 100% chance (indicative) and 0% chance (subjunctive), what mood should you use? Where do you draw the line?
- If you know for sure it’s the reality = Indicative in French.
- Over 70% chance of the action becoming a reality = Indicative in French.
- If there is under 70% chance of the action becoming a reality = Subjunctive in French.
So as you can see, the French subjunctive is quite… subjective!
8 Indicative vs Subjunctive Phrases
- Il est certain qu’il sera là demain
100% chance of becoming a reality = indicative
- Il est probable qu’il sera là demain
70% chance of becoming a reality = indicative
- Il est possible qu’il soit là demain
50% chance of becoming a reality = subjunctive
- Je crois qu’il va partir.
I’m positive about it.
Say 90% he’s going to leave = indicative.
- Je désire qu’il parte.
But he really wants to stay…
So there is only a 2% chance he is going to leave = subjunctive.
- J’exige que tu ailles à l’école.
OK, but you have no intention of going.
So even if I want it, it’s not the reality, and I know it… = little chance of becoming a reality = subjunctive
- Regarde! Une maison avec un toit orange au milieu d’un grand jardin.
I am actually looking at this house.
100% chance of the house existing = indicative.
- Je rêve d’une maison qui ait un toit orange et soit entourée d’un grand jardin.
I am at a realtor’s place and describing my dream house.
He might or might not have one, I am not sure it exists – for my budget that is :-) = subjunctive
French Subjunctive Negative Form
In French, verbs of hope and belief introduce the subjunctive in the negative, since now the percentage of chance of the action becoming a reality is very low:
- Je pense qu’il viendra
His coming, to me, has a 90% chance of becoming a reality = indicative
- Je ne pense pas qu’il vienne
His coming, to me, has a 5% of becoming a reality = subjunctive
Watch out: “I don’t think he will come” is not the same thing as “I think he will not come”….
- Je ne pense pas qu’il vienne. I don’t think he will come.
- Je pense qu’il ne viendra pas. I think he will not come.
You have to keep the action you are talking about very clear, and make sure you are applying the negative the the correct part of the sentence and not changing your sentence altogether.
The Ne Expletif – A Ne Without any Negative Value
- Je crains qu’elle ne mente.
I am afraid she is lying to me (not that she is NOT lying to me…)
The “ne” here has no negative value. It’s a rather formal concept, called “le ne explétif” and it comes with verbs of fear and some expressions.
Now, with all these explanations, I hope you are starting to understand the French subjunctive better.
Another method to approach the French subjunctive is to learn by heart verbs and expressions followed by the subjunctive.
Here is a list of common verbs and conjunctions followed by indicative or subjunctive:
13 French Indicative Verbs
French verbs expressing the reality
The verbs listed below describe a reality, so it’s logical that they are followed by the mood that indicates the reality: the indicative.
- constater que – to note, witness
- observer que – to observe
- remarquer que – to remark
- savoir que – to know
- trouver que – to find
- affirmer que – to declare
- déclarer que – to declare
- dire que – to say
Je constate qu’il est ici.
I’m witnessing the fact that he’s here.
French verbs expressing belief & hope
These verbs are also followed by the indicative in French.
Why? Only one possible answer: the French take their beliefs for the reality!
- imaginer – to imagine
- penser – to think
- supposer – to suppose
- croire – to believe
- espérer – to hope
The speaker really believes that the situation is real or hopes it will become real.
Note that these verbs are usually followed by a future in French. Probably to show that somehow, we are aware it’s not a sure thing… Fascinating how languages work!
J’imagine qu’il viendra.
I imagine he will be coming.
16 French Indicative Phrases
All these French expressions indicate that the speaker think the situation is real.
- il est clair que – it’s clear
- il est certain que – it’s obvious
- il est sûr que – it’s sure
- il est probable que – it’s probable
Then, some conjunctions express a “simple reality” – that’s how French grammars explain they are followed by indicative… I’m not quite sure what that means…
For most of them, I think you have to learn them by heart!
- alors que – while
- aussitôt que – as soon as
- en même temps que – at the same time that
- depuis que – since
- dès que – as soon as
- lorsque – when
- parce que – because
- pendant que – while
- plutôt que – instead of, rather than
- puisque – since
- tandis que – while
- une fois que – once
Now that we’ve studied the lists of verbs and expressions followed by the indicative, let’s see which verbs and expressions take the subjunctive.
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21 French Subjunctive Verbs `
Now let’s see common verbs followed by the subjunctive.
These verbs can be classified in 6 categories: wish, likes and dislikes, fear, regrets, doubt, order.
- French verbs expressing wish = souhaiter, désirer, suggérer, proposer, conseiller… + que + subjunctive
- French verbs expressing likes and dislikes = aimer, préférer, détester, adorer… + que + subjunctive
- French verbs expressing fear = avoir peur, craindre, redouter… + que + subjunctive
- French verbs expressing regrets = regretter, être désolé… + que + subjunctive
- French verbs expressing doubt = douter… + que + subjunctive
- French verbs expressing order = vouloir, ordonner, exiger, permettre, refuser, supplier… + que + subjunctive
You’ll find longer lists on the web but I don’t see the need for them… Do you really need to know “all” the verbs that can be followed by the subjunctive?
Beliefs & hopes versus wishes
We’ve studied above that “croire” and “espérer” are followed by the indicative.
Yet, “souhaiter” and “désirer” are followed by the subjunctive.
The difference is quite subtle… it’s really a question of ‘mood’: how the speaker feels about the situation… Does s/he think there’s a good chance or not? What’s her/his mood about the situation?
That’s exactly what the subjunctive expresses: a mood…
29 French Subjunctive Phrases
You need to learn by heart these French subjunctive phrases.
- il faut que – it’s necessary
- il vaut mieux que – it’s better
- il est/ c’est important que – it’s important
- il est / c’est dommage que – it’s too bad
- il est / c’est impossible – it’s impossible that
- il est / c’est possible que – it’s possible that
- serait-il possible que – would it be possible that
- serait-il probable que – would it be probable that
- il est / c’est improbable que – it’s improbable that
- il est / c’est peu probable que – it’s improbable that
- il / ce n’est pas clair que – it’s not clear that
- il / ce n’est pas évident que – it’s not obvious that
- il / ce n’est pas sûr que – it’s not sure that
As I explained before, with some expressions, you can easily avoid the subjunctive by making a general statement and using an infinitive construction
Il faut manger ≠ il faut que vous mangiez.
Yet with other expressions, you just need to learn them by heart.
- Pour que – for
- afin que – for
- de sorte que – so that
- de crainte que – in fear of
- de peur que – in fear of
- avant que – before
- en attendant que – awaiting
- jusqu’à ce que – until
- bien que – so that
- à moins que – unless
- à condition que – provided that
- pourvu que – provided that
- qui que – whoever
- quoique – even though
- quoi que – whatever
- sans que – without
Avant Que + Subjunctive BUT Après Que + Indicative !!!
“Avant que” is followed by the subjunctive = it’s logical, there is a notion of uncertainty: you won’t know for sure beforehands.
- Tu devras partir avant qu’il ne vienne. (This ne expletif again)…
However, “après que” is followed by the indicative – logical again, now you know for sure.
- En général, je pars après qu’il vient.
Although many French people use the subjunctive – myself included… It’s a mistake but a very common one: the indicative sounds awful there… I wouldn’t be surprised if this rule actually changed to allow the subjunctive in the near future.
I would actually never say that, and find an alternative:
- En général, je pars après son arrivée.
3 Ways to Avoid the Subjunctive in French
In same cases, you can avoid the subjunctive by changing your sentence a little bit. The French do it all the time!
Use a noun to avoid the French subjunctive
If you used a noun instead of a verb, there would be no problem at all… this applies mostly to “avant que”.
- Il finit avant le départ de sa femme
(instead of Il finit avant que sa femme ne parte).
Make a general statement (indicative) instead of a specific (subjunctive)
Instead of applying your sentence to one specific person, make a general statement.
- Il faut faire du sport
(instead of “il faut que tu fasses du sport”)
Find a way around the subjunctive – use two sentences if need be
- Tu dois partir immédiatement. Je l’exige.
(instead of “j’exige que tu partes immédiatement”)
The French Subjunctive and the French People
To make things worse, you can’t always rely on what you hear (or even read) to learn the French subjunctive… A lot of French people make mistakes when it comes to the use of subjunctive.
If a French person didn’t get constantly corrected by their parents as a kid, or didn’t do a lot of formal studying, then chances are that s/he’ll make mistakes in the subjunctive.
Furthermore, times are changing. There are some situations where French grammar still demands the use of the subjunctive… but people will use the indicative instead. Why? Because it sounds weird, that’s why! And most French people rely on their ears to tell them what to say… or maybe “instinct” would be a better word.
You see, French people don’t speak French the way you do. I mean, we don’t think the same way: we don’t write the French in our heads, we rely a lot on “how it sounds”. I strongly suggest you read my article about modern spoken French. This article will show you – with many examples – how the traditional French you are likely to have learned in school contrast from the reality of the French language spoken today, and give you many tips to simplify the way you speak French.
In any case, the average French person doesn’t know all the grammar rules. They speak the way they do because… well, once again, their parents and teachers corrected them enough that they know what they are supposed to say and what sounds “natural” to their ear.
When it comes to saying complicated things, however, then they don’t know for sure anymore… They may use the subjunctive in one situation, because it sounds good, and use the indicative the next day, because that day, it sounded better to them. We all make mistakes, for sure!
“Que” + Subjunctive or “Que” + Indicative?
Now that I’ve explained everything about the subjunctive, let’s get really crazy…
Can you figure out why I don’t use the subjunctive in this sentence:
Elle est si heureuse qu’elle rit tout le temps.
First, one could argue that it is the same speaker doing both actions.
But the meaning is deeper… Here, the “que” means “hence”.
It’s a consequence: she is very happy, hence she laughs all the time.
It’s not the fact that she laughs that makes her happy… It’s actually the contrary: it’s because she is happy that she laughs.
There is no doubt, no uncertainty, no change of mood (pun intended). She is happy, so she laughs. With just a tiny change, we could turn the sentence around to use a subjunctive.
Elle est si heureuse qu’IL rie tout le temps .
Now we have two different people involved. And the subjunctive is right because it is the fact that he laughs all the time that makes her happy. It is the action he does that affects her mood.
If I wanted to apply this logic to one single person, I would have to use an infinitive construction.
Elle est si heureuse de rire tout le temps.
Translating in English won’t work. It’s only by fully understanding the context, and the use of the subjunctive in French, that you could avoid that mistake.
1. Elle est si heureuse qu’elle rit tout le temps.
She is so happy that she laughs all the time.
2. Elle est si heureuse qu’il rie tout le temps.
She is so happy that he laughs all the time.
3. Elle est si heureuse de rire tout le temps.
She is so happy to be laughing all the time.
Let’s look at another really tricky situation.
Je te téléphonerai de sorte que tu aies l’information à temps = subjunctive
I will call you so that you’ll have the info on time.
The action is taking place in the future… So the outcome is not certain, hence the subjunctive.
Il l’avait prévenue de sorte qu’elle n’est pas sortie = indicative
He had warned her hence she didn’t go out.
The action already took place. The outcome is certain, hence the indicative.
Now, as I said before, these sentences do exist. But thankfully there are ways around them!
Je te téléphonerai et donc tu auras l’information à temps.
I will call you and therefore you’ll have the info on time.
Il l’avait prévenue et donc elle n’est pas sortie.
He had warned her hence she didn’t go out.
To be really fluent in a language, you have to be able to anticipate and avoid tricky constructions, and quickly transform your sentence to find a simpler way to express what you want to say.
Sometimes, when you are sure of yourself (often because you’ve memorized a sentence by heart), you may drop a subjunctive construction and gloat (if only just on the inside, for yourself)… Then just give yourself a high five :-)
What is the Best Way to Understand French Subjunctive?
The best way to develop a feeling for when to use the French Subjunctive is to learn it in context. Check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation.
I hope this long lesson make things clearer about the French Subjunctive. If you like it, share it on your social medias – it’s a huge help for us!
You may also be interested in:
- understanding the French conditional
- understanding the French imperative
- the differences between French Passé-Composé and Imperfect
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