Make a wish, demand, statement of uncertainty, or even simply say that something is the best you’ve ever seen or done. If you were speaking French, you probably used the subjunctive.
The subjunctive can be a tricky tense for non-native French speakers, for two main reasons:
- Not all languages have this mood, or use it as much as it’s used in French.
- Learning to use it requires a grammar deep-dive.
The good news is, once you get used to it, you’ll discover that the subjunctive either comes naturally, or that you’ve been using it all along without even realizing.
Let’s get into all things subjunctive!
What is the French subjunctive mood?
The subjunctive is actually made up of four tenses (the present subjunctive, past subjunctive, imperfect subjunctive, and the pluperfect subjunctive).
The present subjunctive is what we’ll mostly be dealing with, since it’s by far the most commonly used form of this mood, both in spoken and written contemporary French. In fact, the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive tend to only be used in literature, and even then, they’re fairly rare.
Whatever form it’s in, the subjunctive is considered a less concrete tense than your typical past, present, future, and so on, because it expresses uncertainty. This uncertainty can be in the form of a wish, a doubt, an ideal, or a command the speaker wishes to be executed.
Sound vague? It is! Luckily, that means that many of these concepts and feelings can be expressed in other ways in French. But there are many phrases and grammatical structures that require the subjunctive in French, so il faut que tu saches comment le reconnaitre et l’utiliser (You must know how to recognize and use it).
How will I know when to use the subjunctive?
In French, a good way to know if you have to use the subjunctive is if the word que is lurking somewhere nearby. Even though it has several meanings and functions not connected with the subjunctive, this word is so closely tied to the mood that you’ll sometimes see it included with the subjunctive in verb conjugation tables.
Que can set off a phrase where the subjunctive must be used (il faut que, il est possible que, etc.), or will be used with the subjunctive when it’s paired with certain verbs and adjectives (content(e) que, demander que, etc.)
But this is sort of unfair because, to put it like the kids would these days, #notallque. Que isn’t systematically an indication of the subjunctive, and the subjunctive mood may be used without que.
Still, all that being said, most of the times, que will be involved. Think of the subjunctive like a tree and que like leaves: most trees have leaves, but not all of them do.
For instance, you might see or say a phrase like, Je cherche quelqu’un qui connaisse la série « Buffy contre les vampires ». (I’m looking for someone who knows the series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’).
No que in sight. And also maybe slightly weird, because why not just use a verb in the present tense? The reason behind it is that the subjunctive is implying that there’s a doubt – maybe the speaker is feeling a little old these days and feels like the young people around her have never seen her favorite show, which was such a major pop culture influence in her own teen years (Okay, maybe this is an example from my real life).
On the other hand, if the person in the example (who may or may not be me) were hanging out with friends of the same age and level of pop culture savvy, she might not use the subjunctive, and opt for connait instead.
If you’re freaking out because this is all so subtle, don’t worry; as a non-native speaker, no one will ever expect you to wield the subjunctive with that much ease. They’ll understand if in a sentence like that, you just use the present tense. Of course, if you’re a big fan of the subjunctive and take to using it easily, go for it and impress the heck out of native speakers!
You can read more about these subtle, optional uses of the subjunctive at the end of this article.
But for most of us, the main thing to know about the subjunctive are the typical phrases and structures when it’s used, and how to at least recognize it in other situations.
Is there a subjunctive mood in English?
There is a subjunctive mood in English, but it’s mostly fallen out of use. You’ll still find it in phrases that have become so typically used that we don’t even think about the verb tense, such as “God bless you”, as well as with formal or slightly old-fashioned phrases like “I demand that…” and “I only ask that…”
Hopefully, your familiarity with this type of phrasing and meaning will help you understand the subjunctive in French a little better.
How to conjugate a regular verb in the French subjunctive
Conjugating the subjunctive is a bit tricky, at least at first. We’re going to look at it as a three-step process, but I promise that as you get used to seeing, hearing, and using French, it will get a lot easier, especially for verbs that are often conjugated in this mood.
Before we look at the three steps, you have to know the present subjunctive ending for each subject. These are:
Now that you know those, you can follow these three steps to put most French verbs (but not all – we’ll get to that in a minute) into the subjunctive:
- Take the verb’s present-tense third-person plural (ils/elles) form.
- Drop the ending from it. Now you have the verb stem.
- Tack on the subjunctive ending that goes with your subject.
For instance, let’s take the regular -er verb danser.
First, we would find how it’s conjugated in the third-person plural, present tense: dansent.
Now, we remove the present-tense ending: dans
This means we’ve now found our verb stem for danser in the subjunctive: dans
Next, we think of the subject we’re using the verb with in the subjunctive. Let’s say it’s vous. The subjunctive ending for vous is -iez, so our verb is dansiez.
Here it is in a sentence: Le roi veut que vous dansiez avec lui. (The king wants you to dance with him.)
Let’s try one together. We want to say: “I’m happy that she likes my gift” — Je suis content qu’elle ___ mon cadeau. (To keep things easy and save a letter, I’ve let je stand for a male subject; obviously if you’re a female you’d add an e to the end of contente.)
So, we need to conjugate the verb aimer in the subjunctive for the third-person singular.
- First, we find how aimer is conjugated in the third-person plural present tense: aiment.
- Next, we remove the ending to find the subjunctive stem of aimer: aim
- Now we add the third-person singular subjunctive ending to the stem: aime
So, the sentence would be written: Je suis content qu’elle aime mon cadeau.
As you can see, most of the subjunctive endings are the same as the present-tense endings for regular -er verbs. This makes it very easy to use the subjunctive mood for these kinds of verbs, since even if you make a mistake and conjugate for the present-tense for je, tu, il/elle/on, and ils/elles, it will still seem like you’re right!
Sadly, it’s not always that simple. Because you have to find the stem of a subjunctive verb based on its third-person plural conjugation in the present tense, regular -ir verbs will be different.
Take the verb choisir, for instance. You want to put it into, let’s say, the first-person subjunctive, in a sentence like this: Il faut que je ____ quel plat on va servir ce soir.
- First, we find how choisir is conjugated in the third-person plural, in the present tense: choisissent.
- Next, we remove the ending to find the subjunctive stem of choisir: choisiss
- Now we add the first-person singular subjunctive ending to the stem: choisisse
So our sentence would be written: Il faut que je choisisse quel plat on va servir ce soir.
How about a regular -re verb, like attendre? Let’s say we want to use it in this sentence: Il est important que nous nous ____ devant l’entrée de la gare. (It’s important that we wait for each other in front of the entrance to the train station.)
This time, see if you can remember the steps to finding the subjunctive form needed here. Then, check your answer:
- Find the conjugation of attendre in the present tense, for the third-person plural: attendent.
- Remove the ending to find the subjunctive stem: attend
- Add the subjunctive ending for nous to the stem: attendions
So, our completed sentence looks like this: Il est important que nous nous attendions devant l’entrée de la gare.
If you’d like to keep practicing this, just pick a regular -er, -ir, or -re verb and a subject, and practice following the steps to put it into the subjunctive.
And as I said at the start of this section, while this may seem really complicated right now, as you get used to using and seeing/hearing the subjunctive in French, most of the time it will happen really quickly.
In many cases, as with je, tu, il/elle/on, and ils/elles, you may not even notice you’re putting the verb into the subjunctive at all, especially if you’re saying it, not writing it down. So don’t get discouraged or overwhelmed.
How to conjugate irregular subjunctive verbs
Now that we know how to conjugate regular -er, -ir, and -re verbs in the subjunctive, let’s tackle irregular verbs.
When it comes to “irregular” and the subjunctive, things can get REALLY irregular.
Some irregular verbs have not one, but two possible stems in the subjunctive. This is because they draw from either the third-person plural or the nous/vous form to find their stem, depending on their pronoun.
A second, small selection of irregular verbs take a subjunctive stem that doesn’t come from their present-tense conjugation at all.
For the latter group, it’s a question of just memorizing the new subjunctive stem. I haven’t been able to find a conclusive explanation for verbs with stems that are totally different in the subjunctive, but as an amateur etymologist, I’d hazard a guess that these subjunctive stems trace back to another, older form of the verb in question.
When it comes to verbs with two stems in the subjunctive, it’s a bit more complicated.
On the other hand, there is an actual explanation for…
French verbs with two stems in the subjunctive
It turns out that for verbs whose stem is derived either from the third-person plural OR from the nous/vous form, it’s most likely because these verbs have such different potential stems.
Then again, “different” can sometimes mean that a stem has double letters in one form and a single letter in the other, as in the case of apeller, or an “i” one way and a “y” the other, as with voir. Or it might even come down to one lousy accent, as in acheter.
We’ll look at those (on a handy chart) in a minute.
But to keep things simple for now, let’s use the verb boire as an example.
If you did the three-step process to find its stem in the subjunctive, you’d end up with boiv-, since the third-person present tense form is boivent. But that seems to sort of erase the fact that in the nous and vous form, boire’s stem is buv-. The French language will not stand for this erasure!
When you conjugate boire in the subjunctive, you would use the boiv- stem for all singular pronouns, as well as ils/elles (I guess because that’s where the stem comes from originally), and when boire is used in the conditional with vous or nous, the stem is buv-. Like so (note that I’ve added the subjunctive ending to each stem):
|Boire in the subjunctive|
How many French verbs have two stems in the subjunctive mood?
Although this rule is strictly followed by French people, lists of verbs that follow it vary widely. The best one I’ve found doesn’t necessarily claim to be complete, but at least it features a number of verbs that you’ll come across fairly frequently, including:
|Verb||Stem for je, tu, il/elle/on, ils/elles||Stem for nous/vous|
*Yes, these different stems hinge only on the presence of (an) accent, or lack thereof. In the examples included here, at least, the(se) accent(s) don’t/doesn’t change the pronunciation of the stem.
**It seems like we can find a general rule here! Yay! For -ger verbs like manger and ranger, separating the stems into two groups comes from the French rule that you can’t have an “e” followed by a verb ending that starts with “i”, as in -ions/-iez. So while this stem may look different, it’s never pronounced with a hard “g”, since the “i” will also make it soft. To be totally honest, I say these verbs in the subjunctive far more often than I write them (“Mais d’abord, il faut que tu ranges ta chambre” is a sentence that sprang from my lips the day I became the mother of a Franco-American toddler), and I never really thought about how one stem has an “e” and one doesn’t; both are pronounced the same but with whichever ending corresponds to the pronoun they’re currently using.
***Whether there’s an “i” or a “y”, both stems are pronounced the same way.
Here are a few example sentences featuring stem-changing subjunctive verbs:
Il faut que tu l’appelles/Il faut que vous l’appeliez. (You must call him.)
Il est possible qu’il boive toute cette bouteille de vin./Il est possible que nous buvions toute cette bouteille de vin. (It’s possible that he’ll drink the entire bottle of wine./It’s possible that we’ll drink the entire bottle of wine.)
You can find a few more of these French verbs with two different stems in the subjunctive on the helpful list in this article.
A good general rule seems to be that if a verb has a very different stem in the nous/vous form, it probably is going to fall into this two-stem subjunctive category, as well. Of course, if you can, always check to be sure. You can do that with an online search for “[verb] conjugation”. Or you may have an app, French dictionary, or other resource that provides conjugation charts as well.
While we’re in this two-stem headspace, there’s something I have to tell you: Just because a verb has two stems in the subjunctive DOES NOT mean that it takes on two stems in other conjugations! In fact, as we’ll see a little later in this article, it won’t even have two stems in other compound subjunctive tenses.
Luckily, in many cases, this whole situation probably won’t matter. For one thing, as is often the case with irregular verbs, many of these are used so often that you don’t even think about the fact that their stems aren’t the same with certain pronouns – you’re just used to hearing them that way. And the ones that simply involve doubling a letter in one stem or the other aren’t even noticeable when you say or hear them.
Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s move on to the other kind of irregular subjunctive verb in French….
French verbs with a completely different stem in the subjunctive
Some verbs have a completely different stem in the subjunctive.
Luckily, unlike dual-stem subjunctive verbs, we actually have a number on this.
Of these, five verbs have one stem change and five have two.
Verbs with a completely different subjunctive stem (one stem):
*These two verbs are (possibly with the exception of some kind of poetic wordplay) always used only with the pronoun “il”, as part of an impersonal expression. Examples: qu’il pleuve/qu’il faille.
Here are a few examples:
Il faut que tu saches à quel point je t’aime. (I must let you know how much I love you.)
Il est possible qu’il pleuve ce soir. (It’s possible that it will rain this evening.)
Ta mère veut que tu fasses tous tes devoirs avant d’allumer la télé. (Your mother wants that you do all of your homework before you turn on the TV.)
Verbs with a completely different subjunctive stem (two stems):
|Verb||Stem for je, tu, il/elle/on, ils/elles||Stem for nous/vous|
*Whether there’s an “i” or a “y”, both stems are pronounced the same way.
Sois heureux. (Be happy) Soyons heureux. (Let’s be happy). As you can see from these examples, the imperative form of être is in the subjunctive.
Il faut que j’y aille. (I have to go)./Il faut que vous alliez à la fête ce soir. (You must go to the party this evening.)
Common phrases that introduce the subjunctive in French
Sometimes, the easiest way to know if you need to use the subjunctive is by the phrase that comes shortly before a verb.
Here’s are the most common of these phrases:
- Il faut que (One must/It is required that)
- Il vaut mieux que (It’s best that)
- être content(e)(s) que (to be happy that)
- avoir peur que (to be afraid that)
- vouloir que (to want [something to happen, someone to do something, etc.])
- demander que (to ask that)
- désirer que (to desire/want/wish that)
- il est essentiel que (it is essential that)
- il est important que (it is important that)
- il est nécessaire que (it is necessary that)
- il est normal que (it’s normal/expected that)
- il est urgent que (it’s urgent/vital that)
- il est intéressant que (it’s interesting that)
- il est naturel que (it’s (only) natural that)
- il est bon que (it’s good that…)
- il est rare que (it’s rare that…)
- il est possible que (it’s possible that…)
- il est peu probable que (it’s unlikely/highly unlikely that….)
- il semble que (it seems that…). Note that when this expression is used with a reflexive verb – for instance, ll me semble que , it’s no longer used with a subjunctive verb.
- il se peut que (it’s possible that…)
Note that in many cases, C’est can replace Il est in these impersonal expressions.
- préférer que (to prefer that)
- proposer que (to propose/suggest that)
- recommander que (to recommend that)
- souhaiter que (to wish that)
- suggérer que (to suggest that)
- regretter que (to regret that….)
- tenir à ce que (to insist/hold someone to something)
- aimer que (to like/love that…)
- détester que (to detest that…)
- pourvu que (as long as…/provided that…)
- être desolé(e)(s) que (to be sorry that…)
- être heureux(euse)(s) que (to be happy that…)
- être ravi(e)(s) que (to be thrilled that…)
- se réjouir que (to rejoice/be full of joy that…)
- être surpris(e)(s) que (to be surprised that…)
- être triste(e)(s) que (to be sad that…)
- accepter que (to accept that…)
- chercher…qui (to be looking for someone who…)
- douter que (to suspect/guess that…). Note that this and some other expressions only need a subjunctive verb when they’re in the affirmative sense. If they’re negative, they’re used with whatever other tense would normally be used. This is because the negative version of this expression no longer implies any kind of doubt.
- supposer que (to suppose that…)
- afin que (in order that…)
- avant que (before…)
- bien que (although/though)
- pour que (in order that…)
Do you always need a phrase with que to use the subjunctive?
Although que is often seen around the subjunctive, it’s not absolutely necessary. For instance, many verbs can be used on their own in the subjunctive, to suggest a wish or request.
The verb être is an example of this unto itself. Its subjunctive form is also its imperative form, not to mention a conjunction (either…or…), affirmation, introduction to a hypothetical situation, and more. You can learn more about that via this Word Reference entry.
As you might be able to tell, some verbs’ imperative form is the same as their subjunctive form. This is because, when you think about it, ordering a person to perform that particular action is more a wish/ideal/possibility than a sure or absolutely possible thing.
There are always exceptions in language, so keep that in mind with the subjunctive, as well. Que is the subjunctive’s best friend, but sometimes this mood likes to go solo!
Que phrases that aren’t followed by the subjunctive in the affirmative sense
Just as the subjunctive doesn’t always require a phrase with que to be present, que has many other functions and doesn’t always go with a subjunctive verb.
In that spirit, keep in mind that not all que phrases are the same. Some don’t require a subjunctive verb – at least, not when they’re in the affirmative.
The general rule is to consider whether the subjunctive is necessary. If what follows the phrase is established as a fact, not a wish, guess, or opinion, it generally isn’t going to be in the subjunctive.
On the other hand, when these phrases are negative or interrogatory, the verb that follows will be conjugated in the subjunctive. This isn’t to mess with you; it’s because now the idea being expressed is no longer certain.
Here are a few examples you’ll come across often:
- espérer que (to hope that…)
- connaître (quelqu’un) qui (to know someone who…)
- croire que (to believe that…)
- dire que (to say that…)
- être sur/certain que (to be sure/certain that…)
- Il est vrai que (It’s true that…)
- Il me semble que (It seems to me that…). As I mentioned in the previous list, when this phrase is used without a reflexive pronoun (Il semble que), it DOES require a subjunctive verb.
- parce que (because)
- puisque (since (in the sense of “because”)
- ainsi que (as well as)
- alors que (while/when/even though)
- pendant que (while)
- tandis que (while)
You can use this list to find more que phrases that don’t require a subjunctive verb.
The other French subjunctives
As I wrote earlier, the subjunctive we’ve been working with in this article is the most common one, the present subjunctive (le subjonctif présent). But there are three other forms of the subjunctive mood in French: the past subjunctive (le subjonctif passé), the imperfect subjunctive (le subjonctif imparfait or l’imparfait du subjonctif), and the pluperfect subjunctive (le plus-que-parfait subjonctif).
While the present subjunctive is used often in French, the past subjunctive is used more rarely. And the other two subjunctive moods are very rare in contemporary French; if you come across them, it will probably be in literature, and even then, it would depend on the author/style.
It’s important to know how to use the present subjunctive, and somewhat important to know how to use the past subjunctive. And it’s only important to at least vaguely recognize the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive.
Let’s take a quick look at these three other subjunctive tenses.
Using the past subjunctive
The good news is, once you’ve mastered the present subjunctive, forming the past subjunctive is pretty easy. Just take the auxiliary verb (avoir or être) that’s used to conjugate your main verb in the past tense, and put it into the subjunctive present tense.
Then, use the verb’s past participle.
So for instance, let’s say you want to conjugate voir in the past subjunctive. Since this verb uses avoir as its auxiliary in compound tenses, conjugate avoir in the subjunctive, according to the subject of your sentence. Let’s say we’re using vous. So here’s our conjugation: ayez parlé.
Here it is in a sentence: Je suis surprise que vous ayez parlé avec le baron ; d’habitude il ne dit rien. (I’m surprised that you spoke with the baron ; usually he doesn’t say anything at all.)
As you can see from that example, the past subjunctive is used when you’re referring to something that happened/may happen/could happen, but need to express it in the past. Or you may have used a grammatical structure that requires the subjunctive.
You can find more examples in this helpful article.
Recognizing the imperfect subjunctive
The imperfect subjunctive is something you’re only likely to come across in literary or academic texts, so don’t worry too much about learning to use it if you already feel like you’ve got a lot on your plate. But it is a good idea to be able to recognize it.
The imperfect subjunctive is formed by using the third-person singular form of a verb in the passé simple tense (the literary tense used for narratives told in the past) + a special ending.
For instance: Jacques était ravi qu’elle lui parlât si souvent au cours de la soirée. (Jacques was thrilled that she spoke with him so often over the course of the evening.)
Note that this means that while many verbs will look like they usually do, since their stem doesn’t change much in the passé simple, some irregular verbs – notably avoir and être – have such radically different stems in this tense that you may not immediately recognize them. This article includes a list of verbs whose stems change in the simple past.
Once you’ve established your new verb’s stem, there are two slightly different imperfect subjunctive endings:
- one for -er verbs
- one for -ir and -re verbs
Imperfect Subjunctive endings for -er verbs
Imperfect Subjunctive endings for -ir and -re verbs
Recognizing the pluperfect subjunctive
Like the imperfect subjunctive, the pluperfect subjunctive is a tense you’re only likely to come across in literary or academic texts. But it is a good idea to be able to recognize it.
The pluperfect subjunctive is formed by using the imperfect subjunctive form of avoir or être, depending on which one your main verb is conjugated with. Then add the past participle of your verb.
So, for example, Elle était ravie qu’il fût parti. (She was thrilled that he was gone.)
As you can tell from that example, in order to form or recognize this tense, you have to be familiar with the passé simple stems of avoir and être, which are radically different from their infinitives.
How can I avoid using the subjunctive in French – and should I?
After reading all of this, you may be thinking, “Nope! The subjunctive just isn’t for me.” But like most verb tenses, you will have to use it at some point, and as you can probably tell from our list of expressions that require the subjunctive, that “some point” may be harder to avoid than you think.
That said, there are some ways to avoid using the subjunctive. The main one is simply to rephrase what you want to say. For instance, instead of using an entire clause for with “Il faut”, say “Il faut” and an infinitive. So: Il faut que tu me donnes la clé. (You must give me the key.) becomes Il faut me donner la clé.
In terms of connotation, the new choice sounds a bit more demanding in a lot of cases, so be careful with that.
And of course, you could just opt to avoid these phrases entirely. For instance, if you’re happy that someone likes a gift you gave them, instead of saying Je suis content que tu aimes mon cadeau, you could just say something like Tu aimes le cadeau! Super!
In certain circumstances, that is perfectly fine, although in a more refined, professional environment, the first option is probably the best one.
You can find some other strategies for avoiding the subjunctive in this article
And this helpful webpage includes a list of easy alternatives to a few of the expressions typically used with the subjunctive.
This being said, it really is best to just bite the bullet and use the subjunctive. As we’ve seen, in many cases – probably a majority – it doesn’t look or sound different from a verb’s present simple form. And as for verbs that change radically in the subjunctive, many of them are used so often in French that you get used to them. I say this from experience.
Do you have a strategy for studying or using the subjunctive? How about a favorite subjunctive verb or expression? Feel free to share it in the comments!