Ah, the infamous French subjunctive! French learners and native speakers alike have a certain difficulty knowing exactly when to use subjunctive French, so this verb mood has quite the reputation. It’s not that complicated though!
At its core, the French subjunctive is known as a verbal mood that is used to express a couple of underlying sentiments:
- Uncertainty: the fact that a statement is not definitively known to be true
- Subjectivity: the fact that a statement is influenced by personal views or ideas
As for sentence structure, the French subjunctive always follows the word que. Le subjonctif is used in one clause of a multi-clause sentence, and each clause has its own subject.
Translating from English is rarely helpful, because the English subjunctive is usually indistinguishable. Sometimes you have slightly different forms to express the English subjunctive, but for the most part, it’s best to focus on French when thiking about the subjunctive.
With these basic rules in mind, we can move on to our discussion of when to use the subjunctive in French. In this post we’ll focus on the different scenarios that call for le subjonctif, breaking it down by context and providing plenty of subjunctive French examples.
This is not a lesson on subjunctive conjugation, although we’ll be sure to only use examples where the verbs show unique subjunctive forms, all highlighted in italics. For specifics on conjugation, check out our dedicated post on le subjonctif présent, and our big post on French verb conjugation.
Now let’s dive in and learn when to use subjunctive French!
Understanding the French subjunctive
To begin with, what is the subjunctive in French? Fundamentally, imagine it as a way to express uncertainty and subjectivity.
When we use the indicative mood in French (like le présent or le passé composé), we’re stating facts and events as they are.
But when we use the subjunctive mood in French (usually le subjonctif présent or le passé du subjonctif), we’re entering the realm of possibilities, emotions, and what-ifs.
So, we need to use the French subjunctive when we’re not certain or definite about what’s happening or how we feel.
Take a look at the following examples that illustrate this idea.
- Ils sont à la maison. – They are home.
- Il se peut qu’ils soient à la maison. – It’s possible that they are home.
In the first example, we use the indicative mood to express that they are definitely at home. We can see them through the window and we are certain they are home. However, in the second example, we use the subjunctive mood to express that they might be home, but we are not sure. We can see a light on, but we don’t see anyone in the window.
When to use the French subjunctive
In the following sections we’ll outline exactly when to use the French subjunctive, providing examples for each linguistic prompt.
To demonstrate the lessons in each of our example sentences, we’ll put the prompt in bold, and the resulting subjunctive French in italics.
Expressing doubt or uncertainty
The fundamental prompt for when to use the French subjunctive is when we express doubt or uncertainty. Whether you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t believe what’s happening, or you’re in denial about what’s happening, you’ll need to use le subjonctif to express your thoughts.
French verbs that are often used to introduce uncertainty include include douter que (to doubt that) and ne pas être sûr que (to not be sure that).
- Je doute qu’il puisse le faire. – I doubt that he is able to do it.
- Nous ne sommes pas sûrs que ce soit la bonne réponse. – We are not sure that this is the right answer.
We can also use the French subjunctive when we want to be intentionally vague, as with expressions like peu importe que (no matter how) or quoi que (whatever, however). Note that in many instances, this notion of vagueness is introduced by a specific set of French expressions that trigger the subjunctive.
- Peu importe que tu aies peu de temps, fais de ton mieux. – No matter how little time you have, do your best.
- Quoi que je fasse, il n’est jamais assez. – Whatever I do, it’s never enough.
Expressing emotions or desires
The next prompt for when to use the French subjunctive is when we want to express an emotion or a desire. Note that these prompts must follow a certain structure to use the French subjunctive, such as I am happy that or I wish that, using que, whereas the English translations often omit the that.
Many French verbs can be used to introduce emotions or wishes, including vouloir que (to want that), souhaiter que (to wish that), désirer que (to desire that), and craindre que (to fear that).
- Ma mère est contente que je revienne plus tôt que prévu. – My mother is happy that I’m coming back earlier than planned.
- Nous voulons que tu réussisses. – We want you to succeed.
- Ses parents exigent qu’il suive cette formation. – His parents insist that he take this training.
- Je crains qu’il soit trop tard. – I’m afraid that it’s too late.
Expressing opionions and preferences
Regarding preference, we use subjunctive French when expressing the option we like best. Préférer que (to prefer that) is the formulation which triggers the subjunctive in the following verb, whereas without the que the following verb is simply in the infinitive.
- Vous préférez manger à votre poste de travail, mais nous préférons que vous preniez une pause et que vous mangiez à la cafétéria. – You prefer eating at your workstation, but we prefer that you take a break and that you eat in the cafeteria.
- Je préfère écrire en majuscules, mais mon professeur préfère que j’écrive en minuscules. – I prefer to write in all-caps, but my professor prefers that I write in lowercase.
Opinions can sometimes be expressed through superlatives, in which case they trigger the subjunctive. When superlatives are used to state facts, on the other hand, the certainty is underlined through the use of the indicative.
- Le premier Harry Potter est le meilleur livre que j’aie jamais lu. – The first Harry Potter is the best book that I’ve ever read. (here we use subjunctive French to show that it’s an opinion with some measure of uncertainty: perhaps I’ve actually read a better book.)
- Le premier Harry Potter est le plus long livre que j’ai jamais lu. – The first Harry Potter is the longest book that I’ve ever read. (we use the indicative because there’s no opinion or uncertainty here: this is the longest book I’ve ever read)
In most cases, the French subjunctive is only used with the expressions penser que and croire que when they are negated and therefore express uncertainty. When used affirmatively, these expressions are followed by the French indicative, since in this case they express certainty.
- Je crois que je sais comment jouer au Quidditch, mais je ne crois pas que je sache toutes les règles. – I believe that I know how to play Quidditch, but I don’t believe that I know all of the rules.
- Je pense qu’il peut voler très bien sur son balai, mais je ne pense pas qu’il puisse attraper le vif d’or. – I think he can fly very well on his broom, but I don’t think he can catch the golden snitch.
Impersonal expressions and hypothetical situations
You’ll often see French phrases for necessity and obligation with impersonal expressions, which is a fancy way of referring to expressions that use the pronoun il to mean it rather than point to a specific subject.
The most common phrase in this category is certainly il faut que (it is necessary that). Other common phrases include il est nécessaire que (it is necessary that), il est important que (it is important that), and il est essentiel que (it is essential that). In many cases, these impersonal expressions are followed by le subjonctif. For other options, check out our related post with different ways to express obligation in French.
- Il est nécessaire que vous fassiez attention à la présentation. – It is necessary that you pay attention to the presentation.
- Il est essentiel que vous soumettiez votre rapport avant de partir en vacances. – It is essential that you submit your report before leaving on vacation.
Impersonal expressions can also be used to convey doubt, emotions, desires, opinions, and preferences. Generally speaking, these expressions follow the structure il est + adjective + que.
- Il est préférable que tu refléchisses avant de prendre une décision. – It is preferable that you think before making a decision.
- Il est étrange que vous soyez toujours en retard. – It is strange that you are always late.
- Il est dommage qu’elles n’aient pas eu l’occasion de parler. – It’s a shame that they didn’t have the chance to speak.
Finally, some impersonal expressions introduce hypothetical situations. Such expressions include il est possible que (it is possible that), il se peut que (it may be that), and il est probable que (it is probable that).
- Il est possible qu’elle y aille. – It is possible that she is going there.
- Il se peut que nous partions chez ses parents pour Noël. – It may be that we go to her parents’ place for Christmas.
The nuances of when to use the French subjunctive are notorious, but with practice, you’ll sound like a pro in no time!
Remember that the subjunctive mood is more than just a set of trigger phrases and conjugations – it’s a gateway to conveying emotions, doubts, necessity, desires, and more, in a way that resonates with native French speakers.
By understanding the underlying principles and embracing the subtle distinctions we covered here, you’re poised to use le subjonctif with confidence and finesse.
So, whether you find yourself sharing doubts, expressing emotions, or exploring hypotheticals, let the French subjunctive be your guide in captivating conversations and vivid verbalizations. Embrace the challenge and enjoy the impact that your words will undoubtedly have!