Last updated November 6, 1997 at 6:49 p.m. EST

For those not familiar with English grammar, the word "subjunctive" is bound to be totally foreign. However, the subjunctive mood exists in English, too. Usually, we use it after the word "that" when the first clause implies some doubt or wishing. Take these examples:
In both sentences, the subjunctive is found after a clause where the following two conditions are met:

1. The preceding clause contains a phrase indicating some wishing, desiring or doubt.
2. The preceding clause ends with "that". Note: Sometimes, "that" is implied and not stated.

It must be said that the subjunctive is dying out in English. Generally speaking, we avoid the subjunctive or simply omit it even when it is required. We should use the subjunctive in "IF" clauses, but this use is no longer manditory.
Ex. If I were still young, I'd finish that mile-long race.
It has become common to say, "If I was still young, I'd finish that mile-long race."

I am including this brief summary of the subjunctive in English in order to demonstrate what the subjunctive does in our own language so that the French usage can be clearer.

In French, the subjunctive is much more common than in English. It is impossible to be a fluent, coherent speaker of French without some grasp of the subjunctive mood. Since the subjunctive is a mood (or mode), it can exist in more than one tense. Thus, there is a present subjunctive, past subjunctive, imperfect subjunctive and pluperfect subjunctive. There is no future subjunctive, however. Obviously, mastery of the present subjunctive is more important than the others. In fact, most native French speakers couldn't conjugate a verb in the imperfect subjunctive or the pluperfect subjunctive if they had to. The reasons for that will be discussed later. For now, let's concentrate on the uses for the subjunctive.

The subjunctive is used normally in a subordinate clause (in other words, after the word que or some other conjuctions) where the preceding main clause requires the subjunctive. Like in English, French requires the subjunctive where the main clause expresses some doubt, wishing or emotion.

Expressions of doubt requiring the subjunctive

Impersonal expressions of necessity requiring the subjunctive

In French, impersonal expressions of necessity require the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. In English, an example of an impersonal expression of necessity would be: "It is essential that he finish the work." The subject of the main clause is "it." However, "it" doesn't refer to any person, place, thing or concept; it has no antecedent. That is why the expression "it is essential" is considered impersonal. The rule is the same for the French equivalent Il est essentiel. Some common expressions of necessity include:

Expressions of desirability and insistance

Most expressions of desirability or insistance in French, whether personal or impersonal require the subjunctive. Most of these expressions require the subjunctive even if the expression is in the negative. For instance, "I desire that you come" and "I DON'T desire that you come" would both require the subjunctive in French. Here are some of these expressions:

Conjunctions requiring the subjunctive

There are many conjunctions in French that require the subjunctive following them. It is very difficult to know which conjunctions require the subjunctive and which don't. Memorization is about the only sure way to get it right. Unfortunately, i t would be impossible to reproduce an exhaustive list, but here are some of the most important:

Expressions of fear

In French, there are two principal expressions used for fear. Both of these expressions, when followed by que require the subjunctive and, when desired, the pleonastic 'ne'. They are "avoir peur" and "craindre". Craindre is an irregular verb that is conjugated like "joindre."

Indefinite antecedents

Probably the most interesting use of the subjunctive in French is in the case of an indefinite antecedent. This is one of the few times that the subjunctive can exist in a sentence without the word que.

An indefinite antecedent exists when the object talked about, or referenced in the main clause is nonexistant or its existance is in doubt. This case comes about usually when talking about a search for something or someone with certain qualities. Here a re a few examples:


A superlative is an expression of totality or uniqueness that, in English, is usually expressed with the ending "-est" and some other words. For example, words such as "greatest", "best", "most", "only" are examples of superlatives. The way in which the superlative is formed will be discussed elsewhere. When these equivalents in French are followed by que, they are normally followed by a clause in the subjunctive. Some examples:

  • Voilà la plus belle femme que j'aie jamais vue. = There is the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen.

  • La seule voiture bleue que nous puissions conduire se trouve là bas. = The only blue car that we can drive is located over there.

    See Forms of the present subjunctive for help with verb conjugations in the this mood.

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