When to use the subjunctive in French

Posted by Josh on 19th May 2023 in the blog in the category

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When we conjugate a verb in French, we are sorting it into a tense and a mood.

The tense indicates when the verb takes place. It allows us to determine whether the action in question takes place in the past, present, or future, as well as the state in which it occurs.

The mood is a bit harder to define, but generally it helps us distinguish whether the verb is being used in an imperative (a command), interrogative (a question), indicative or conditional context.

This might sound confusing, but these are probably all terms you're familiar with, even if you don't know the names. And it helps that the vast majority of the time we say or write something, we are using the 'indicative' mood, which is what we use when we make a factual statement. For instance, every verb used so far in this blog has been an indicative verb.

Sometimes, however, we may want to speak or write about something in a hypothetical context - something that that you hope or doubt will happen, for instance. In this case, in French we would use a subjunctive verb.

Subordinate Clauses

Not only are subjunctives much rarer than indicatives - you also can't use one without the indicative. This is because subjunctives take place within subordinate clauses. These are clauses which are subordinate to the main clause. If it helps, remember that 'subjunctive' (or 'subjonctif') and 'subordinate clause' ('proposition subordonnée') are linked by the prefix 'sub'.


(Note also that not all subordinate clauses use the subjunctive - we'll cover this further down.)

To understand what a subordinate clause is, we first need to understand what a clause is.

A clause is a complete statement. It has a noun phrase and a verb phrase.

You might be wondering what the difference is between a clause and a sentence.

Let’s take a clause as an example.

I am a dentist.

(Je suis dentiste.)

This is also a sentence, as it makes sense by itself, and whoever is speaking it (in this case the dentist) has decided not to add any additional statements to it. But sometimes a sentence is more than one clause. Let's assume the dentist wants to add more details to his sentence:

I am a dentist and I inspect people's teeth.

(Je suis dentiste et j’inspecte les dents des gens.)

In this example, there are two clauses: 'I am a dentist' and 'I inspect people's teeth'. These are what are known as main clauses, because they are the main, and usually the only, action of the sentence; and although they are part of the same sentence, they could both make sense on their own. You can tell a clause is a main clause if it does not depend on - or, in other words, is not subordinate to - another clause.

In addition to main clauses, there are also subordinate clauses. The subordinate clause is dependent on a main clause for it to make sense. For example:
I think that dentists inspect people's teeth.

(Je pense que les dentistes inspectent les dents des gens.)

The second part of this sentence is subordinate to the first.

Words such as 'think', 'believe', 'hope', especially if followed by 'that', usually indicate that the next clause is subordinate.

Not all subordinate clauses take the subjunctive. For instance, the above does not. This is because 'think', as with 'believe' and 'know', are verbs of belief. In some languages, such as Italian, verbs of belief would lead to a subordinate clause that takes the subjunctive. But in French, we reserve the subjunctive for subordinate clauses which express a wish, doubt or emotion.

Let's see some examples:

I wish that dentists would inspect people's teeth.

(J’aimerais que les dentistes inspectent les dents des gens.)

I don't think that dentists inspect people's teeth.

(Je ne pense pas que les dentistes inspectent les dents des gens.)

I am relieved that dentists inspect people's teeth.

(Je suis soulagé(e) que les dentistes inspectent les dents des gens)

Wish

The following wish verbs, which are typically followed by 'que', lead to subordinate clauses with subjunctive verbs. Notable exceptions to this rule are 'décider' and 'espérer'.

souhaiter (to wish)

demander (to ask)

désirer (to desire)

vouloir (to want)

exiger (to demand)

supplier (to beg)

demander (to ask)

Doubt

The following verbs usually take the indicative, but lead to a subjunctive when used in the negative, because they express doubt:

ne pas penser (to not think)

ne pas croire (to not believe)

ne pas soupçonner (to not suspect)

ne pas être d’avis (to not be of the opinion)

Emotion

The subjunctive is used in a subordinate clause that has to do with emotion. Again, these clauses are signalled by the word 'que', as in the following examples:

être heureux que (to be happy that...)

être triste que (to be sad that...)

se réjouir que (to be delighted that...)

s’inquiéter que (to be worried that...)

'Que'

We also use the subjunctive in subordinate clauses which are brought about by a 'que' conjunction (with some exceptions), such as the following:

pour que (so that)

quoique (even though)

avant que (before)

jusqu’à ce
que

bien
que (although)

quoique (although)

à condition
que (on the condition that)

afin
que (so that)

pourvu
que (provided that)

sans que (without (that))

où que (wherever)

Note that après que, parce que and puisque take the indicative, not the subjunctive.

We seriously recommend learning these, as it will help eliminate confusion when it comes to knowing when you should - and shouldn't - use the subjunctive.

For the full list of subjunctive conjugations, check out the verb lists available on the Learn French with Alexa website.

So, to recap, the subjunctive is used when:


  • you want to express a wish ('Je souhaite que...')
  • you want to express a doubt ('Je ne crois pas que...')
  • you want to express an emotion ('Je suis ravi(e) que...')
  • in the clause that follows a 'que' conjunction (but be aware of the exceptions)

For more information on subjunctives, check out lessons 30 and 31 of the Complete French Course.

Check out some of our other blog posts!

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