The French subjunctive

Let’s be honest, the French subjunctive is one of the worst nightmares of my French students.

  • Unlike the future or the past tenses there is no real equivalent in English. You would translate it with the indicative form

Ex : I’d like if you wait for me = j’aimerais que tu m’attendes

  • There are a lot of irregular verbs in the subjunctive and some are challenging to pronounce

Ex : I need to go to the post office = il faut que j’aille à la poste

Ex : It’s a shame he never does sports = c’est dommage qu’il ne fasse jamais de sport

  • Finally, (and otherwise it wouldn’t be that funny), some verbs use the indicative in the affirmative form (penser, croire, considérer,..) while they change to subjunctive when used in the negative form

Ex : I think it’s a good idea = je pense que c’est une bonne idée

I don’t think it’s a good idea = je ne pense que cela soit une bonne idée

french subjunctive

But don’t worry ! With a bit of practice and good lessons, you’ll soon be a master of the subjunctive. It can seem overwhelming, but the thing to remember is the subjunctive equals subjectivity, unreality. That should help you figure it out in most cases. And remember : a lot of French people make mistakes when it comes to the use of subjunctive ! Let’s see together in details :

  • how we conjugate the subjunctive present
  • when we can use the subjunctive present
  • and the past subjunctive.

HOW TO CONJUGATE THE SUBJUNCTIVE

We conjugate the subjunctive the same way as for the indicative present apart from nous and vous. The ending will always be identical.

To remember : all -er, -ir, and –re verbs, as well as many irregular verbs are conjugated according to this pattern:

  1. Start with the 3rd person plural present tense ils conjugation of the verb
  2. Remove the –ent to find the subjunctive stem
  3. Add the appropriate subjunctive ending: -e, -es, -e, -ions, -iez, -ent

Regular Verbs

TROUVER (il faut que)

Jetrouve
Tutrouves
Il/elle/ontrouve
Noustrouvions
Voustrouviez
Ils / ellestrouvent

Irregular verbs

Some verbs have a radical irregular but the same endings

FAIRE

Jefasse
Tufasses
Il/elle/onfasse
Nousfassions
Vousfassiez
Ils / ellesfassent

PRENDRE

Jeprenne
Tuprennes
Il/elle/onprenne
Nousprenions
Vouspreniez
Ils / ellesprennent

BOIRE

Jeboive
Tuboives
Il/elle/onboive
Nousbuvions
Vousbuviez
Ils / ellesboivent

ALLER

J’aille
Tuailles
Il/elle/onaille
Nousallions
Vousalliez
Ils / ellesaillent

ETRE

Jesois
Tusois
Il/elle/onsoit
Noussoyons
Voussoyez
Ils / ellessoient

AVOIR

J’aie
Tuaies
Il/elle/onaie
Nousayons
Vousayez
Ils / ellesaient

ATTENDRE > que j’attende

CONNAITRE > que je connaisse

DIRE > que je dise

DORMIR > que je dorme

ECRIRE > que j’écrive

ENTENDRE > que j’entende

FINIR > que je finisse

LIRE > que je lise

METTRE > que je mette

PARTIR > que je parte

POUVOIR > que je puisse

SAVOIR > que je sache

SORTIR > que je sorte

VENIR > vienne

When do we use THE SUBJUNCTIVE

how to conjugate the french subjunctive

A - Different expressions using the subjunctive

The subjunctive tense is used to express ideas which are subjective or uncertain: obligation, will, emotion, doubt, possibility, necessity, judgment…

It is nearly always found in dependent clauses introduced by que or qui. The subjects of the main clauses are usually different.

(You’ll find complete lists on internet if you like but I listed the most common ones here. It will become more obvious as you start to use more and more the subjunctive)

One way to remember when to use the subjunctive is with the acronym WEIRDO. You can group the verbs and expressions into these categories :

W : wishing / wanting

E : emotion

I : impersonal expressions

R : requests / recommend

D : doubt / demand

O : opinions

Or you could try to remember with the following 3 groups, it’s entirely up to you what method works best.

  1. Expression of desire, need, obligation, advice
  • Aimer que + subjunctive = to like that
  • Demander que = to ask someone to do something
  • Il faut que = it’s necessary that
  • Il est normal que = it’s normal that
  • Souhaiter que = to wish that
  • Suggérer que = to suggest that
  • Préférer que = to prefer that
  • Vouloir que = to want that

2. Expression of emotions and desire

  • Etre content que = to be happy
  • Etre déçu que = to be disappointed that
  • Etre désolé que = to be sorry that
  • Etre enchanté que = to be delighted that
  • Etre étonné que = to be amazed that
  • Etre furieux que = to be furious that
  • Etre heureux que = to be happy that
  • Etre ravi que = to be pleased to
  • Etre surpris que = to be surprised that
  • Etre triste que = to be sad that

3. Expressions of possibilities and doubt

  • C’est bien que = it’s good that
  • C’est bizarre que = it’s strange that
  • C’est curieux que = it’s odd that
  • C’est étonnant que = it’s surprising that
  • Il est important que = it’s important that
  • Il est intéressant que = it’s interesting that
  • Il est temps que = it’s time that
  • Il se peut que = it’s possible that
  • Il arrive que = it happens that

B - The subjunctive with conjunctions

We use the subjunctive after conjunctions that express a dependent clause:

  • à condition que = provided that
  • avant que = before
  • afin que = so that
  • bien que = although
  • jusqu’à ce que = until
  • pour que = so that
  • pourvu que = as long as
  • sans que = without / unless

To remember : the conjunction après que (after) is followed by the indicative not the subjunctive.

Ex : le chanteur est parti après que le public l’a acclamé = The singer left after the audience cheered for him

C - Subjunctive or Indicative ?

Some expressions are followed by the indicative form when used in the affirmative form, but use the subjunctive form in the negative.

The indicative expresses a reality, something certain. Therefore, verbs of hope and belief introduce the subjunctive in the negative. The chance of the action becoming a reality is very low.

Je considère que = I consider that + indicative

Je crois que = I believe that

Je pense que = I think that

J’imagine que = I imagine that

Je suis sûre que = I’m certain that

J’ai l’impression que = I have a feeling that

Je ne considère pas que + Subjunctive

Je ne crois pas que

Je ne pense pas que

Je n’imagine pas que

Je ne suis pas sûre que

Je n’ai pas l’impression que

To remember : if the same person is doing both actions, or if it’s a general statement concerning everybody, you can avoid the subjunctive and use an infinitive form.

Now let’s compare :

General statement : Il faut manger équilibré = It’s necessary to eat healthy food / balanced meals

Advice : Il faut que tu manges équilibré = It’s necessary that you eat healthy

When not to use the Subjunctive :

You will not use the subjonctif if you are sure of something, therefore expressions like the following will use the indicative instead.

  • être certain(e) que = to be certain that
  • être sûr(e) que
  • il est certain que
  • il est clair que
  • il est évident que

Even if you are not 100% certain, if you believe something, then it will still use the indicative

  • penser que = to think that
  • croire que = to believe that

The same applies if something is probable, though not 100% certain, you will use the indicative

  • il est probable que = it is probable that

To remember : if the expressions listed above are in the negative, they will then use the subjunctive because they are expressing doubt or uncertainty.

  • il n’est pas certain que + subjonctif
  • il n’est pas sûr que + subjonctif
student subjunctive french

The PAST SUBJUNCTIVE

For the past subjunctive, you will use the structure of the passé composé and the auxiliary être or avoir at the subjunctive present form.

Exactly like for the passé compose, the verb être is only used in the following cases:

  • with verbs of motion and of staying still: naître/mourir, aller/venir, monter/descendre, arriver/partir, entrer/sortir, apparaître, rester, retourner, tomber and their related forms such as: revenir, rentrer, remonter, redescendre, repartir.
  • with reflexive verbs

VOIR

J’aie vu
Tuaies vu
Il/elle/onaie vu
Nousayons vu
Vousayez vu
Ils / ellesaient vu

PARTIR

Jesois parti (e)
Tusois parti (e)
Il/elle/onsoit parti (e)
Noussoyons parti (e)s
Voussoyez parti (e)s
Ils / ellessoient parti (e)s

SE LEVER

Jeme sois levé(e)
Tute sois levé(e)
Il/elle/onse soit levé(e)
Nousnous nous soyons levé(e)s
Vousvous vous soyez levé(e)(s)
Ils / ellesse soient levé(e)s

When do we use the past subjunctive?

  • When the time frame of the subjunctive clause precedes the time frame of the introductory clause, the past subjunctive is used:

Je suis heureuse que tu aies pu venir hier = I am glad that you were able to come over yesterday

C’est dommage qu’ils n’aient pas pris la décision plus vite = It’s a shame they didn’t make the decision quicker

  • Express something you will achieve in the future (note that there is no future of the subjunctive but a past one)

Il faudra que j’aie fini mes devoirs vers 18heures = I’ll have to do my homework by 6pm

J’aimerais qu’elle soit déjà arrivée chez moi = I wish she had already arrived at my place