THE PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE
The subjunctive mood often seem complicated to English-speaking learners because we so seldom use the subjunctive in English, and many of us may be unaware that it even exists. To give an example of its rare usage, we should say ‘I suggest that he study harder’ rather than ‘I suggest that he studies harder’. In French, however, the subjunctive mood is used quite commonly and must of course be learned and understood.
To form the present subjunctive, we take the third person plural of the present (indicative) tense, remove the -ent ending, then add the following endings with the verb parler (to speak) as an example. Example sentences begin with ‘Il faut que…’ (It is necessary that…), as this is one construction that uses the subjunctive:
Il faut que je parle. – It is necessary that I speak.
Il faut que tu parles. – It is necessary that you speak.
Il faut qu’il parle. – It is necessary that he speak.
Il faut qu’elle parle. – It is necessary that she speak.
Il faut que nous parlions. – It is necessary that we speak.
Il faut que vous parliez. – It is necessary that you speak.
Il faut qu’ils parlent. – It is necessary that they speak. (m.)
Il faut qu’elles parlent. – It is necessary that they speak. (f.)
You can see that the je, tu, il, elle, ils and elles forms are in fact identical to the present indicative tense, whereas the nous and vous forms are identical to the imperfect tense. This is not the case with other groups of verbs. Here are the first person singular (je) and first person plural (nous) forms of the regular verbs with infinitives ending in ‘ir’, for example finir:
Il faut que je finisse. – It is necessary that I finish.
Il faut que nous finissions. – It is necessary that we finish.
Here are similar examples for the regular verbs with infinitives ending in ‘re’:
Il faut que j’attende. – It is necessary that I wait.
Il faut que nous attendions. – It is necessary that we wait.
Here are the first person singular (je) and the first person plural (nous) of some common irregular verbs in the subjunctive:
Avoir (to have): que j’aie / que nous ayons
Etre (to be): que je sois / que nous soyons
Faire (to do/make): que je fasse / que nous fassions
Aller (to go): que j’aille / que nous allions
Vouloir (to want/wish): que je veuille / que nous voulions
Pouvoir (can/to be able to): que je puisse / que nous puissions
Savoir (to know): que je sache / que nous sachions
Venir (to come): que je vienne / que nous venions
Voir (to see): que je voie / que nous voyions
Prendre (to take): que je prenne / que nous prenions
Note that in the case of avoir and être, the present subjunctive and the imperative (command) forms are identical, thus in the imperative we have:
sois (be, tu form); soyons (let us be); soyez (be, vous form);
aie (have, tu form); ayons (let us have); ayez (have, vous form).
USING THE PRESENT SUBJUNCTIVE
We have already seen that the subjunctive is used after ‘il faut que…’ (it is necessary that…) The same applies with ‘il est necessaire que…’, which has the same meaning. Many other impersonal expressions such as ‘il semble que’ (it seems that), ‘il est possible que’ (it is possible that) and ‘il est triste que’ (it is sad that) are followed by the subjunctive:
Il est nécessaire que vous alliez en ville. – It is necessary that you go into town.
Il semble qu’elle parte en France. – It seems that she is going to France.
Another very common usage is after ‘vouloir que’ (to want that):
Je veux que vous veniez au concert avec moi. – I want you to come to the concert with me.
Expressing doubt requires the subjunctive:
Je doute que nous sachions tous les détails. – I doubt that we know all the details.
Pensez-vous qu’il ait de la patience? – Do you think he has patience?
Nous ne croyons pas qu’elle veuille venir. – We don’t think she wants to come.
Verbs concerned with feelings such as ‘être heureux que’ (to be happy that), ‘avoir peur que’ (to be afraid that) and ‘craindre que’ (to fear that) are followed by the subjunctive:
Nous sommes heureux qu’il puisse retourner. – We are happy that he can return.
J’ai peur qu’il ne soit mal compris. – I’m afraid that he will be misunderstood.
After conjunctions the subjunctive must be used, as in the following examples:
bien que / quoique (although)
Bien que je sois malade, je dois me lever.
avant que (before): ‘ne’ must be used before the subjunctive:
Il faut partir avant qu’on ne nous voie. – We must leave before anyone sees us.
à moins que (unless): here again, ‘ne’ must be used before the subjunctive, as in this example:
Je vais vous accompagner a moins que vous ne vouliez rentrer seul. – I’m going to accompany you unless you want to go home alone.
pourvu que (provided that)
On viendra le samedi pourvu qu’il fasse beau. – We will come on Saturday provided that the weather is fine.
pour que / afin que (in order that)
Prie pour qu’il n’y ait pas de problèmes. – Pray that there are no problems.
(There are some conjunctions which are not followed by the subjunctive: pendant que, parce que, apres que, aussitot que, des que.)
The subjunctive is used in clauses following the superlative, the superlative meaning when we say ‘the best’, ‘the most expensive’, ‘the smallest’, and so on. For example:
C’est la plus belle musique que j’aie jamais entendue. – It’s the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.
This rule also applies for le premier (first), le dernier (last), and le seul (the only):
C’est le seul film que nous ayons vu ce mois-ci. – It’s the only film we’ve seen this month.
The subjunctive is not the easiest aspect of French grammar to be mastered, although I have had one adult student who found it fascinating! If you keep practising and keep listening to native speakers talk, you should start to get a feel for when and how to use it correctly. Bon courage!