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When do you use the subjunctive vs the indicative?

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Often, my students will stop what they are saying and ask me worriedly, “Do I need the subjunctive here?” If I had to give you some tips to determine when to use the subjunctive, I’d break it down into three bullet points: 

  • When something is not real (it is abstract) or not sure (it may not happen)

  • When using an adjective expressing emotions, judgment, or thin probability

  • After conjunctions to be learned by heart

Often, my students will stop what they are saying and ask me worriedly, “Do I need the subjunctive here?” If I had to give you some tips to determine when to use the subjunctive, I’d break it down into three bullet points: 

  • When something is not real (it is abstract) or not sure (it may not happen)

  • When using an adjective expressing emotions, judgment, or thin probability

  • After conjunctions to be learned by heart

Head vs. heart

I sometimes ask my students to imagine two worlds to help them visualize the concept of indicative and subjunctive:

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 6.48.29 PM

You will encounter what are called “head verbs” and “heart verbs.” If we follow the logic from above, head verbs call for the indicative, whereas heart verbs call for the subjunctive.

HEAD: Je pense qu’il est tard.
I think it is late.

HEART: J’ai peur qu’il soit tard.
I am afraid it might be late.

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 6.51.53 PM

   Exception! 

J'espère [I hope] + future tense!

J'espère qu’il ne pleuvepleuvra pas ce week-end.
I hope it won’t rain this weekend.

 

   IMPORTANT 

All head verbs in the negative call for the subjunctive. Why? Because we are talking about something that is not real anymore. 

J’ai l’impression qu’il est mal-à-l'aise. 
BUT
Je n’ai pas l’impression qu’il soit mal-à-l'aise.
I’m not under the impression he may be ill at ease.

Also, all the head verbs in the interrogative (subject-verb inversion only) call for the subjunctive. Why? Because if you ask the question, a doubt is implied.

Crois-tu qu’il soit honnête ? 
BUT 
Tu crois qu’il est honnête ? 
Do you think he’s honest?

   IMPORTANT

Sometimes, you may use either subjunctive or indicative. The use of either will add some subtlety. Read the example below: 

  1. Je cherche une babysitter qui puisse parler cinq langues et qui prenne $5 de l’heure.

  2. Je cherche une babysitter qui peut parler cinq langues et qui prend $5 de l’heure.
    I am looking for a babysitter who could speak 5 languages and charge $5 per hour.

→ In which sentence do I think such a talented babysitter charging so little exists? 
In sentence (1) I reckon it could be hard or impossible to find because I used the subjunctive. 
In sentence (2) I reckon I’m likely to find one!

Negation & subjunctive

Sometimes negation calls for the subjunctive. Here are two examples of negation for which you’ll need to remember to use the subjunctive. 

  • il n’y a pas / rien / aucun / etc. [there is not]

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 7.00.01 PM

  • sans que [without]

Elle est partie sans que je lui dise au revoir.
She left without me saying goodbye.

Adjectives & subjunctive

  • C’est or Il est + adjective expressing emotions, judgment, or thin probability

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 7.03.10 PM

Il est scandaleux qu’ils soient partis sans payer.
It is outrageous they left without paying.

→ Are you wondering what the difference between c’est and il est is? Well, c’est is casual and il est is formal.

  • être + adjective expressing emotions

The list could be never-ending, so I am just giving you a few examples here.

Screen Shot 2021-10-01 at 1.25.53 PM

Je suis heureux que tu sois dans ma vie.
I am over the moon you are in my life.

   IMPORTANT

Adding an adjective to trouver [to find / to consider] calls for the subjunctive.

Je trouve qu’il fait chaud.
I find that it's hot.

Je trouve bizarre qu’il fasse chaud. 
I find it odd that it's hot.

Conjunctions calling for the subjunctive

Some conjunctions are followed by the subjunctive and need to be learned by heart. (To review what a conjunction is, head down to “Unpacking the grammar” at the end of the article.) It is about memory work here but also about logic, so even though the list below is not exhaustive, you can decide whether to use the subjunctive or not by understanding the meaning of the conjunction.

Let’s break it down!

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Nous irons voir le film pourvu qu’il y ait de la place. 
We’ll go see the film provided there are seats left.

Bien que son frère la mette en colère, elle l’aime.
Even though her brother gets on her nerves, she loves him.

   IMPORTANT

After après que, you may use either the indicative or the subjunctive. Between you and me, the proper way is to use the indicative because what follows actually happened and is therefore real. But French speakers do love the subjunctive, so they use it instead!

PROPER USE: J’ai appelé ma mère après qu’il est parti. 
I called my mother after he left.

MOST COMMON USE: J’ai appelé ma mère après qu’il soit parti. 
I called my mother after he left.

In brief: 4 key things about the subjunctive

  1. Am I rational? → indicative OR Am I subjective and emotional? → subjunctive

  2. Is what we are talking about likely to happen or exist? Yes → indicative, No → subjunctive

  3. être + adjective expressing a feeling, a judgement or a thin probability → subjunctive

  4. Memory work: conjunctions expressing goal, restriction, condition, time, fear → subjunctive

 

Unpacking the grammar

  • What on Earth is a conjunction?

    • Conjunctions are words or several words linking two sentences, like “although,” “if,” “even though,” etc.

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