All About the French Subjunctive: Uses, Conjugation Rules and Triggering Expressions
Today, we will look at the bane of most intermediate French learners’ existence, the subjunctive.
Many a student have lost hours of sleep over this technical mess of French grammar.
Luckily, this post will give you a great overview of what it is, when to use it, and how to do basic conjugations, with lots of examples.
Keep reading to learn everything you’ll need to start acing le subjoncif (the subjunctive)!
- What is the French Subjunctive?
- How to Use the French Subjunctive
- When to Use the French Subjunctive
- Common Verbs Which Use the Subjunctive
- Phrases and Expressions That Trigger the Subjunctive
- When Not to Use the Subjunctive
- Regular Verbs in the Subjunctive
What is the French Subjunctive?
The French subjunctive is a verb mood, used primarily to express uncertainty, doubt and emotions.
As we will cover, there are certain phrases and verbs that trigger this. Like the indicative, the subjunctive has present and past tense forms.
We use subjunctive phrases in English, but they are nowhere near as common as they are in French. Here are some examples of the subjunctive in use in French:
Je veux que vous fassiez la vaisselle. (I want you to do the dishes.)
Il ne croit pas qu’elle l’aime. (He doesn’t believe that she loves him.)
How to Use the French Subjunctive
The French subjunctive usually has this structure:
Subject 1 + verb + que/qui (that/who) + subject 2 + verb
You’ll need the following components for the subjunctive:
- Two separate subjects
- Que or qui
- The expression of uncertainty, desire, doubt, regret, preference, opinion or emotion
The subjunctive is also always a dependent clause.
When to Use the French Subjunctive
As detailed above, the subjunctive is used after certain verbs or phrases and preceded by the connecter que. Let’s look at what you can express using the subjunctive:
- Wishes or Desires
Je veux que tu fasses le ménage. (I want you to clean the house.)
Il souhaite qu’elle tombe amoureuse de lui. (He wishes that she would fall in love with him.)
Je suis triste qu’elle soit malade. (I’m sad that she is sick.)
Il est heureux qu’ils arrivent. (He is happy that they’re arriving.)
- Possibility or Doubt
Je doute qu’il vienne. (I doubt that he will come.)
Il est possible que vous partiez. (It’s possible that you’re leaving.)
Il est persuadé que j’ai raison. (He is convinced that I am right.)
Je n’aime pas qu’il l’ait dit. (I don’t like that he said that.)
Il faut que nous allions à l’école. (It is necessary that we go to school.)
J’ai besoin que tu m’écoutes. (I need you to listen to me.)
Il est regrettable qu’il pleuve aujourd’hui. (It’s regrettable that it’s raining today.)
Elle regrette qu’elle l’ait fait. (She regrets that she did that.)
Je préfère que nous allions maintenant. (I prefer that we go now.)
Je préfère que vous chantiez maintenant. (I prefer that you sing now.)
Common Verbs Which Use the Subjunctive
Verbs for Expressing a Wish or Desire
- Désirer (to desire)
- Souhaiter (to wish)
- Vouloir (to want)
- Conseiller (to advise)
- Aimer (to like or love)
- Avoir envie (to want)
- Convoiter (to hope)
The verb espérer is always followed by the indicative. For example: J’espère qu’il est heureux. (I hope that he is happy.)
Verbs for Expressing Emotion
- Craindre (to fear)
- Être + triste , heureux / heureuse , fâché / fâchée … (to be sad, happy, angry…)
- Avoir + peur , honte de (to be scared, ashamed of)
- Se sentir (to feel)
- S’ennuyer (to be bored)
- S’inquiéter (to be worried or anxious)
Verbs for Expressing Possibility or Doubt
- Douter (to doubt)
- Sembler (to seem)
- Paraître (to appear)
- Negations such as ne pas être sûr (to not be sure) or ne pas être clair (to not be clear)
Il est probable que (it is probable that) is always followed by the indicative, not the subjunctive. For example: Il est probable qu’elle l’aime. (It’s probable that she likes it.)
Verbs for Expressing Preferences and Opinions
- Préférer (to prefer)
- Aimer (to like)
- Ne pas aimer (to dislike)
- Détester (to hate)
- Adorer (to love)
- Vaut mieux (it’s better)
- Il est important (it is important)
Verbs for Expressing Necessity
- Falloir (to require)
- Interdire (to forbid)
- Être + nécessaire , essentiel , impératif (it is necessary, essential, imperative)
- Devoir (to must)
- Il est important (it is important)
Verbs for Expressing Regret
- Regretter (to regret)
- Être désolé (to be sorry)
- C’est dommage (it’s a shame)
- Pardonner (to excuse)
- Avoir le regret de + infinitive (to regret)
- Être au regret de + infinitive (to regret)
Phrases and Expressions That Trigger the Subjunctive
You can spot the subjunctive easily by looking out for certain phrases. Most of these express one of the five categories for the subjunctive: emotion, desire, doubt, regret, preferences/opinions or uncertainty.
These are usually variations of “provided that” and “although.”
- Sans que (without)
- Bien que (so that)
- Pourvu que (provided that)
- Jusqu’à ce que (until)
- Afin que (for)
- Pour que (for)
- Avant que (before)
Avant que is always followed by the subjunctive, but après que (after) is always followed by the indicative.
There’s a logical reason for this! Since avant que means before, there’s a bit of doubt and uncertainty because the event or action hasn’t happened yet. But après que translates to after, when there would be certainty since the event has already taken place.
When Not to Use the Subjunctive
Phrases that talk about an opinion, desire or emotion aren’t always followed by the subjunctive.
This is the case when doubt isn’t expressed or the event has already taken place and is thus clear. For example:
Il est clair qu’il ne veut pas le faire. (It’s obvious that he doesn’t want to do it.)
Il est certain que vous aurez besoin d’aide. (It’s certain that you will need help.)
Il est sûr que le train est supprimé. (It is sure that the train is canceled.)
All of these examples express clarity (“obvious,” “certain,” “surely”), so you don’t need the subjunctive.
Here’s a less intuitive example:
Il est probable que la banque soit fermée aujourd’hui. (It’s probable that the bank is closed today.)
In English, it sounds like there is some doubt because of the word “probably,” but in French, this is considered an indicative-triggering phrase.
Regular Verbs in the Subjunctive
How to Conjugate Verbs in the Subjunctive
Forming the subjunctive is pretty simple for regular verbs:
Start with the conjugated form of the verb for ils/elles (third-person plural), then remove the “-ent” ending to get the present stem. You can then add the following subjunctive endings depending on the pronoun:
Here’s how you’d conjugate different verbs for the subjunctive present:
|Pronoun||Chanter (to sing)||Manger (to eat)||Finir (to finish)||Écrirer (to write)|
|Pronoun||Aimer (to like or love)||Rendre (to return)||Attendre (to wait)||Sortir (to leave, go out)|
The past tense is formed by conjugating either avoir or être (both irregular verbs detailed above) in the subjunctive followed by the past participle of the verb.
Il est triste qu’elle ne soit pas venue. (He is sad that she did not come.)
C’est dommage qu’il n’ait pas neigé à Noël. (It’s a shame that it did not snow on Christmas.)
There is no future for the subjunctive in French. If the action or event will take place in the future, the subjunctive present is used to describe it.
Irregular Verbs in the Subjunctive
Like many rules in French, there are, of course, exceptions—yes, irregular verbs! Below is a list of the most common irregular subjunctive conjugations. These include avoir and être, which you’ll need to form the past tense of the subjunctive.
|Pronoun||Être (to be)||Avoir (to have)||Aller (to go)||Faire (to do)|
|Pronoun||Vouloir (to want)||Venir (to come)||Pouvoir (to be able to)||Savoir (to know)|
Verbs with Multiple Subjunctive Stems
Another quirk of the subjunctive in French is that some verbs have multiple stems.
Many irregular verbs above like aller and avoir also fall into this category. But a lot of these are also verbs that follow regular conjugation rules for most pronouns (je, tu, il/elle and ils/elles), but then use the nous conjugation without “ons” for the nous and vous stem.
|Pronoun||Essayer (to try)||Prendre (to take)||Tenir (to hold)||Devoir (to must/have to)|
|Pronoun||Mourir (to die)||Appeler (to call)||Jeter (to throw)||Boire (to drink)|
All of these may seem like a lot to remember, but with practice, they’ll come naturally! To get used to the French subjunctive, try looking out for these phrases in French movies, TV series, podcasts and other media. This way, you can pause and then check the verbs if needed in a dictionary.
For instance, FluentU’s French program teaches you the language through authentic French video and audio clips. All of these have interactive subtitles, so you can click on any verb used and see the meaning, verb tense and other grammar info. You can even create flashcards with subjunctive verbs for the program to quiz you on regularly.
Now that you’ve learned all about the essentials for the subjunctive, you can set forth and express your emotions, opinions, desires, doubts, necessities and regrets in French. It’s one of the toughest parts of the language to master, but by practicing everything listed in this post, you should be off to a great start!