The subjunctive is a mood of the French language, just like the indicative, the imperative, the conditional…
It might be the most feared element in French for French learners, because indeed, it’s a bit tough to understand. But you should rejoice, because it’s probably the easiest among all the other Latin languages, since it’s always used with one tense: the present.
In French (unlike in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian…), there are no past or even future subjunctive. Well in fact, there is a past subjunctive, but it’s not used anymore.
But still, as I said, the subjunctive is really not the easiest thing in French. That’s why if you are beginner in French, I recommend to focus first on the present, passé composé, imparfait, future… and leave the subjunctive for another time.
1) What is the subjunctive?
The subjunctive is used to express subjective or uncertain ideas and actions. Feelings like doubt, desire, will, judgement, emotion, possibility, fear, hope, necessity, possibility…
Often, two different subjects are involved: one is doubting, fearing, wanting, hoping… that the other one does something.
Moreover, the subjunctive is nearly always introduced by “que” (or “qui” sometimes).
I don’t know if you are aware of it, but the subjunctive exists in English as well, but it’s rare and growing rarer. Besides, the subjunctive form of a verb is often similar to the indicative form, hence subjunctive is not a very visible grammatical feature of English.
2) How to learn the subjunctive?
As you can guess, since the subjunctive is used to express so many feelings, it’s used quite frequently in French.
Basically, it works like this: there are many expressions and conjunctions in French (of doubt, desire, possibility, necessity…) that finish with “que”, and that are followed by a subjunctive.
Now I don’t recommend to learn all of them, because there are hundreds of them. In addition, not only it’s difficult to know when to use the subjunctive, but it’s also quite difficult to conjugate the irregular verbs with it (knowing that they are the most frequent verbs).
So I think if you are just starting to learn the subjunctive, the best is to get used with some of the most common expressions, and practice your conjugation with them.
First, let’s take a look at the regular conjugation in the subjunctive.
|1st group verbs in “-er” – Rester||2nd group verbs in “-ir” – Finir|
|que je reste||que je finisse|
|que tu restes||que tu finisses|
|qu’il/elle reste||qu’il/elle finisse|
|que nous restions||que nous finissions|
|que vous restiez||que vous finissiez|
|qu’ils/elles restent||qu’ils/elles finissent|
You may notice that for the 1st group verbs (in “-er”), there is no difference between the present indicative and the present subjunctive for “je, tu, il/elle/on and ils/elles”.
Concerning the 3rd group verbs (irregular verbs), you have to know them by heart. I will give you some of the most common ones at the end of this article.
Now, I want to give you 15 of the most common expressions followed by the subjunctive in French, with an example for each:
1) Il faut que… > It is necessary that… / to have to…
If there is one expression you should remember, it’s this one. It comes from the verb falloir, which can only be used that way, with the impersonal pronoun “ il ”. French people use it all the time, maybe even more than the verb devoir, must.
Note that in modern spoken French, people often omit the “ il ” and start directly with “Faut”.
2) Avoir besoin que… > to need (smth/so) to…
3) Vouloir que… > To want (smth/so) to…
4) Préférer que… > Prefer that…
5) C’est possible que… > It’s possible that…
6) C’est pas sûr que… > It’s not sure that…
Maybe you noticed, normally it should be “Ce n’est pas sûr que…”, but once again, in modern French, most people never pronounce the “ne” for the negation.
7) S’attendre à ce que… > to expect that… / to expect (smth/so) to…
8) Il semble que… > It seems that…
9) Avoir peur que… > To be afraid that…
10) Être content que… > To be happy that…
11) Être triste que… > To be sad that…
12) Il vaut mieux que… > It’s better if…
13) C’est dommage que… > It’s a shame that…
14) C’est important que… > It’s important that…
15) Proposer que… > to propose that…
As I said, there are also conjunctions that require the subjunctive. Here is 10 of the most common ones:
1) Pour que… > So that…
He bought me a football so that I can practice
2) Jusqu’à ce que… > Until…
We will wait until the moon appears
3) Avant que… > Before…
Do it before it’s too late
4) Sans que… > Without…
I left without them realizing it
5) Bien que… > Although…
He was not accepted, although he had good grades
6) À condition que… > Provided that…
I will go to Paris, provided that you comme with me
7) À moins que… > Unless…
Can we leave? Unless you want something else
8) Qui que… > Whoever…
No one can enter, whoever it is!
9) Quoi que… > Whatever…
Whatever you do, I won’t give up
10) Où que… > Wherever…
I will follow you wherever you go
3) Ways to avoid using the subjunctive in French
Depending on which expression or conjunction you use, there are some ways to avoid the subjunctive.
For example, you can sometimes remove the “que” and use an infinitive to make a general statement.
It’s better if we stop > It’s better to stop
You can also try to use a noun:
You are sad that he is leaving > His departure makes you sad
Reformulate the sentence in different way:
Do it before it’s too late > Do it now, otherwise it will be too late
But as you can see, it’s quite difficult to change the sentence without affecting its original meaning a minimum.
4) Some remarks on the subjunctive
Some verbs can either have a subjunctive or an indicative in negative sentences
Some of the most common are: penser, to think, croire, to believe, trouver, to find
I think he is right > I don’t think he is right
He believes you are dead > He doesn’t believe you are dead
I hope he is right > I don’t think he is right
The “ne explétif”
Some verbs and expressions can add a “ne” when they are used in the subjunctive, even though the sentence is affirmative. Guess what? It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just there to look nice and posh, and confuse French learners… Nowadays, people rarely use it when they speak, but you can find it from time to time.
The subjunctive to give an order
It’s quite rare, but the subjunctive can offset the lack of a 3rd person in the imperative mood. It can happen when someone tells to someone to give an order to another person.
–Sir, the trainee has arrived… –Well, tell him to get ready for his first mission!
Subjunctive or indicative in some relative clause
In certain types of relative clauses, it’s possible to have the subjunctive or the indicative.
I’m looking for someone who can give me advices
The subjunctive in this sentence (qui puisse me donner…) indicates the criterion of the person you are looking for, without affirming that this person really exists.
With the indicative however, the sentence presupposes the existence of that person (even though there might not be one).
5) Some common irregular French verbs in the subjunctive
Here are 20 of the most common 3rd group French verbs in the subjunctive: