When do I use the subjunctive?

On the previous page, we saw that the subjunctive is a special verb form generally used to express something that isn't an assertion: a 'snapshot of a situation' rather than a simple 'statement of fact' (like saying 'him doing it' or 'him to do it' as opposed to 'he does it' or 'he did it'). Now in practice, certain words lend themselves to introducing a non-assertion. So these words and structures tend to trigger the subjunctive. On this and the following pages, we'll look in more detail at what those types of word tend to be.

Note that we won't deal just now with how to form the subjunctive. In the examples, we'll just use these forms:

Verb "Normal" present tense form Subjunctive form
pouvoirje peux
il peut
je/il puisse
réussirje réussis
il réussit
je/il réussisse
venirje viens
il vient
je/il vienne
il a
il ait

On later pages, we'll explain how to form the subjunctive of other verbs.

General points

The subjunctive by itself doesn't really carry any particular meaning and generally isn't used in a sentence on its own. It is always triggered by some other word in the sentence. Or at least, the subjunctive is triggered by the notion of "non-assertion", which in turn tends to be introduced by certain types of word. In practice, the subjunctive is always used in a subordinate clause ("sentence within a sentence"). (There's a possible counter-example in the form of subjunctive imperatives that we'll see below.) Words that trigger the subjunctive in their subordinate clause can be:

  • verbs such as vouloir, douter, interdire;
  • nouns corresponding to these verbs (where they exist), such as volonté, doute, interdiction;
  • adjectives corresponding to these verbs/nouns, such as souhaitable, douteux, interdit;
  • adverbs: although rarer, adverbs corresponding to subjunctive-triggering adjectives, such as douteusement, can also trigger a subjunctive;
  • prepositions and conjunctions: certain prepositions and conjunctions systematically trigger the subjunctive;
  • negative markers such as rien, pas, peu in a main clause usually trigger a subjunctive in the subordinate clause; we'll see below that this applies to some extent to "restrictive" markers such as seul and premier.

In English, subordinate clauses are usually introduced by words such as that, which, who, where etc. In French, subordinate clauses are inroduced by words such as que, qui, etc. So that means that subjunctive forms in French are basically always introduced by one of these words.

Normal indicative verb forms are marked for tense (present, past, future). The subjunctive is an essentially "tenseless" form, or at least it just has a time value of "non past". That will hopefully become clearer in the examples that follow.

Specific circumstances triggering the subjunctive

On the following pages, then, we look at specific circumstances triggering the subjunctive.


1. Though the convention in formal French is for après to take an indicative rather than a subjunctive.

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