Tenses make sense – we've got those in English. Conjugation can be a bit difficult, but at least that's relatively straightforward. The subjunctive, on the other hand, feels much less concrete. And what is a mood, anyway?

The truth is that the subjunctive isn't that difficult – it's just awkward to wrap your head around at first because we don't regularly use it in English. We do have grammatical moods, though. You already know exactly how they work and what they do; you just didn't know that they were called grammatical moods.

To that end, this post has a few goals:

  1. Clarify what a grammatical mood is
  2. Show how the subjunctive mood is formed
  3. Give a few concrete triggers explaining when the subjunctive mood is used

What is a Grammatical Mood?

While you might not be familiar with the term grammatical mood, you're constantly making use of modal verbs in order to leverage grammatical moods in your speech. (In linguistics, modal is the adjectival form of mood)

There's a lot of linguistic jargon surrounding what grammatical moods are for and why we need them, but you can probably get a feel for what's going on just by seeing a few of the moods in action. As you're reading the following examples, think about how the meaning changes from sentence to sentence.

Indicative mood: John takes the medicine.

Potential mood: John can take the medicine.

Conditional mood: John could take the medicine if there are no other options.

Subjunctive mood: The doctor suggests that he take the medicine.

If you noticed following, then you're on the right track:

  1. The indicative mood (a "realis" mood) is a straightforward statement of fact.
  2. The remaining three moods (all "irrealis" moods) put an additional spin on that fact.
  3. Bonus points if you noticed that take is conjugated to takes in the indicative mood, but it remain as take in the other three moods.

Important: Many moods come with triggers, so to speak. A big part of mastering the subjunctive is simply remembering the concrete situations and words that call for it to be used. In English, suggest is a verb that triggers the subjunctive mood. If we had the doctor making a statement of belief instead of a suggestion, then the subjunctive mood would not be used: The doctor believes that John takes the medicine.

We'll get to the French's subjunctive triggers later on – first, let's look at how the subjunctive is formed.

Parisian bridge
Photo by Léonard Cotte / Unsplash

Forming the Subjunctive Mood in French

The formation of the subjunctive is quite straightforward. Subjunctive endings are consistent for all verbs except avoir (to have) and être (to be). To form the subjunctive:

  1. Take the third person plural of the present indicative form of a verb (e.g., ils parlent)
  2. Remove the -ent ending (e.g., parlent → parl-)
  3. Put the required subjunctive ending in its place
parler to speak
que je parle that I speak
que tu parles that you speak
qu’elle, il, on parle that he, she, we speak
que nous parlions that we speak
que vous parliez that you all (also "formal" you) speak
qu’elles, ils parlent that they speak

From this, we can form sentences using the subjunctive:

   J’aimerais que vous me parliez du subjonctif.
    I would like you to tell me about the subjunctive.

💡 Here are a few other verbs conjugated to their present subjunctive forms. Note that all of them take the same subjunctive conjugations, despite the fact that they belong to different verb groups (-er, -ir, and -re).

aimer (to like) finir (to finish) sortir (to go out) rendre (to return) (English)
que j’aime que je finisse que je sorte que je rende that I ~
que tu aimes que tu finisses que tu sortes que tu rendes that you ~
qu’elle, il, on aime qu’elle, il finisse qu’elle, il, on sorte qu’elle, il, on rende that he, she, we ~
que nous aimions que nous finissions que nous sortions que nous rendions that we ~
que vous aimiez que vous finissiez que vous sortiez que vous rendiez that you all (also "formal" you) ~
qu’elles, ils aiment qu’elles, ils finissent qu’elles, ils sortent qu’elles, ils rendent that they ~

Irregular Verbs

As mentioned above, avoir and être are irregular in the present subjunctive.

avoir (to have) être (to be)
que j’aie que je sois
que tu aies que tu sois
qu’elle, il, on ait qu’elle, il, on soit
que nous ayons que nous soyons
que vous ayez que vous soyez
qu’elles, ils aient qu’elles, ils soient

There are also a few stem-changing verbs, which take the regular conjugations mentioned above but have irregular verb stems:

  • pouvoir (to be able to) has a stem of puiss-
  • faire (to do/make) has a stem of fass-
  • savoir (to know) has a stem of sach-

Some verbs have two different stems. The first stem we've listed is for the je, tu, il, elle, ils and elles conjugations, and the second stem is for nous and vous conjugations:

Verbs Pronoun One Verb Stem
(je, tu, il, elle, ils, elles)
Pronoun Two Verb Stem
(nous, vous)
devoir (to have to do) doiv- dev-
tenir (to hold) tienn- ten-
recevoir (to receive) reçoiv- recev-
croire (to believe) croi- croy-
venir (to come) vienn- ven-
prendre (to take) prenn- pren-

Past Subjunctive in French

In addition to the present subjunctive, we have the passé, imparfait, and plus-que-parfait subjunctive forms. Although the subjonctif passé is used in everyday conversation, the imparfait du subjonctif and the plus-que-parfait du subjonctif are primarily used in literature or very formal situations.

Subjonctif Passé

To form the subjonctif passé (past subjunctive):

  1. Take an auxiliary verb, either avoir or être, and conjugate it to the present simple tense
  2. Place the past participle of the main verb (the one you want to use) after the auxiliary verb

Here's how appeler (to call) and venir (to come) would look in the past subjunctive:

avoir + appeler (to call) être + venir (to come)
que j’aie appelé que je sois venu(e)
que tu aies appelé que tu sois venu(e)
qu’elle, il, on ait appelé qu’elle, il, on soit venu(e)
que nous ayons appelé que nous soyons venu(e)s
que vous ayez appelé que vous soyez venu(e)(s)
qu’elles, ils aient appelé qu’elles, ils soient venu(e)s

The subjonctif passé is used to express current feelings about a past event. For example, if you are feeling curious about the absence of someone from a party that took place the previous evening, you might say:

  • “Il est étrange que David ne soit pas venu à la fête hier soir.”
    It’s strange that David did not come to the party yesterday evening.
  • “Quel dommage qu’il ne nous ait pas appelés.”
    How unfortunate that he didn’t call us
Photo by Nicola Fioravanti / Unsplash

Imparfait du Subjonctif and Plus-que-parfait du Subjonctif

Conjugations for the imparfait du subjonctif and the plus-que-parfait du subjonctif are the following:

sortir (to go out) détruire (to destroy)
que je sortisse que j’eusse détruit
que tu sortisses que tu eusses détruit
qu’elle, il, on sortît qu’elle, il, on eût détruit
que nous sortissions que nous eussions détruit
que vous sortissiez que vous eussiez détruit
qu’elles, ils sortissent qu’elles, ils eussent détruit

The imparfait du subjonctif and the plus-que-parfait du subjonctif are primarily used in literature. In everyday speech, they typically get replaced by the the subjonctif présent and the subjonctif passé, respectively.

Thus, “Il était triste que le soleil ne sortît pas” becomes “Il était triste que le soleil ne sorte pas” ("It was sad that the sun did not come out.") in everyday speech, and “Nous craignions que le vent violent eût détruit la grange” becomes “Nous craignions que le vent violent ait détruit la grange” (“We feared that the strong wind had destroyed the barn.”)

When is the French Subjunctive Used?

There are four broad categories for which the subjunctive is used in French: emotion, judgment, volition, and necessity. Here is a table with some common phrases from each category that function as triggers for the subjunctive:

Sentiment
(Emotion)
Il est étonnant que... It is surprising that...
J’ai peur que... I am afraid that...
Je doute que... I doubt that...
Je préfère que... I prefer that...
Je regrette que... I regret that...
Je suis contente, content que... I'm glad that...
Jugement
(Judgment)
Ce n’est pas la peine que... It is not necessary that...
Il est bien que... It is good that...
Il est douteux que... It is doubtful that...
Il est temps que... It is time that...
Je ne suis pas sûre, sûr que... I am not sure that...
Quel dommage que... What a pity that...
Volonté
(Volition)
J’exige que... I demand that...
Je permets que... I allow that...
Je préfère que... I prefer that...
Je propose que... I propose that...
Je souhaite que... I wish that...
Je veux que... I want that...

💡 While in English we often omit the word that – it's perfectly fine to say both I wish you would come and I wish that you would come – you cannot omit que in French.

Nécessité
(Necessity)
Il est important que... It is important that...
Il est nécessaire que... It is necessary that...
Il est peu probable que... It is unlikely that...
Il est possible que... It is possible that...
Il faut que... it is obligatory/mandatory that...
Il semble que... It seems that...

N.B. The verb espérer, although a synonym of souhaiter, takes the indicative form.

Eventually you'll develop a sense for when the subjunctive is and isn't necessary, but until then, you can instead accumulate stock phases (such as the above ones) to introduce a subjunctive phrase. For example:

  • Il est peu probable que nous habitions la planète Mars.
    It's unlikely that we will inhabit the planet Mars.
  • Nous ne sommes pas sûrs qu’il pleuve.
    We're not sure that it's raining.
  • Il est étonnant que vous sachiez parler tellement de langues
    It is amazing that you know how to speak so many languages.

Don't Forget: Two Important Rules

Here are two general rules about using the subjunctive:

  1. The subjunctive is used in dependent clauses. This means that it will be used with a sentence begins with one small phrase (such as those stock phrases we shared above) that ends in que or qui, then continues on with a second thing.
  2. The subject of the part of the sentence coming before que/qui must be different from the subject of the part of the sentence coming after que/qui.

If you don't see the word que/qui, or if the subject is the the same both before and after que/qui, then you won't use the subjunctive.

You can see these principles at play in the following sentences:

  1. On prépare une grande surprise avant qu’il vienne.
    We're preparing a big surprise before he comes.
  2. Il a mis un chapeau avant de sortir.
    He put on a hat before going out.
  3. On fera une grande promenade au parc à moins qu’il pleuve très fort.
    We'll take a long walk in the park unless it's raining very hard.
  4. Elle mettra ses lunettes de soleil à moins de les oublier à la maison.
    She'll put on her glasses unless she leaves them at home.

Sentences one and three each have two different subjects, one for each of two actions, so the part of the sentence following que takes the subjunctive. In sentences two and four there is no que (and furthermore there is only one subject), so the indicative form is used instead of the subjunctive.

Note: Certain conjunctions require the use of the subjunctive mood (while others require the use of the indicative mood.) As such, the following example sentences all feature the subjunctive mood even though the same subject comes both before and after ~que.

1. quoique (although) Il mange quoiqu’il soit très malade
He eats even though he is very ill.
2. jusqu’à ce que (until) Je lis mon livre jusqu’à ce que je m’endorme.
I read my book until I fall asleep.
3. pourvu que
(given/provided that)
Je viendrai à la fête pourvu que je finisse mes devoirs.
I will come to the party as long as I finish my homework.

Conclusion

Familiarity with the subjunctive comes the same way anything else in language does: with practice and repetition. The subjunctive is everywhere, once you know what to look out for, and before long it will become second nature!

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💡 Read more

  1. Understanding Conditional Phrases and Si Clauses in French
  2. How to Use Present Participles in French
  3. Do You Really Need to Know the Passé Simple in French?