Introduction To The French Subjunctive: Explained Clearly

  • Adrien Renault
    Written byAdrien Renault
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Introduction To The French Subjunctive: Explained Clearly

If you’ve just reached B1 level or lower intermediate level of a French course, you’ve encountered the French subjunctive for the first time.

The French subjunctive can be a little tricky for a few reasons, and many people struggle with it.

So, if you are finding it difficult, you’re not the only one. Plenty of French students have found it a challenge.

But the good news is that plenty have mastered it too! 😊

This guide will clarify it for you, so when you go back to your French course, you’ll know have the subjunctive figured out.

Let’s make a start.

What is the French subjunctive?

First, to clear up what the French subjunctive is, here’s what it is not.

The French subjunctive is not the same as the French indicative (which includes the present, past, future or conditional tenses that take the indicative tense - all learned at A2 level).

Instead, the French subjunctive is a mood.

What do we mean by mood?

When we talk about a mood in French, we mean a sentence that expresses doubts, wishes, hopes or hypothetical situations from the speaker or subject involved in the sentence.

In English, we might say something like:

I wish I were proficient in the French language.

Well, this is one sentence that uses the English subjunctive tense.

But, what about in French?

How can we identify when the French subjunctive is being used?

It isn’t too difficult to spot when a sentence takes the subjunctive mood in French.

It always features particular verbs that are conjugated in a particular way to show that a speaker has doubts or wishes or hopes about something or someone.

So, if you want to identify if the sentence uses the subjunctive mood, you can do this by looking at or listening for verbs that take the subjunctive form.

They differ in terms of their conjugations, so let’s think about how they are different to the indicative.

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What is the difference between the conjugated indicative and the subjunctive?

Here is one quick example to help you notice the difference.

The difference between savons and sachions, in terms of how they are each conjugated, shows us that a whole set of new verb forms need to be memorised and recognised if you want to understand the French subjunctive.

Both savons and sachions mean ‘we know’ in English — but they are used in different sentences and for different moods.

Now, we’re going to use an example to compare the indicative and the subjunctive.

This will make things easier to understand when it comes to verb conjugation.

Let’s use the verb être, which means ‘to be’ in French. Take a look at the table below:

Subject pronounPresent indicativePresent subjunctiveEnglish translation
je/j'SuisSoisI am
tuEsSoisYou are
il, elle, onEstSoitHe/she/it is
nousSommesSoyonsWe are
vousÊtesSoyezYou are
ils, ellsSontSoientThey are

As you can see, there are many differences between the present indicative and present subjunctive forms of the verb être.

They have the same literal meaning but have a different mood.

So, to perfect your understanding, you’ll need to how to conjugate each of these and, by using our tips in this article, you’ll also need to know when to use each one.

Why is the French subjunctive a challenge?

Compared with the English subjunctive, the French subjunctive is particularly difficult, (and it requires a bit more practice to get it perfect).

You might be wondering why this is the case.

Well, not only is the French subjunctive used more frequently than in English, but it is also more difficult to know when to use it.

It’s not too challenging to conjugate verbs in the subjunctive mood. That requires a bit of memorisation.

But there are a few other difficulties, such as the rules required to understand the French subjunctive.

The French subjunctive in action

To clear up what the French subjunctive is, let’s start with an example.

Je veux que tu m’aides, Sacha.

I want you to help me, Sacha.

What did you notice about this example?

You might have noticed three things.

The first is that there are two subjects in the sentence. There’s the speaker and there is the second subject — Sacha.

The second is that the sentence includes two verbs — one is veux and the other is aides.

And, the third is that the sentence contains the little word que.

These three elements used altogether mean that the sentence must take the subjunctive mood.

In this case, as with many sentences that contain two subjects and two verbs, with the word que in between them, the second verb normally uses the subjunctive mood.

But, let’s compare the above sentence with this one:

Je veux une aide.

I want help.

In this sentence, which you might be more familiar with if you’ve just completed an A2 French course, we have one speaker and we don’t have the word que.

This means we need to use the indicative tense and the subjunctive is not required.

But, understanding the French subjunctive mood isn’t as simple as this, as you shall see…

1 case where the subjunctive doesn’t follow que

There are some cases where the subjunctive doesn’t follow que. Just when you thought it got easier, there’s something more complex that follows!

If the word que follows certain verbs that aren’t considered verbs of emotion, opinion, belief, or wishes, these sentences don’t require the second verb to take the subjunctive mood.

So, you’re going to need to know which verbs are verbs of emotion to fully understand this concept.

Continue reading to find out which specific verbs are followed by a second verb in the subjunctive.

What is the best way to understand when the French subjunctive is needed?

What is difficult is knowing when you should use the French subjunctive when speaking or expressing an idea.

Given that the French subjunctive is a mood, you’ll need to listen to various examples and listen for the mood and tone being used.

As we have mentioned, the subjunctive is used to show how one subject’s emotions relate to another subject within a sentence. This is one way to recognise when to use the subjunctive.

Here’s the other way.

Use percentages.

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Using percentages to understand when to use the French subjunctive

If the speaker is certain (100% sure) that the action is going to occur, they will use the indicative tense.

If they have a doubt, they are likely to use the subjunctive — particularly if they are less than 70% sure the action is going to occur.

Indicative compared with the subjunctive — key examples

Here are three examples of the subjunctive compared with the indicative.

Subjunctive:

Il est possible que nous vivions jusqu’à 100 ans.

It is possible that we will live to be 100.

Indicative:

Je suis certain que nous vivrons jusqu’à 100 ans.

I'm certain we will live to be 100.

Notice the difference in possibility here.

We use the subjunctive in the first example because the speaker is less than 70% sure the action will occur.

There is a certain doubt that they will reach the age of 100.

In the indicative example, however, the speaker (who might be 99 years and 11 months old) is more than 70% sure the action will happen.

Subjunctive:

Il est possible que nous divorcions dans une semaine.

It is possible that we will get divorced within a week.

Indicative:

Je suis certain que nous allons divorcer dans une semaine.

I'm certain we will be divorced within a week.

The main difference in this case is that the speaker, in the first example, has some doubts about how long the marriage will last.

However, in the second example, the speaker doesn’t have doubts.

They are sure the marriage won’t last until the end of the week.

Subjunctive:

Il est possible que nous voyagions demain.

It is possible that we will travel tomorrow.

Indicative:

Je suis sûr que nous allons voyager demain.

I'm sure we will travel tomorrow.

Here, in the subjunctive example, there is some doubt about whether the subjects of the sentence will be able to travel tomorrow.

In the indicative case, there is no doubt, they are more than 70% sure they will be able to travel, so the present indicative tense is used and not the subjunctive.

Other cases where the French subjunctive is required

There are, however, more situations when the French subjunctive is needed.

One of these situations is the French negative.

The other is for particular verbs that always require the subjunctive.

The French negative and the subjunctive mood

Sentences that take the negative form always require the French subjunctive mood.

This is because there is a very small possibility that the action will occur. For example:

Je ne pense pas que ce soit un succès.

I don't think that it's a success.

In this case the speaker is using a negative phrase — he or she is saying that they don’t think the event is a success.

There is a very small likelihood that the event will be successful, so the subjunctive verb soit (to be) is used here.

Verbs that use the French subjunctive

Certain verbs in French always use the French subjunctive.

Here are a few to take note of and watch out for:

  • Désirer (to want)
  • Aimer (to like)
  • Regretter (to regret)
  • Craindre (to fear)
  • Douter (to doubt)

All of these verbs are normally followed by the word que as we have mentioned earlier.

They are also all verbs that signal a certain mood or perspective on a topic or person. This means they are followed by a second verb in the subjunctive.

Here’s one example:

Je regrette que nous ne sachions pas parler Français.

I regret that we don't know how to speak French.

In this example, the second verb sachions uses the subjunctive mood. Instead of savons, we use sachions.

This is because the first verb indicates a doubt, or a regret.

Add to this the fact that it is followed by que and there’s no doubt that this sentence requires the subjunctive mood.

Start understanding the French subjunctive with practice

If you want to learn the French subjunctive, practice is the way forward. But don’t just limit yourself to verb conjugation.

This is important, but you are going to need other approaches to get it perfect.

Some other steps to becoming a master of the French subjunctive include listening to French podcasts and putting into practice what you learn from French YouTube channels.

These steps are important because they will help you get a sense of when the subjunctive is required.

Immersion is also important when learning the French subjunctive.

You will hear certain phrases repeatedly using this strategy, so when in doubt, speak as the native speakers do for certain expressions or sayings that use the subjunctive mood, as there are many of them.

All it takes is persistent practice, and by comparing subjunctive sentences with indicative ones, you’ll also find it simpler to understand the difference!


Are there any other little hints that you used to grasp the French subjunctive?

Add them below in the comments section!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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