Right now, you’re playing the French language learning game on the “easy” setting.
Fellow French students will be the first to tell you: acquiring some basic French isn’t too hard.
Beginners tend to feel on top of their game, confident in their new abilities.
Welp, then it’s about time you became acquainted with the French subjunctive.
The French Subjunctive Decrypted
French subjective always strikes when you’re feeling most confident. You’re starting to get some flow into your speech, the simple tenses are in the bag and you’re conjugating like a pro. You’re always finding more to learn about French grammar. You feel you’re really starting to get somewhere. Then one day the moment of truth comes: you’re happily chatting away with your French friends, enjoying the Parisian nightlife and throwing out your somewhat stilted, though rapidly evolving, French – and then you try out a j’aimerais or an il faut.
Barely has your masterfully crafted work of phrasing left your lips when…bam! Your French interlocuteur (conversation partner) corrects you.
“Fasse, pas fait” they tell you. Or “puisse, pas peux.” They shake their head as if to say that there’s really no hope for you in this tough Francophone world. Then they speak the dreaded words: “C’est le subjonctif.” (It’s the subjunctive).
Contrary to common misconception, French subjunctive isn’t too painful. Often, it’s just not well explained to new French speakers. In this post, I’ll explain how and when to use the subjunctive and save yourself from Subjunctageddon.
When to Use the French Subjunctive
Although conjugating in subjunctive might be a bit challenging, try not to tense up. The subjunctive is not a tense. It’s more of a mood and can be used in a large variety of situations.
The best place to start is with the word itself. Subjunctives are used to express opinions, desires or feelings which are all, by their very nature, subjective. The subjunctive therefore follows verbs and expressions which convey feeling like aimer, souhaiter and vouloir.
J’aimerais que tu me fasses un gâteau. (I’d like you to make me a cake.)
Je veux qu’il soit très chocolaté. (I want it to be very chocolaty.)
Je ne pense pas qu’il soit brûlé. (I don’t think it’s burnt.)
It also follows adjectives such as content, bien, dommage, and ravi which are used in expressing emotion or opinion.
Je suis content que vous ayez aimé mon gâteau. (I’m glad you liked my cake.)
Il est dommage qu’il soit brûlé. (It’s a shame it’s burnt.)
We also use subjunctive after imperative expressions. One of the common structures you’re most likely to subjunctifail with is the imperative expression il faut que…
Il faut qu’on y aille maintenant. (We have to go now.)
Usually when we say we have to go now, we mean we have to go now in order to do something. We have to catch the train, arrive before the start of the movie or be on time for work. So not missing the train, the trailers, or not being engueulé by the boss, is subject to us leaving now.
Also, although imperative this may still just be an opinion, particularly if you’re as adept at negotiating Parisian public transport as I am.
When the French Subjunctive Follows “Que.”
This may all be sounding a little too subjective, so let’s make it a bit easier. Have a look at these phrases:
Je veux que tu comprennes. (I want you to understand.)
J’aimerais que vous puissiez utiliser le subjonctif. (I would like you to be able to use the subjunctive.)
Il faut qu’on y aille. (We have to go.)
Il est dommage que ça ne soit pas plus façile. (It’s a shame it’s not easier.)
As you’ve probably noticed, these and all the previous examples contain que before the pronoun. “Great,” you’re thinking, “Whenever there’s a que I use the subjunctive!” Not so fast. It wouldn’t be called Subjunctageddon if it were that simple.
Yes, a subjunctive will usually follow que, but there are plenty of que(s) that don’t subjunct.
To start with, there are plenty of verbs and adjectives that just aren’t subjective enough to subjunct.
Je vois que vous faites beaucoup d’erreurs. (I see that you make a lot of mistakes.)
J’ai entendu que le subjonctif est difficile. (I heard that the subjunctive is difficult.)
The verbs voir (to see) and entendre (to hear) do not relate to feeling, desire or opinion and are therefore not subject to subjuntification. Hence the verbs faire (to make) and être (to be) are conjugated according to the nouns which precede them.
Also, usually when que follows a noun we don’t subjunct.
Une chose que tu sais bien. (Something that you know well.)
Le téléviseur qu’on a acheté. (The TV that we bought.)
Right, so far we know we need to use the subjunctive when we have:
- A sentence containing que.
- A noun, adjective or adverb that conveys opinion, desire, feeling, uncertainty or necessity.
But again, there’s a bit more to all this.
Verbs which convey opinion or belief such as penser, croire and imaginer only take subjunctives in negative or interrogative forms.
Getting back to our cake, this means:
Je ne pense pas qu’il soit brûlé. (I don’t think it’s burnt.)
Je pense qu’il est délicieux. (I think it’s delicious.)
And when using inversion to ask a question:
Penses-tu qu’il soit brûlé? (Do you think it’s burnt?)
However, with your run-of-the-mill est-ce que, no need to worry. While using the subjunctive after est-ce que doesn’t technically break any grammar rule, the thought of mixing the noble subjunctive with the lowly est-ce que is liable to make many native French speakers cringe.
Est-ce que tu penses qu’il est brûlé? (Do you think it’s burnt?)
Note that most of us, most of the time, simply adopt an inquisitive expression and make a statement, rising into a charming falsetto on the last syllable. If it’s still not clear, we add non?
So, then we get something like:
Tu penses qu’il est brûlé? (You think it’s burnt?)
For the same reason, this is not subjunctified either.
Finally, we use what looks like the subjunctive form of être to give an order or command with an adjective. This is actually the imperative, but it’s conjugated the same way as the subjunctive.
Sois prudent. (Be careful.)
Soyez attentifs. (Pay attention.)
Soyons silencieux. (Let’s be quiet.)
How to Conjugate the French Subjunctive
So you’re preparing to utter your phrase, your interlocuteur patiently waiting as you decide whether you’re expressing an opinion, a feeling, a desire or an order. You discover that yes, your phrase is subjunctive. But what do we actually have to say?
Most of the time, conjugating the subjunctive is far easier than actually deciding if you need to subjunctify. Sometimes it’s just the same as the simple present.
Grammar books love to talk about the stem.
We get the stem by taking the third person plural (ils, elles) form of the verb and losing the ent from the end. So, for the verb changer, the third person plural form is changent, which makes the stem chang.
Now all we have to do is add the correct ending to the stem, chang.
Je – e – change
Tu – es – changes
Il – e – change
Nous –ions – changions
Vous – iez – changiez
Ils – ent -changent
The best thing about this is that for je, tu, il and ils, the conjugation and pronunciation is exactly the same as for the simple present. This works for regular verbs ending in er, ir, and re, and for a lot of others. So if you’re unsure which ending to use for subjunctive, you now know what it’s likely to be most of the time.
French Irregular Verbs in the Subjunctive
All that being said, there are plenty of irregular verbs in French, many which don’t escape irregularity in the subjunctive. Here are some of the most likely to leave you stuttering after your que.
Faire does actually follow the same rule as above in terms of endings. It’s stem, fass, is the irregular part.
This gives us:
Another stem planted in a parallel dimension is the subjunctive stem for pouvoir – puiss. This gives us:
French Verbs with Multiple Subjunctive Stems
To make things even more fun, some verbs use different stems for singular and plural forms. The most useful of these is aller.
From the stem aill we get:
These are all pronounced like the French word for garlic, producing lovely phrases like Il faut qu’on aille acheter de l’ail. (We must go and buy some garlic.)
From the other stem, all, we get:
Finally, two of the most used verbs in the subjunctive defy all logic.
As with every aspect of language learning, the best way to master the subjunctive is simply to practice, listen to others speak, and learn from your errors.
This article has by no means covered all the complexity and subjectivity of the French subjunctive, but by following the guidelines above you will be able to handle yourself in any subjunctive-related situation.
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