Demystifying the French Subjunctive

December 2, 2020

If there’s one thing that makes French learners shudder, it’s the subjunctive. Why? Probably because the English subjunctive is no longer taught in school. Most anglophones have never heard of the English subjunctive, which makes it very difficult to understand the French subjunctive. 

But what if we told you that the subjunctive is actually one of the easiest parts of French grammar to master? It’s true! If you were able to memorize irregular verbs in the present tense, then learning the subjunctive will be a breeze. So take a deep breath, get yourself in a comfortable position with some note-taking materials, and read on. You’re about to understand everything you’ll ever need to know about the subjunctive in a very short amount of time. We promise that the process won’t be the least bit painful. And, once you’ve got the subjunctive down, your French will truly be impeccable! 

If you’d like a more in-depth explanation of the subjunctive or to work on any other advanced French grammar exercises, you’ve come to the right place! In our level 5 classes, you’ll be able to practice using the subjunctive with other students. You’ll also have access to our adorable Coucou textbooks and fun activities. Sign up for a class here

By Sophia Millman


1. Let’s get a few things straight (in English!): what exactly is the subjunctive?

The subjunctive isn’t a tense (like the French passe composé or imparfait). It’s a mood. What does that mean? Well, basically, it means that the subjunctive can be used in different tenses (present, past, etc.), and that it’s used in sentences in which wishes, feelings or necessities are involved. It expresses a certain state of mind. “It is necessary that,” “It is amazing that,” and “I demand that” are all expressions that trigger the subjunctive mood. Here are some other examples:

As you can see from the table above, in the present tense, you usually say, “She rests,” but in the present subjunctive, you say, “She rest.” Basically, you drop the -s on third person conjugations. One verb that’s super weird in the subjunctive is “to be”. You know how it’s usually “I am, you are, she is, etc”? In the subjunctive, it’s, “I be, you be, she be…” 

*Quiz 1: Which is correct? 

“I demand that you be on time.” / “I demand that you are on time.” 

  • If you’re now wondering whether or not you know how to use the subjunctive in English, check out this helpful Collins dictionary guide. And seriously, don’t sweat it! As the guide explains, “I wish that I were tall” is correct, but it’s totally acceptable to say, “I wish that I was tall”!
  • The subjunctive mood in English used to be very common. “God forbid,” “So be it,” and “Come what may” are all leftover subjunctive expressions. See more here


2. Moving on to French: It’s all about the “QUE”

What triggered the subjunctive mood in the English examples we saw above? The word THAT. (I demand that, it’s important that…) This is very important for both English and French usage. 

Golden rule #1: You cannot use the subjunctive in French without the word QUE. Only when this word shows up should you ask yourself whether or not the subjunctive is required. 

Look at the table below. All of the words/expressions on it must be accompanied with “QUE”. 

==> Get out a piece of paper or open a note taking app. 

  • Practice making some subjunctive triggers with the phrases above. 
  • Examples: “je préfère que…,” “Elle ne pense pas que…,” or “Vous avez peur que…” 

*Quiz 2: Which of these sentences would trigger the subjunctive?

1.“Je trouve ça scandaleux que…” 

2.“Si tu trouves ça scandaleux, tu es…”


3. How to actually conjugate a verb in the subjunctive? If you know the third person plural (“Ils/Elles…”) conjugations of verbs in the present tense, you can do this!

The title says it all. If you know how to conjugate partir in the present, you can easily conjugate it in the subjunctive. You take the third person plural (ils/elles partent), drop the -ENT ending, and add the subjunctive endings. The endings, as you can see above, are: -E, -ES, -E, -IONS, -IEZ, and -ENT. But wait a second, didn’t we just remove the -ENT from the ils/elles? And now we’re adding it back? Yes! This brings us to…

Golden rule #2: The ils/elles present and subjunctive conjugations are always identical, unless the verb is irregular. 

==> Go back to the subjunctive triggers you just made. Add a second subject after the QUE (je, tu, il/elle…). 

Example: “je préfère que + tu”

  • Now, add your verb stem (by taking the ils/elles form of the verb and dropping the -ENT.)

Example: “je préfère que + tu + vienn

  • Complete your sentence by adding the correct subjunctive ending to the verb. (See table above: -E, -ES, -E, -IONS, -IEZ, and -ENT.)
  • Examples: “je préfère que tu viennes” / “Elle ne pense pas que nous travaillions” / “Vous avez peur que le monstre arrive.” Congratulations, you’re already using the subjunctive perfectly! 

Pronunciation tip:

Many verb conjugations in French have a silent final consonant unless they’re in their subjunctive form. For instance, connaître conjugated in the present first person singular is, “Je connais.” (The S is silent. Listen here.) But, in the subjunctive, it’s, “Je connaisse” and the S is pronounced. 


4. Relax, there are only 7 irregular verbs

Yep, it’s that simple. There are tons of irregular verbs in other French conjugations, but in this case, you only have to memorize 7. 

What makes this even easier? 5 of the 7 verbs (faire, aller, pouvoir, vouloir and savoir) have irregular subjunctive stems but take regular endings (see above: -E, -ES, -E, -IONS, -IEZ, and -ENT). The only verbs that are a little wackier are être and avoir.

*Quiz 3: 

Translate this sentence: “I am happy that the students know how to use the subjunctive.” 

 [Hint: Savoir que means “to know how to” in French]


5. There are 4 main exceptions to the “QUE” rule: memorize them, and you’ll be better at using the subjunctive than many native French speakers! 

Here’s something that will comfort you. Ask some French speakers (who aren’t French teachers) whether “après que je sois parti” or “après que je suis parti” is correct. We guarantee that at least half won’t know the right answer. Even native French speakers don’t know all the subjunctive rules!

So, while we recommend remembering that a few key QUE phrases do not take the subjunctive–like “espérer que” (to hope that) “être sûr(e) que” (to be sure that) or “trouver que” (to find that)–we also recommend that you don’t get too worked up about the exceptions. 

Take away hints:

  • Stick with the present tense! There is a past subjunctive, but it’s rarely used. Whether you’re talking about the past, present, or future, you can almost always use the present subjunctive. If you want to look at how to conjugate the past subjunctive, check out this page
  • Negation changes things up. Affirmative sentences that start with “je pense que” are always indicative. Negative sentences that start with “je ne pense pas que” are always subjunctive. 

Example: “Je pense que tu sais” (I think that you know…) is correct and so is “je ne pense pas que tu saches” (I don’t think that you know…). 

*Quiz 4: Fill in the blank with the correct conjugation. 

A: Je ne pense pas que vous _______ le subjonctif. (Aimer) – I don’t think you love the subjunctive. 

B: Je suis convaincu que vous _______ correctement le subjonctif. (Utiliser) – I am confident that you use the subjunctive correctly. 


*Quiz answers:

1. A

2. A

3. Je suis heureux (heureuse) que les étudiants sachent utiliser le subjonctif.

4. A: aimiez / B: utilisez