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The subjunctive - Easy Learning Grammar French

What is the subjunctive?
The subjunctive is a verb form that is used in certain circumstances to express some sort of feeling, or to show there is doubt about whether something will happen or whether something is true. It is only used occasionally in modern English, for example, If I were you, I wouldn’t bother.; So be it.

1 Using the subjunctive

  • In French the subjunctive is used after certain verbs and conjunctions when two parts of a sentence have different subjects.
    I’m afraid he won’t come back.
    (The subject of the first part of the sentence is ‘I’; the subject of the second part of the sentence is ‘he’.)
  • Sometimes, in a sentence like We want her to be happy, you use the infinitive of the verb in English (to be). This is NOT possible in French when there is a different subject in the two parts of the sentence (we and her). You have to use a subjunctive for the second verb.
    Nous voulons être heureux. We want to be happy.
    (No change of subject, so you can just use an infinitive – être – in French.)
    Nous voulons qu’elle soit heureuse. We want her to be happy.
    (Subject changes from nous to elle, so you have to use a subjunctive – soit – in French.)
  • You can only use the infinitive instead of the subjunctive in French with impersonal verbs.
Il faut que tu viennes à l’heure.
(using subjunctive)
Il faut venir à l’heure.
(using infinitive)
You have to come on time. 
Il vaut mieux que tu restes chez toi.
(using subjunctive)
Il vaut mieux rester chez toi.
(using infinitive)
It’s better that you stay at home. 

2 Coming across the subjunctive

  • The subjunctive has several tenses but you are only likely to come across the present subjunctive.
  • You may see a subjunctive after certain verbs that you use when you are:
  • wishing something: vouloir que and désirer que (meaning to wish that, to want), aimer que (meaning to like that), aimer mieux que and préférer que (meaning to prefer that)
  • fearing something: avoir peur que (meaning to be afraid that)
  • giving your opinion: croire que (meaning to think that)
  • saying how you feel: regretter que (meaning to be sorry that), être content que (meaning to be pleased that), être surpris que (meaning to be surprised that) and so on
Je suis content que vous les aimiez.I’m pleased you like them.
J’ai peur qu’il ne revienne pas.I’m afraid he won’t come back.
  • You may see a subjunctive after certain verbal expressions starting with il, such as il faut que (meaning it is necessary that) and il vaut mieux que (meaning it is better that).
Il faut que je vous parle.I need to speak to you.

3 Forming the present subjunctive of -er verbs

  • To form the stem of the present subjunctive you take the infinitive and chop off -er, just as for the present tense. Then you add the correct ending, depending on whether you are referring to je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils or elles.
  • For -er verbs the endings are the same as for the ordinary present tense, apart from the nous and vous forms, which have an extra i, as in the imperfect tense.
PronounEndingAdd to stem, e.g. donn-Meanings
je (j’)-eje donneI give
tu-estu donnesyou give
il
elle
on
-eil donne
elle donne
on donne
he/she/it/one gives
nous-ionsnous donnionswe give
vous-iezvous donniezyou give
ils
elles
-entils donnent
elles donnent
they give
Tipje changes to j’ in front of a word starting with a vowel, most words starting with h, and the French word y.

4 Forming the present subjunctive of -ir verbs

  • To form the stem of the present subjunctive you take the infinitive and chop off -ir, just as for the present tense. Then you add the correct ending, depending on whether you are referring to to je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils or elles.
PronounEndingAdd to stem, e.g. fin-Meanings
je (j’)-isseje finisseI finish
tu-issestu finissesyou finish
il
elle
on
-isseil finisse
elle finisse
on finisse
he/she/it/one finishes
nous-issionsnous finissionswe finish
vous-issiezvous finissiezyou finish
ils
elles
-issentils finissent
elles finissent
they finish
Tipje changes to j’ in front of a word starting with a vowel, most words starting with h, and the French word y.

5 Forming the present subjunctive of -re verbs

  • To form the stem of the present subjunctive you take the infinitive and chop off -re, just as for the present tense. Then you add the correct ending, depending on whether you are referring to je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils or elles.
PronounEndingAdd to stem, e.g. attend-Meanings
je (j’)-ej’attendeI wait
tu-estu attendesyou wait
il
elle
on
-eil attende
elle attende
on attende
he/she/it/one waits
nous-ionsnous attendionswe wait
vous-iezvous attendiezyou wait
ils
elles
-entils attendent
elles attendent
they wait
Tipje changes to j’ in front of a word starting with a vowel, most words starting with h, and the French word y.

6 Irregular verbs in the subjunctive

  • Some important verbs have irregular subjunctive forms.
VerbMeaningje (j’)tuil/elle/onnousvousils/elles
allerto goailleaillesailleallionsalliezaillent
avoirto haveaieaiesaitayonsayezaient
devoirto have
to, must
doivedoivesdoivedevionsdeviezdoivent
direto say,
to tell
disedisesdisedisionsdisiezdisent
êtreto besoissoissoitsoyonssoyezsoient
faireto do,
to make
fassefassesfassefassionsfassiezfassent
pouvoirto be able
to, can
puissepuissespuissepuissionspuissiezpuissent
prendreto takeprenneprennesprenneprenionspreniezprennent
(apprendre and comprendre also behave like this – j’apprenne, tu apprennes and so on)
savoirto knowsachesachessachesachionssachiezsachent
venirto comevienneviennesviennevenionsveniezviennent
vouloirto want toveuilleveuillesveuillevoulionsvouliezveuillent
Key points
  • After certain verbs you have to use a subjunctive in French when there is a different subject in the two clauses. These verbs mostly relate to wishing, fearing, and saying what you think, what you feel and that you are uncertain. A subjunctive is also found after certain verbal expressions that start with il.
  • The stem of the present tense subjunctive is the same as the stem used for the ordinary present tense.
  • The present tense subjunctive endings for -er and -re verbs are: -e, -es, -e, -ions, -iez and -ent.
  • The present tense subjunctive endings for -ir verbs are: -isse, -isses, -isse, -issions, -issiez and -issent.

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