The Present Subjunctive

The present subjunctive is used much more frequently in French than in English (where it has been largely replaced by the indicative) and, therefore, needs special attention.

Note: Here are a few examples of the subjunctive in English:

  • I demand that he see a doctor.
  • If the apple were ripe, it would be delicious.
  • She looks as if she were sick.

Forming the present subjunctive

The present subjunctive of regular verbs and of many irregular verbs is formed by dropping the ‐ ent from the third person plural ( ils/ elles) form of the present tense and adding the endings shown in Table 1.


 

Some irregular verbs and some verbs with spelling changes use two different stems (the verb form to which endings are added) to form the present subjunctive:

  • The ils stem of the present tense for je, tu, il/elle/on, ils/elles.
  • The nous form of the present tense for nous and vous.

The following list gives examples of verbs that use two different stems:

 

 

The following verbs are completely irregular and must be memorized:

Verbs with one stem:

  • faire: je fasse, tu fasses, il fasse, nous fassions, vous fassiez, ils fassent
  • falloir: il faille
  • pleuvoir: il pleuve
  • pouvoir: je puisse, tu puisses, il puisse, nous puissions, vous puissiez, ils puissent
  • savoir: je sache, tu saches, il sache, nous sachions, vous sachiez, ils sachent

Verbs with two stems:

  • aller: j'aille, tu ailles, il aille, nous allions, vous alliez, il aillent
  • avoir: j'aie, tu aies, il ait, nous ayons, vous ayez, ils aient
  • être: je sois, tu sois, il soit, nous soyons, vous soyez, ils soient
  • valoir: je vaille, tu vailles, il vaille, nous valions, vous valiez, ils vaillent
  • vouloir: je veuille, tu veuilles, il veuille, nous voulions, vous vouliez, ils veuillent

Using the present subjunctive

The present subjunctive refers to actions in the present or the future. For example:

  • Il est nécessaire que je finisse mon travail. (It's necessary that I finish my work.)

The subjunctive is needed when all of the following conditions are met:

  • The sentence contains two different clauses (a dependent and a main clause) with two different subjects.
  • The clauses are joined by que (that) or, in special instances, by qui (who).
  • One of the clauses shows a wish, want, need, necessity, emotion, doubt, or denial, or one of the clauses requires the subjunctive in some other respect (see the corresponding sections below).

After impersonal expressions

The subjunctive is used after impersonal expressions that show doubt, emotion, need, or opinion:

  • Il faut que tu ailles chez le docteur. (It is necessary that you go to the doctor.)

The expressions below are all followed by que and require the subjunctive in the clause that follows:

  • il est absurde (it is absurd)
  • il est amusant (it is amusing)
  • il est bon (it is good)
  • il est curieux (it is curious)
  • il est dommage (it is a pity)
  • il est douteux (it is doubtful)
  • il est essentiel (it is essential)
  • il est étonnant (it is amazing)
  • il est étrange (it is strange)
  • il est gentil (it is nice)
  • il est impératif (it is imperative)
  • il est important (it is important)
  • il est impossible (it is impossible)
  • il est indispensable (it is indispensable)
  • il est injuste (it is unfair)
  • il est intéressant (it is interesting)
  • il est ironique (it is ironic)
  • il est juste (it is fair)
  • il est naturel (it is natural)
  • il est nécessaire (it is necessary)
  • il est normal (it is normal)
  • il est possible (it is possible)
  • il est préférable (it is preferable)
  • il est rare (it is rare)
  • il est regrettable (it is regrettable)
  • il est surprenant (it is surprising)
  • il est temps (it is time)
  • il est urgent (it is urgent)
  • il est utile (it is useful)
  • il convient (it is fitting)
  • il faut (it is necessary)
  • il semble (it seems)
  • il suffit (it is enough)
  • il vaut mieux (it is better)

For many impersonal expressions, c'est may be used in place of il est: C'est étrange qu'il ne vienne pas. (It's strange that he isn't coming.)

After verbs and expressions of doubt, denial, and disbelief

The subjunctive is used after verbs and expressions of doubt, denial, and disbelief. When doubt is negated, certainty or probability exists and the indicative tenses (present, passé composé, imperfect, future) are used. Many verbs and expressions show certainty and probability. When these verbs and expressions, shown in Table 2, are used in the negative or the interrogative, they imply uncertainty or doubt and require the subjunctive.


 

  • Subjunctive is used: Je ne suis pas sûre qu'elle parte en vacances. (I'm not sure that she will be going away on vacation.)
  • Future tense is used: Je suis sûre qu'elle partira en vacances. (I'm sure that she will be going away on vacation.)

The subjunctive expresses a potential action whose realization is in doubt or is uncertain. The desired purpose or end may never be met. There is a distinct difference in mental outlook between the indicative il est probable (it is probable) and the subjunctive il est possible (it is possible):

  • Il est probable qu'il vendra sa voiture. (It is probable that he will sell his car.)
  • Il est possible qu'il vende sa voiture. (It is possible that he will sell his car.)

That same difference exists between the indicative il paraît (it appears) and the subjunctive il semble (it seems):

  • Il paraît que tu sais la réponse. (It appears that you know the answer.)
  • Il semble que tu saches la réponse. (It seems that you know the answer.)

After declarative verbs or verbs of opinion or knowledge—such as penser (to think), croire (to believe), espérer (to hope), affirmer (to affirm), assurer (to assure), remarquer (to notice), and estimer (to esteem)—the indicative or the subjunctive is selected depending on the degree of certainty or uncertainty that the speaker wishes to convey or on the speaker's attitude toward the statement contained in the clause: If the action is viewed as potentially happening, use the subjunctive, and if it is an accomplished fact, use the indicative.

Used affirmatively, these verbs of opinion or knowledge usually require the indicative because they show belief, conviction, or knowledge on the part of the speaker: Je crois qu'elle recevra le prix (I believe she'll receive the prize). Used negatively or interrogatively, these verbs usually (but not always) take the subjunctive because they convey doubt or uncertainty:

  • The speaker has no doubt, so the indicative is used: Pensez‐vous qu'elle peut réussir? (Do you think she can succeed?)
  • The speaker has doubts, so the subjunctive is used: Pensez‐vous qu'elle puisse réussir? (Do you think she can succeed?)

After a wish or a command

The subjunctive is used in the clause following verbs that express a wish, request, command, permission, prohibition, preference, or desire. For example:

  • Mon père défend que nous allions voir ce film. (My father forbids us to see that film.)
  • Il préfère que nous fassions nos devoirs. (He prefers that we do our homework.)

Here is a list of such verbs:

  • aimer mieux (to prefer)
  • commander (to order)
  • conseiller (to advise)
  • consentir (to consent)
  • demander (to ask)
  • défendre (to forbid)
  • désirer (to desire)
  • empêcher (to prevent)
  • exiger (to demand)
  • insister (to insist)
  • interdire (to forbid)
  • ordonner (to order)
  • permettre (to permit)
  • préférer (to prefer)
  • souhaiter (to wish)
  • suggérer (to suggest)
  • vouloir (to want)

After adjectives, nouns, verbs, and expressions of emotion and feeling

The subjunctive is used after adjectives, nouns, verbs, and expressions of emotion and feeling.

To express emotions using adjectives, use the subject pronoun + être (conjugated) + adjective + que + the subjunctive:

  • Il est ravi que vous veniez le voir. (He is delighted that you are coming to see him.)

The following adjectives follow the verb être (to be):

  • content ( e) (content)
  • désolé ( e) (sorry)
  • embarrassé (embarrassed)
  • enchanté ( e) , ravi( e) (delighted)
  • ennuyé ( e) (annoyed)
  • étonné ( e) (astonished)
  • fâché ( e) (angry)
  • fier ( fière) (proud)
  • flatté ( e) (flattered)
  • furieux ( euse) (furious)
  • gêné ( e) (bothered)
  • heureux ( euse) (happy)
  • irrité ( e) , énervé( e) (irritated)
  • malheureux ( euse) (unhappy)
  • mécontent ( e) (displeased)
  • surpris ( e) (surprised)
  • triste (sad)

The following nouns follow the verb avoir (to have):

  • honte (shame)
  • peur (afraid)

For example:

  • Il a peur qu'elle le laisse. (He is afraid she will leave him.)

The following verbs require the subjunctive:
  • craindre (to fear)
  • regretter (to be sorry)
  • s'étonner (to be astonished, to be surprised)
  • se fâcher (to become angry)
  • se réjouir (to rejoice, to be happy)

For example:

  • Elle s'étonne qu'il soit si intelligent. (She is astonished that he is so intelligent.)

After certain conjunctions

Conjunctions are words that connect and relate words, phrases, and clauses within a sentence. Conjunctions are invariable—their spelling never changes. The subjunctive is used after conjunctions that express the following:

Time: jusqu'à ce que (until), avant que (before), en attendant que (until), aussi loin que (far from)

  • Tu partiras avant que je puisse te dire “au revoir.” (You're going to leave before I can say goodbye to you.)

Purpose or result: pour que (in order that), afin que (in order that), de manière que (so that), de sorte que (so that), de façon que (so that)

  • Il crie pour que tu l'entendes. (He screams so that you can hear him.)

Concession: bien que (although), quoique (although), encore que (although), malgré que (although)

  • Quoiqu'elle soit à la maison, elle ne répond pas au téléphone. (Although she's at home, she doesn't answer the phone.)

Condition: à condition que (provided that), pourvu que (provided that), à moins que (unless)

  • Je t'aiderai à condition que tu fasses attention. (I'll help you provided that you pay attention.)

Fear: de crainte que (for fear that), de peur que (for fear that)

  • Le bébé pleure de crainte que le docteur ne lui fasse mal. (The baby cries for fear that the doctor will hurt him.)

Negation: sans que (without)

  • Il est arrivé sans qu'elle le sache. (He arrived without her knowing it.)

The conjunctions à moins que, avant que, de peur que, de crainte que, de manière que, and de sorte que may be followed by ne before the verb in an affirmative sentence. Ne + another negative word are used in the negative:

  • Il court vite de peur que l' homme ne le batte. (He runs quickly for fear that the man will beat him.)

The following conjunctions take the indicative:

  • après que (after)
  • aussitôt que (as soon as)
  • dès que (as soon as)
  • parce que (because)
  • pendant que (while)
  • peut‐être que (perhaps)
  • puisque (since)
  • tandis que (while, whereas)

For example:

  • Je l'aime parce qu'il est très gentil. (I like him because he is very nice.)

After superlative expressions

The subjunctive is used after superlative expressions and l'unique (the only), le seul (the only), le premier (the first), le dernier (the last), and ne … que (only) when these expressions show opinion, emotion, or exaggeration:

  • C'est la meilleure pièce qu'on puisse voir. (That's the best play you can see.)
  • Il n'y a qu'une personne qui sache jouer de la clarinette. (There is only one person who knows how to play the clarinet.)

After certain indefinites

The subjunctive is used after certain indefinite words:

  • de quelque manière que (however)
  • où que (wherever)
  • quel ( le)( s) que (whatever)
  • quelqueque (however)
  • qui que (whoever)
  • quoi que (whatever)
  • si … que (however)
  • soit que … soit que (whether … or)

For example:

  • Soit que tu viennes, soit que tu ne viennes pas, j'irai. (Whether or not you come, I'll go.)
  • Quelles que soient vos intentions, il les ignorera. (Whatever your intentions may be, he will ignore them.)

In relative clauses

The subjunctive is used in relative clauses if the person or thing mentioned in the main clause is indefinite, nonexistent, or desired but not yet found. Compare the following sentences:

  • Je cherche un mari qui soit patient. (I'm looking for a patient husband). [I may never find one.]
  • J'ai un mari qui est patient. (I have a husband who is patient.) [He exists.]
  • Connaissez‐vous quelqu'un qui sache parler grec? (Do you know someone who speaks Greek?) [There may not be anyone.]
  • Elle connaît quelqu'un qui sait parler grec. (She knows someone who knows how to speak Greek.) [There is such a person.]

In third-person commands

The subjunctive is used in third‐person ( il, elle, ils, elles) commands or wishes:

  • Vive le président! (Long live the president!)
  • Qu'elle entre! (Let her come in!)
  • Qu'ils aient de la chance! (May they be lucky!)