There are few topics in learning French that English speakers struggle with more than the French subjunctive tense. The trouble comes from remembering to make a distinction in French when English almost never make the distinction.

What many learners don’t realize is the subjunctive does exist in English, albeit in much fewer circumstance. You probably use it without ever thinking about what you’re saying. For example:

  • “I wish I were smarter.”
  • “It is important that you be there on time.”
  • “I recommended that he try to be more understanding.”
  • “If she were a more organized person, she could have found her book in time for class.”
  • “The professor requested that he speak up more in class.”

Those aren’t the normal conjugations of those verbs in English, yet you know to use them in certain sentence structures. You will gain that intuitive level of when to use the subjunctive in French, too, with enough practice.

Tense or Mood?

For our intents it behaves like other tenses, but it is technically a mood because its purpose is not to convey past, present, or future like the “normal” tenses, but it’s instead a complete alternative to these tenses. There is also a past subjunctive tense that will cover in other lessons.

What does “subjunctive” mean?

Basically, with the subjunctive mood, you inherently (just by using this form) imply some sort of duty or doubt or emotions or preferences on what “should” be done. You’re essentially saying something that’s not 100% solid fact.

How to conjugate the subjunctive mood

Subjunctive conjugations are thankfully fairly regular. There are a few “stems” that are different from regular conjugations, but once you have the stems down, they still usually follow regular patterns. Major exceptions are, as with most verb conjugations, être and avoir.

Regular verbs

Drop the -ent ending from the ils form of the present tense verb, and add on:

je verb stem + e nous verb stem + ions
tu verb stem + es vous verb stem + iez
il/elle verb stem + e ils/elles verb stem + ent

Notice that the normal French subjunctive ending pattern is similar to the conditional verb endings, except the third person plural ending is just -ent, not –aient.

Irregular verb stems

These verbs have irregular stems, but otherwise follow the exact same verb endings pattern as above.

Infinitive Verb Subjunctive Form
faire je fasse / nous fassions
savoir je sache / nous sachions
pouvoir je puisse / nous puissions

Two-stem irregular verbs

These verbs have one verb stem for the “boot”, (je/tu/il/ils) and another form for the nous/vous conjugations. The subjunctive verb endings remain the same.

Infinitive Verb Subjunctive: Je Subjunctive: Nous
boire je boive nous buvions
prendre je prenne nous prenions
venir je vienne nous venions
aller j’aille nous allions
vouloir je veuille nous voulions

Completely Irregular French Subjunctive Verbs

The conjugations for être and avoir you’ll just have to memorize. Luckily, they’re pretty simple.

Être
je sois nous soyons
tu sois vous soyez
il soit ils soient
Avoir
j’aie nous ayons
tu aies vous ayez
il ait ils aient

Subjunctive “trigger” phrases

The list below is divided by “type” of subjunctive phrases, the certain expressions that “trigger” the subjunctive tense. Some of the most common phrases are listed below. Notice that all the phrases and verbs listed below end with que. Remember that if there’s no que or qui, there’s about a 99% certainty it shouldn’t be subjunctive.

For a more complete list of subjunctive verbs and phrases, check out the “Subjunctivator” on About.com.

Subjunctive Trigger: Duty

  • il faut que... it is necessary that
  • exiger que… to demand that
  • ordonner que…   to order that
  • commander que…   to order that
  • il est essentiel que…   it is essential that
  • il est important que…   it is important that
  • il est naturel que…   it is natural that
  • il est nécessaire que…   it is necessary that
  • il est normal que…   it is normal that
  • il est temps que…   it is time that
  • il est urgent que…   it is urgent that

Subjunctive Trigger: Preferences

  • aimer mieux que   to like better / to prefer that
  • désirer que   to desire that
  • souhaiter que   to wish that
  • tenir à ce que   to insist that
  • vouloir que   to want that

Subjunctive Trigger: Emotions

  • avoir honte que   to be ashamed that
  • avoir peur que   to be afraid that
  • craindre que   to fear that
  • détester que   to hate that
  • de crainte que…    for fear that
  • être content que   to be happy that
  • être désolé que   to be sorry that
  • être heureux que   to be happy that
  • être surpris que   to be surprised that
  • être triste que   to be sad that
  • il est bon que   it is good that
  • il est dommage que…   it is too bad that
  • il est étrange que   it is strange that
  • il est heureux que   it is fortunate that
  • il est rare que   it is rare that
  • il est regrettable que   it is regrettable that
  • il est surprenant que   it is surprising that
  • il est utile que   it is useful that
  • redouter que   to dread that
  • regretter que   to regret that

Subjunctive Trigger: Doubt/Uncertainty

  • il est à souhaiter que…   it is to be hoped that
  • il est impossible que…   it is impossible that
  • il est improbable que…   it is improbable that
  • il n’est pas clair que…   it is not clear that
  • il n’est pas évident que…   it is not obvious that
  • il n’est pas probable que…   it is improbable that
  • il n’est pas sûr que…   it is not certain that
  • il n’est pas vrai que…   it is not true that
  • il semble que…   it seems that
  • il se peut que…   it may be that
  • à condition que   provided that
  • à moins que…    unless
  • à supposer que…    assuming that
  • afin que…    so that
  • avant que…    before
  • bien que…    although
  • de façon que…    so that, in order that, in such a way that
  • de manière que…    so that
  • de peur que…    for fear that
  • en admettant que…    assuming that
  • en attendant que…    while, until
  • encore que…    even though
  • jusqu’à ce que…    until
  • où que…    wherever
  • pour que…    so that
  • pourvu que…    provided that
  • quoique…    even though
  • quoi que…    whatever, no matter what
  • quel(le) que…    whatever
  • qui que…   whoever
  • sans que…   without

Subjunctive Trigger: Superlatives

  • seul…que…      only [subject] that
  • dernier…que…      last [subject] that
  • premier…que…      first [subject] that
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2 Responses to Subjunctive “Tense” (le Subjonctif)

  1. Jar says:

    [Reference to previous typo]. Just thought i would point it out, nice post..thank you.

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