The French Subjunctive

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson discusses the formation of the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive is far more frequently used in French than in English. It can express desires, emotions, necessities, and doubts, among other things.

Subjunctive Mood

The mood of a verb indicates the function of a statement, from the point of view of the speaker. Just as the indicative mood is used to state facts, and the imperative mood to state commands, the subjunctive mood is used to express subjective conditions. In this lesson, we'll discuss the formation and uses of the subjunctive mood in the present tense.

Forming the Subjunctive

You'll often see que used with the subjunctive, since it introduces dependent clauses. Note, however, that not all uses of que herald the subjunctive. For the subjunctive to be used, the subjects of the main and secondary clauses must be different. So, for instance, if you were saying 'I want to go home,' you would say simply 'Je veux rentrer' (pronounced: zhö vö rahn-tray). If you were saying 'I want you to come home,' then you would use the subjunctive: 'Je veux que tu rentres' (pronounced: zhö vö qö tü rahn-trö).

The endings for the present subjunctive are -e, -es, -e, -ions, -iez, and -ent. For most verbs, these go together with the root of the present tense 'nous' form (first person plural.) Here's the present subjunctive conjugation of the verb acheter, to buy:

1st person (je) singular achète
2nd person (tu) singular achètes
3rd person (il/elle) singular achète
1st person (nous) plural achetions
2nd person (vous) plural achetiez
3rd person (ils/elles) plural achètent

Irregular verbs follow the same pattern as regular verbs, but using the verb stem. Changes in the verb stem in the present indicative are mirrored in the subjunctive mood. Take the verb boire, to drink, as an example. You would say, ' Il ne faut pas qu'il boive trop,' but ' Il ne faut pas que nous buvions trop.'

Here's what it looks like:

1st person singular boive
2nd person singular boives
3rd person singular boive
1st person plural buvions
2nd person plural buviez
3rd person plural boivent
  • Notice how the verb stem mirrors the present indicative

Irregular Subjunctive Forms

Several common irregular verbs have irregular forms in the subjunctive mood, as well. This means that they do not follow the verb stem pattern of present indicative when they are in subjunctive mood. These irregular subjunctive forms may have one or two stems.

One Stem

The verb faire, to make, forms the subjunctive in this way:

1st person singular fasse
2nd person singular fasses
3rd person singular fasse
1st person plural fassions
2nd person plural fassiez
3rd person plural fassent

The modal verb pouvoir, can or to be able to, forms the subjunctive in this way:

1st person singular puisse
2nd person singular puisses
3rd person singular puisse
1st person plural puissions
2nd person plural puissiez
3rd person plural puissent

The verb savoir, to know.

1st person singular sache
2nd person singular saches
3rd person singular sache
1st person plural sachions
2nd person plural sachiez
3rd person plural sachent

It looks quite different in the subjunctive, so be on the lookout for it. You'll probably notice this a lot if you watch French espionage or mystery films (if you don't, you're missing out!)

Two Stems

Irregular subjunctives with two stems include avoir and être, so you'll definitely want to know these as well.

Avoir, to have, shows some early modern spelling in the subjunctive:

1st person singular aie
2nd person singular aies
3rd person singular ait
1st person plural ayons
2nd person plural ayez
3rd person plural aient

Être, to be, changes appearance dramatically, so be on the lookout for it:

1st person singular sois
2nd person singular sois
3rd person singular soit
1st person plural soyons
2nd person plural soyez
3rd person plural soient

The modal verb vouloir, to desire, changes form in the singular:

1st person singular veuille
2nd person singular veuilles
3rd person singular veuille
1st person plural voulions
2nd person plural vouliez
3rd person plural veuillent

Finally, there is the important verb aller, to go:

1st person singular aille
2nd person singular ailles
3rd person singular aille
1st person plural allions
2nd person plural alliez
3rd person plural aillent

This is quite useful; if you're in a hurry, you can say 'Il faut que je m'en aille!'

Common Expressions with the Subjunctive

The subjunctive is often used to express emotion or opinion, to talk about a necessity, or to get someone to do something. Knowing some common expressions that employ the subjunctive mood will help you to recognize it.

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