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:
- I wish that she were here right now.
Notice she were instead of she was. This verb is in the
subjunctive mood. Sometimes, in day-to-day speech, some people might say
"I wish that she was here." However, this is not good English.
- She requests that he come to the meeting tomorrow.
Here, he come is in the subjunctive mood as well.
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
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
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
- douter que = to doubt that
Ex. Je doute que vous fassiez vos devoirs. = I doubt that you
are doing your homework.
Here, the verb fassiezis the present subjunctive form of
- ne pas croire que = to not believe
Ex. Nous ne croyons pas que le monde soit rond. = We do not
believe that the world is round.
The verb soit is the present subjunctive form of être
Note that the expression "croire que" does NOT require the
subjunctive because no doubt is implied. Thus, we would say "Nous
croyons que le monde est rond. (present indicative)
- Il est douteux que = it is
Ex. Il est douteux que vous arriviez à l'heure. = It is
doutful that you will arrive on time.
Note: Even though we express the action in the second clause in the future
tense in English, we must use the present subjunctive in French.
- *Il semble que; il ne semble pas
que = It (doesn't) seem
Ex. Il semble que l'école ne produise pas
intelligents. = It seems that the school isn't producing intelligent
Note: In English, "it seems that" doesn't seem to imply a lot of doubt.
However, it implies some uncertainty and thus, in French, requires the
subjunctive. The expression "Il me semble que" = "It seems to me
that" does not require the subjunctive. Presumably, this is because
there is less doubt. Thus, "Il me semble que
l'école ne produit pas d'élèves
intelligents. *This rule is still under debate. Please adhere to
your instructor's direction if there is a conflict.
- Il est (im)possible que = It is
Ex. Il est possible que nous allions en vacances. = It is
possible that we may go on vacation.
- Il se peut que = It is possible
Ex. Il se peut que mes frères sachent faire la lessive. =
It is possible (that) my brothers know how to do the laundry.
- Il ne paraît pas que = It
doesn't seem that
Ex. Il ne paraît pas que l'hiver parte bientôt. = It
doesn't seem that winter will be leaving soon.
Note: Because there is no future subjunctive, the present subjunctive
serves to indicate the future meaning.
- Il est faux que = It is false
Ex. Il est faux que l'Indiana soit au bord de l'océan. =
It is false that Indiana is next to the ocean.
- Il est incroyable que = It is
Ex. Il est incroyable que cet animal puisse parler. = It is
unbelievable that this animal can talk.
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:
- Il faut que = It is necessary
Ex. Il faut que ma voiture soit réparée avant de
partir. = It is necessary that my car be repaired before leaving.
Note: The negative Il ne faut pas que does not simply mean "It is
not necessary that." The statement Il ne faut pas que ma voiture soit
réparée avant de partir means "My car MAY NOT be
repaired before leaving." Therefore, if someone tells you: Il ne faut
pas que vous sortiez, he is not saying, "It isn't necessary that
you go out." He means, "It is necessary that you NOT go out." In
other words, he is not offering a choice.
- Il est nécessaire que =
It is necessary that
Ex. Il est nécessaire que le défilé commence
à l'heure. = It is necessary that the parade start on time
Note: commence is in the subjunctive mood, however, its form is
the same as the present indicative.
- Il est essentiel que = It is
Ex. Il est essentiel que mon collègue et moi finissions ce projet
de chimie. = It is essential that my colleague and I finish this
- Il est important que = It
is important that
Ex. Il est important que vous votiez pour le meilleur candidat. =
It is important that you vote for the better candidate.
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:
- Il (n')est (pas) bon que = It
is (not) good that
Ex. Il n'est pas bon que nous dormions pendant toute la
journée. = It is not good that we sleep the whole day.
- (ne pas) vouloir que = (not) to
This structure in French often causes many problems for introductory
students because it is very dissimilar to English. In English we can
say, "I want you to go to the store" which means "I desire that you go to
the store." In French, it is impossible to use "want" in this way. To
translate a sentence like that into French, one must say, "I want that
you go to the store." And, such a structure requires the subjunctive.
Note the examples below:
Ex. Ma mère veut que je fasse mes devoirs = My mother
wants me to do my homework. (literally) My mother wants THAT I do my
Nos amis et moi, nous ne voulons pas que le ciel tombe. = My
friends and I, we don't want the sky to fall. (literally) My friends and
I, we don't want that the sky falls.
Just remember that when you're talking about something you want to do,
you can simply avoid the subjunctive:
Ex. Je veux aller à l'école. is the same as Je veux
que j'aille à l'école.
As long as the person(s) that are wanting are the same person(s) who are
doing, just use vouloir + the infinitive. It is only when the
person(s) wanting and the person(s) doing are different that the
subjunctive is required.
Ex. Nous voulons faire du ski. = We want to go skiing.
The persons wanting (we), and the persons doing the skiing (we) are the
same. Thus, use vouloir + infinitive.
Nous voulons que notre ami fasse du ski = We want our friend to go
Here, the persons wanting (we) and the person doing the skiing (our
friend) are different. Thus, use the construction vouloir que
followed by the subordinate clause in the subjunctive.
- (ne pas) aimer que = (not) to like
Ex. J'aime qu'il ne pleuve pas. = I like that it's not
Vous n'aimez pas que votre ennemi vienne ce soir. = You don't like
that your enemy is coming this evening.
- (ne pas) désirer que =
(not) to desire that
Ex. Le président de la République désire que
l'éléctorat le choisisse. = The President of the
Republic desires that the electorate choose him.
- Il (n')est (pas)
préférable que = It is (not) preferable that
Ex. Il n'est pas préférable que l'étudiant
rate le cours. = It is not preferable that the student fail the
- préférer que = to
Ex. Je préfère que tu n'éternues pas. = I prefer
that you not sneeze.
- (ne pas) insister que = (not)
to insist that
Ex. Le professeur n'insiste pas que nous rendions le devoir
= The professor doesn't insisit that we hand in the homework
Note: The verb rendre means "to give back" or "to render."
In this case, it is translated as "to hand in." In some cases, it can also
mean "to vomit."
- tenir à ce que = to
Ex. Vous tenez à ce que le travail soit bien fait. =
You insist that the work be done well.
Note: tenir à ce que is an entire expression. It is
not correct to say tenir que. Other expressions like
these will be discussed later.
- exiger que = to require
Ex. Mes camarades de chambre exigent que je paie le loyer. =
My roommates require that I pay the rent.
Note: exiger can also be used in the impersonal expression
il est exigé que. = It is required that.
Ex. Il est exigé que l'on stationne la voiture ailleurs. = It
is required that people park their cars elsewhere.
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:
- avant que = before
Ex. Nous ne partirons pas pour la Floride avant que mon pere (ne) sache où nous allons. = We will not leave for Florida before my father knows where we are going.
The "ne" in parentheses is referred to as the "pleonastic ne." It has no negative meaning and is only used in writing following a few conjunctions and expressions of fear which will be covered later. Its use is no longer manditory and it is being used less and less, even in formal writing.
- sans que = without
Ex. Il a fini le travail sans que son voisin (ne) s'en rende compte. = He finished the work without his neighbor realizing it.
The "pleonastic ne" can also be used with this conjunction.
- jusqu'à ce que = until
Ex. Tu ne peux pas recevoir ton diplôme juqu'à ce que tu finisses tes cours. = You cannot receive your diploma until you finish your classes.
- à moins que = unless
Ex. Il ne survivra pas à moins que les meilleurs médecins (ne) le soignent. = He will not survive unless the best doctors treat him.
Again, we find the "pleonastic ne" following this conjuction. Remember that it has no negative meaning and is not obligatory.
- pour que = so that; in order that
Ex. La ville a établi des limites de vitesse pour que les conducteurs ne conduisent pas trop vite. = The city established speed limits so that drivers would not drive too fast.
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."
- avoir peur que = to be afraid that; to fear that
Ex: Le chat a peur que le chien (ne) le morde. = The cat is afraid that the dog will bite it.
- craindre que = to fear that; to be afraid that
Ex: Je crains que ma fiancée (n')ait une panne de voiture.
= I am afraid that my fiancee is having car problems.
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:
- Nous cherchons quelqu'un qui puisse travailler indépendamment. = We are looking for someone who could work independently.
Remember: The main point of the subjunctive here is to indicate doubt or uncertainty about the existence of the person who can work independently. That person has not yet been located.
- Il ne connaît personne qui veuille venir à la fête. = He doesn't know anyone who would want to come to the party.
In this example, there is no one who wants to come to the party. Since such as person is nonexistent, the subjunctive is used. However, if there is someone who wants to go to the party, the subjunctive is NOT used:
- Il connaît quelqu'un qui VEUT venir à la fête. = He knows someone who WANTS to come to the party.
The main point here is that the person talked about does exist and is not theoretical. In such a case, use the indicative.
- Il n'y a rien du tout dans cette situation qui soit compréhensible. = There is nothing at all about this situation that is understandable.
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.
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.
E-mail me with comments, suggestions, encouragement or discouragement at
©Copyright 1997-2000 by Stephen C. Ohlhaut
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