How to Learn the French Irregular Subjunctive (Without Memorizing a Million Verb Forms)
If you’ve been studying the subjunctive—one of the most notorious French grammatical moods—you might not be feeling that sunny.
Fortunately, it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with a few common patterns, even when it comes to the French irregular subjunctive. I’ll show you three tricks to remember to bring some order to the irregularities.
- First Things First: What Are the Regular French Subjunctive Rules?
- Where to Practice the French Subjunctive
- French Irregular Subjunctive: 3 Tricks That Reveal the Method to the Madness
First Things First: What Are the Regular French Subjunctive Rules?
In order to understand the irregular subjunctive in French, we must first understand the rules for the regular subjunctive. We’ll concentrate on the present tense throughout this article to keep things simple, since that’s the subjunctive tense you’re most likely to encounter.
First, identify the present tense ils/elles (“they” masculine/”they” feminine) form of your verb and remove the -ent ending. Then, replace the ending with the following, depending on your subject:
- -e for je (I)
- -es for tu (“you” informal)
- -e for il/elle/on (he/she/one)
- -ions for nous (we)
- -iez for vous (“you” formal or plural)
- -ent for ils/elles (they)
For example, if we wanted to put the regular verb choisir (to choose) in the present subjunctive, we would start with ils/elles choisissent (they choose). Next, we chop off the -ent ending so we’re left with the stem choisiss-.
Now we add the subjunctive endings:
Je choisisse (I choose)
Tu choisisses (you choose)
Il/elle/on choisisse (he/she/one chooses)
Nous choisissions (we choose)
Vous choisissiez (you choose)
Ils/elles choisissent (they choose)
Suffice it to say there are many verbs that don’t follow regular subjunctive conjugation rules. So now that you know the regular rules, you’re ready to break them.
Where to Practice the French Subjunctive
As you follow the guide below, it can be helpful to have interactive practice tools to make sure you really remember everything. Here are our recommendations:
- Languageguide.org has a quiz that allows you to practice conjugating only present subjunctive irregular forms. Afterward, check out its subsequent quiz that mixes both regular and irregular verbs in the present subjunctive.
- The FluentU program lets you learn the subjunctive by watching native French speakers use it in authentic French videos. You can review new vocabulary with quizzes or add new words and terms to flashcard decks—and the contextual dictionary will let you know when you’re dealing with a word in the subjunctive mood.
- Want a more comprehensive look at irregular verbs? Sporcle offers a quiz that allows you to conjugate common irregular subjunctive verbs fully.
- Lawless French has a quiz with a mix of regular and irregular verbs, and Columbia University has a similar quiz with a mixture of regular and irregular verbs as well.
French Irregular Subjunctive: 3 Tricks That Reveal the Method to the Madness
Just because a verb is irregular in the subjunctive doesn’t mean there are no patterns to rely on.
Irregular subjunctive verbs can be grouped into two main groups that share the same rules, which we’ll cover below. Then we’ll show you a third group that breaks all the rules.
1. Verbs with Two Stems
Remember how we created our subjunctive stems above, by chopping -ent off of the present tense ils/elles conjugation? Some verbs have two different stems in the subjunctive depending on the subject.
For example, the verb jeter (to throw) has the stem jett- for the je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles conjugations and the stem jet- for the nous and vous conjugations. Check out this common verb conjugated fully with its two stems:
Je jette (I throw)
Tu jettes (you throw)
Il/elle/on jette (he/she/one throws)
Nous jetions (we throw)
Vous jetiez (you throw)
Ils/elles jettent (they throw)
Not too complicated, right?
Lucky for you, there are many other verbs that follow this two-stem pattern: one stem for the je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles conjugations and another for the nous and vous conjugations. Some stem changes are small like the one above, while others are big—as in, the two stems look quite different. Let’s look at some of these verbs more deeply.
Verbs with Small Stem Changes
Generally speaking, these stem changes come down to a single letter or accent. Here are some very common examples with conjugations so you can see for yourself:
Aller (to go) has the stems aill– and all-:
J’aille (I go)
Tu ailles (you go)
Il/elle/on aille (he/she/one goes)
Nous allions (we go)
Vous alliez (you go)
Ils/elles aillent (they go)
Lever (to lift) has the stems lèv– and lev-:
Je lève (I lift)
Tu lèves (you lift)
Il/elle/on lève (he/she/one lifts)
Nous levions (we lift)
Vous leviez (you lift)
Ils/elles lèvent (they lift)
Essayer (to try) has the stems essai- and essay-:
J’essaie (I try)
Tu essaies (you try)
Il/elle/on essaie (he/she/one tries)
Nous essayions (we try)
Vous essayiez (you try)
Ils/elles essaient (they try)
Appeler (to call) has the stems appell- and appel-:
J’appelle (I call)
Tu appelles (you call)
Il/elle/on appelle (he/she/one calls)
Nous appelions (we call)
Vous appeliez (you call)
Ils/elles appellent (they call)
In addition to those common verbs, here’s a list of verbs with small stem changes that are useful to remember:
- Acheter (to buy) with achèt- for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and achet- with nous and vous.
- Croire (to believe) with croi– for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and croy– with nous and vous.
- Ennuyer (to bore) with ennui- for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and ennuy- with nous and vous.
- Préférer (to prefer) with préfèr- for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and préfér- with nous and vous.
- Prendre (to take) with prenn- for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and pren- with nous and vous.
- Voir (to see) with voi- for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and voy- with nous and vous.
Verbs with Big Stem Changes
For these verbs, the differences between stems are more significant, usually involving a group of letters.
Some of the most common verbs in this group include the following:
Vouloir (to want) has the stems veuill- and voul-:
Je veuille (I want)
Tu veuilles (you want)
Il/elle/on veuille (he/she/one wants)
Nous voulions (we want)
Vous vouliez (you want)
Ils/elles veuillent (they want)
Devoir (to have to) has the stems doiv- and dev-:
Je doive (I have to)
Tu doives (you have to)
Il/elle/on doive (he/she/one has to)
Nous devions (we have to)
Vous deviez (you have to)
Ils/elles doivent (they have to)
Venir (to come) has the stems vienn- and ven-:
Je vienne (I come)
Tu viennes (you come)
Il/elle/on vienne (he/she/one comes)
Nous venions (we come)
Vous veniez (you come)
Ils/elles viennent (they come)
In addition to these three common verbs, here’s a list of other “big stem change” verbs with their dual stems:
- Tenir (to keep) with tienn- for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and ten– with nous and vous.
- Boire (to drink) with boiv– for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and bev– with nous and vous.
- Mourir (to die) with meur- for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and mour- with nous and vous.
- Recevoir (to receive) with reçoiv– for je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles and recev- with nous and vous.
2. Verbs with Irregular Stems
Unlike the irregular subjunctive verbs above, some verbs simply have an irregular stem that you’ll tack your endings onto when conjugating. Not to worry, though: once you memorize the stem, the rest is easy!
For example, one of the most common verbs in this category is faire (to do/make). It has the irregular subjunctive stem fass-, and the normal subjunctive endings are added to that. Check out its full conjugation:
Je fasse (I do)
Tu fasses (you do)
Il/elle/on fasse (he/she/one does)
Nous fassions (we do)
Vous fassiez (you do)
Ils/elles fassent (they do)
Here are some other common verbs with irregular subjunctive stems:
- Pouvoir (to be able to): puiss-
- Savoir (to know): sach-
- Pleuvoir (to rain): pleuv-
- Falloir (to be necessary) faill-
Keep in mind that pleuvoir and falloir are normally only ever conjugated in the il/elle/on form. For example, we would only say something like, il est nécessaire qu’il pleuve (it is necessary that it rains).
3. Completely Irregular Subjunctive Verbs
There are some verbs that don’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason in the subjunctive. Not only are their stems totally irregular, but their endings also don’t follow the patterns outlined above.
Fortunately, this group includes some of the most commonly used verbs in the French language—être (to be) and avoir (to have)—so you may learn them naturally simply through exposure.
Je sois (I am)
Tu sois (you are)
Il/elle/on soit (he/she/one is)
Nous soyons (we are)
Vous soyez (you are)
Ils/elles soient (they are)
J’aie (I have)
Tu aies (you have)
Il/elle/on aie (he/she/one has)
Nous ayons (we have)
Vous ayez (you have)
Ils/elles aient (they have)
Feeling sunnier? We hope so! Get out there and get conjugating with the French irregular subjunctive!