Formation of the French subjunctive

On the preceding pages we dealt with when the subjunctive is used and, in a more abstract way, what the subjunctive is. So far, we haven't fully dealt with how to form the subjunctive.

On this page, we will see how to form the subjunctive. We are specifically dealing with the form that is often referred to as the present subjunctive. But this is in fact the only simple subjunctive form in current use in contemporary French and we will refer to it here simply as "the subjunctive".

Formation of the subjunctive is generally quite straightforward provided that you know certain other forms of the verb. It can be summed up as follows:

  • In the nous and vous forms, the subjunctive form is identical to the imperfect for the vast majority of verbs;
  • Other forms sound identical to the third person plural of the present tense for the vast majority of verbs, but are spelled with -e(s) in the singular;
  • A very small handful of verbs have irregular forms.

Note that the majority of verbs which are otherwise considered "irregular" are completely regular as far as the formation of the subjunctive is concerned.

The nous and vous forms

As mentioned, the nous and vous forms of the subjunctive are identical to the imperfect for almost all verbs. For example:

il ne faut pas que vous dormiez
you mustn't sleep
il ne faut pas que nous le perdions de vue
we mustn't lose sight of him
je veux que vous vous conduisiez bien
I want you to behave properly
Feedback Suggest a change / proposez une modification

As in other tenses, the nous form is actually quite formal in everyday French and generally replaced by on.

The other forms (singular and third person plural)

The other forms (je, tu, il, ils) are generally based on the third person plural of the present tense of the verb in question. In the spoken language, they sound identical. In the written language, the difference is that instead of -ent, the forms end in -e(s) in the singular. (The -s is added in the tu form, just like it is in any other tense.) So that gives forms such as the following:

Verb3rd plural present form Subjunctive forms
dormir(ils) dormentje dorme
tu dormes
il dorme
ils dorment
conduire(ils) conduisentje conduise
tu conduises
il conduise
ils conduisent
finir(ils) finissentje finisse
tu finisses
il finisse
ils finissent
prendre(ils) prennentje prenne
tu prennes
il prenne
ils prennent

This means that in the spoken language, except in the nous and vous forms:

  • the subjunctive forms of -er verbs sound identical to the indicative;
  • the subjunctive forms of other types of verb have the 'characteristic consonant' that occurs at the end of the 3rd person plural present tense form (e.g. the [n] of prenne(nt)).

Irregular forms

As mentioned, a handful of key French verbs have irregular subjunctive forms. These are dealt with on the next page.

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.