French Grammar: The Subjunctive – Basics

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French Grammar: The Subjunctive – Basics
la grammaire française: le subjonctif – une introduction

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The subjunctive is not a verb tense, but a mood. It is an alternative verb form that has to be used in certain circumstances.  “Mood” is actually a good way to think of the subjunctive, since it often expresses a particular emotional mood – sadness, happiness, anger, desire, hopefulness, uncertainty, doubt, denial, etc.

The mood (sometimes called the mode) of a verb expresses an attitude toward the verb or describes how it is used in the sentence. There are two moods in French: the indicative mood and the subjunctive mood.  The more common of the two moods is the indicative mood. The first forms of verbs learned in French are usually in the indicative mood. The indicative is used to indicate or express actions that definitely are taking place, did take place, or will take place. The subjunctive mood expresses the opposite of the indicative; it expresses what may happen or what may have happened.

Another way to look at the indicative and subjunctive moods is this:  The indicative is used to talk about reality – i.e., what is (or what was, or what will be).  The subjunctive is used to talk about what the subject would like the reality to be.  The subjunctive is, in a sense, one’s imposition of their own subjective reality on a situation that may or may not be likely to occur.  Note that ‘SUBJunctive’ and ‘SUBJective’ both begin with the same four letters – this is not a coincidence!

Examples:

FACT: Michel is courteous. (Indicative)

DESIRE: Michel’s parents want him to be courteous. (Subjunctive)

FACT: She is already here. (Indicative)

DOUBT:  I doubt that she is already here. (Subjunctive)

The subjunctive is used more in French than it is in English.

It is important to not only be able to understand the subjunctive mood, but also to be able to use it correctly – that is, to know when to use it.

Michel se porte bien. (Indicative)
Michael behaves well.

Les parents de Michel veulent qu’il se porte bien. (Subjunctive)

Michael’s parents want him to behave well.

Ils insistent qu’il soit poli. (Subjunctive)

They insist that he be polite.

The first sentences states what is and is in the indicative mood. The second and third sentences state what Michel’s parents would like the case to be. Those sentences are in the subjunctive mood. Even though Michel’s parents want him to behave well and insist that he be polite, it is not a fact that he will act as they want – he may or may not behave well and be polite!  And because this may or may not happen, the subjunctive must be used in French. (Note, though, that the English subjunctive was used in the translation of the third example!  In the indicative mood, we would normally say “He IS polite.” – but because we’re using the English subjunctive, the translation becomes “They insist that he BE polite.”)

The subjunctive is used when we do not know if the action will take place. If we know that it is or will be a reality, the indicative is used. The subjunctive is used to express doubt, how a person feels about an action or state of being, a wish, intent or command. It can also be used to express facts that are the opposite of reality.

The subjunctive used to be used in English more than it is today, but we still hear the subjunctive in more formal speech. Seeing how the subjunctive is used in English may help you decide better when to use it in French.

I would like it if he WERE my father.
(expresses desire)

I insist that he GO.

(expresses a request)

We recommended that he FILL out the form.

(expresses advice)

Let’s compare the indicative and the subjunctive:

 Indicative  Subjunctive
 Indicates or points something out  Is subjective (not objective)
 Is factual  Not factual
 Statement stands alone  Statement can not stand alone
 Is independent  Is dependent on something

Studying the chart above can be helpful in learning the uses of the subjunctive as it compares to the indicative. The French subjunctive occurs primarily in dependent clauses.  The dependent clause that contains the subjunctive usually follows a main clause that contains the indicative.  The main and dependent clauses must have a different subject, and the clauses are linked by que (or qu’).

WHEN TO USE THE SUBJUNCTIVE?

The subjunctive is used in numerous circumstances. A good way to remember what these circumstances are is to learn the acronym “WEIRDOS + C” :

Wants / Wishes –> (Je désire que … : I wish that …)
Emotions –> (Je suis surpris que … : I am surprised that …)
Impersonal Expressions –> (Il est nécessaire que … : It is necessary that …)
Requests / Recommendations
–> (Je demande que … : I ask that …)
Doubts / Denial
–> (Je doute que … : I doubt that …)
Opinions
–> (C’est une chance que … : It’s lucky that …)
Superlatives –> (…le meilleur … que … : … the best … that …)
+
Certain Conjunctions
–> (Afin que … : In order that …)

These circumstances are explained in detail in other LEAF French Grammar lessons on the subjunctive.

Adapt:

Je veux qu’il soit content.

I want him to be happy.

Je doute qu’ils viennent.

I doubt that they are coming.

Le chef insiste que ses employés arrivent à l’heure.

The boss insists that his employees arrive on time.

Il faut que Jean étudie plus.

It’s necessary that Jean study more.

Il est possible que nous voyagions en France l’année prochaine.

It is possible that we will travel to France next year.

Je suis contente que tu puisses me rendre visite en automne.
I am happy that you can visit me in the Fall.

Le professeur demande que vous fassiez les devoirs.

The professor asks that you all do the homework.

Le médecin suggère que je fasse plus d’exercice.

The doctor suggests that I do more exercise.

Que la force soit avec toi.

May the force be with you.

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