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How do you use the French subjunctive?

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  • The subjunctive is rare in modern English but very common in French! 

  • que does not mean the verb following it will necessarily be in the subjunctive!

  • You will need the subjunctive after specific verbs and impersonal phrases such as il faut que [it is necessary that]. 

  • When you have two sentences and two subjects, you are likely to use the subjunctive, when the subject in the first clause is having a thought, emotion, wish, desire, or request on the subject in the second clause. For instance, Je [I] in the last example below, have some desire Je voudrais (I would like) on the subject of the second clause tu [you]: the desire being that “you come with us.”

Il faut que je fasse des courses. 
I have to do some grocery shopping. [impersonal verb]

Je ne pense pas qu’il ait une voiture.
I don’t think he has a car. [thought]

J’ai peur qu’elle soit déjà partie.
I’m afraid she’s already gone. [emotion]

Je voudrais que tu viennes avec nous.
 I would like you to come with us. [desire]

  • The subjunctive is rare in modern English but very common in French! 

  • que does not mean the verb following it will necessarily be in the subjunctive!

  • You will need the subjunctive after specific verbs and impersonal phrases such as il faut que [it is necessary that]. 

  • When you have two sentences and two subjects, you are likely to use the subjunctive, when the subject in the first clause is having a thought, emotion, wish, desire, or request on the subject in the second clause. For instance, Je [I] in the last example below, have some desire Je voudrais (I would like) on the subject of the second clause tu [you]: the desire being that “you come with us.”

Il faut que je fasse des courses. 
I have to do some grocery shopping. [impersonal verb]

Je ne pense pas qu’il ait une voiture.
I don’t think he has a car. [thought]

J’ai peur qu’elle soit déjà partie.  
I’m afraid she’s already gone. [emotion]

Je voudrais que tu viennes avec nous.
 I would like you to come with us. [desire]

When to use the subjunctive in French

The subjunctive is one of four moods in French. For a refresher on each of these moods, head to “Unpacking the grammar” at the bottom of this article. You will need the subjunctive (generally, the present subjunctive) after a few expressions to be learned by heart, after an adjective, after verbs expressing emotions, judgments, volition and doubt, and after a negative thought. Here, I’ll give you the most used expressions and verbs you are likely to hear or use. Please make sure you read Part 2 to see how the subjunctive is formed!

Expressions to learn by heart

Screen Shot 2021-11-08 at 10.49.39 AM

Il faut que je parte !
I must go.

C’est dommage qu’il pleuve.
It’s a shame it’s raining.

Fais-le avant qu’il ne soit trop tard.
Do it before it is too late.

  IMPORTANT 

avant que + subjunctive 
but 
après que + indicative 

However, French speakers love the subjunctive so much they will use it 90 percent of the time after après que. So just use whatever you want!

Il est parti après que je suis arrivée 
OR 
Il est parti après que je sois arrivée.
He left after I arrived.

 
Adjective + subjunctive: the straightforward rule

If you see an adjective, after être [to be] or trouver [to find, to consider], use the subjunctive.

Je suis contente que tu sois là. 
I’m glad you’re here. 

C’est bizarre qu’il soit parti. 
It is weird he left.

Il trouve génial que tu vives dans une péniche.
He finds it awesome you live on a boat.

   Exception! 

An adjective expressing a certainty calls for the indicative. 

Il est certain qu’ils sont d’accord.                It is certain they agree.
Il est évident qu’il va pleuvoir.                      It is obviously going to rain.

 
Verbs expressing emotions, judgements, volition, doubt

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 5.28.09 PM*And other persons, like tu aurais voulu / Il aurait aimé / nous aurions préféré

J’ai peur qu’il pleuve. 
I’m afraid it’s going to rain.

Il veut que nous mangions ensemble. 
He wants us all to eat together. 

J’aurais préféré que tu viennes avec nous. 
I would have preferred that you came with us.

After the negation of verbs expressing thoughts

Je pense qu’il est canadien, je ne pense pas qu’il soit américain. 
I think he is Canadian, I don’t think he’s American.

   IMPORTANT

If the first part of the sentence is in the future or past tense, you’ll still use the subjunctive present. Pretty good news, isn’t it?!

Il faut qu’il vienne.
He has to come.

PAST : Il fallait qu’il vienne. / Il a fallu qu’il vienne.
He had to come.

FUTURE : Il faudra qu’il vienne. / Il va falloir qu’il vienne.
He will have to come.

→ Check this website for more exhaustive lists and this one to practice!

Tips to avoid the subjunctive!

If the subjunctive is daunting or if you happen to forget the conjugation of an irregular verb, keep in mind there are ways around it!

‘Devoir’ as a useful alternative

Devoir [must, have to] is a way around the subjunctive, but it could sound a bit blunt.

Il faut que tu partes. ⇔ Tu dois partir.
You must leave.

The imperative

Il faut que tu fermes la porte ⇔ Ferme la porte à clef !
Lock the door!

The infinitive

This is not a bad option, but it is more impersonal.

Il est important de suivre les actualités.
It is important to follow the news.

Cunning replacements to avoid the subjunctive

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IN BRIEF: 3 tips to tackle French Subjunctive once and for all!

1.  Learn a few expressions which call for the subjunctive such as il faut que. 

2.  Ask yourself: 

    • Am I not sure ? → subjunctive. 

    • Am I being subjective? → subjunctive

    • Am I using an adjective? → subjunctive

    • Is my sentence starting with ne … pas? → subjunctive

3.  Learn the subjunctive of the 7 irregular verbs: “Il faut que je sois - que j’aie - que j’aille - que je veuille - que je fasse - que je sache - que je puisse.”

 

Unpacking the grammar

There are four moods in French conjugation. 

1.     The first one you learn is the indicative to express objective facts. 

Tu viens avec nous. 
You come with us.

2.     You then usually learn the imperative to give orders. 

Viens avec nous ! 
Come with us!

3.  When you become comfortable juggling with conjugation, you are introduced to the conditional to express hypothetical ideas.

Tu viendrais avec nous si.... 
You would come with us if....

4.      … and finally the subjunctive!

Il faut que tu viennes avec nous. 
You must come with us.

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