The logic behind the French Subjunctive

The Subjunctive mood in French, AKA subjonctif, can be quite a hassle to use in French. Not only its conjugation is tricky especially for irregular verbs, but the fact is you just don’t get it. What’s the point of it? There seems to be no logic behind the French Subjunctive. Even if French people use it on a regular basis, try to ask them when and why they do so and chances are they have no idea. Well, for you it’s different. If French is not your mother tongue, you have to understand it to speak it right.


The subjunctive: what’s the point?

It is actually very simple. Subjunctive is used to speak about something that is non-existent. You already know the conditional mood, right? Well, it is not so different from it. Their statements are not in our reality. Let’s see this sentence:

               Je serais un animal, je serais tout mignon.  → If I were an animal, I would be so cute. 

The conditional mood here lets you imagine you are an animal. Well you can do this with the subjunctive mood as well. The difference is that the subjunctive is dependent on a structure based on que. So you have to bring it up. It cannot exist by itself. Here, we’ll use the verb imaginer to introduce the subjunctive:

               Imagine que je sois un animal. Je serais tout mignon. → Image that I was an animal. I would be so cute.

Note that we still use the conditional mood in the second sentence. The two moods work well together as they express something that is not true now.

(See also the 13 cases where to use the subjunctive mood in French)

The subjunctive in the future

“Now”: a very important word indeed if you want to understand the subjunctive. Something that will be true in two seconds is not true now and it may never happen. So, in theory, you cannot use the indicative, even the future, for something we can’t be sure will happen. Let’s see this sentence:

               Ses amis l’appellent pour qu’il ne soit pas seul. → His friends call him so he won’t be alone.

At the moment his friends call him, he is still alone. And after they have called him, he will no longer be alone. That’s why we always use the subjunctive after an objective (pour que, afin que, se sorte que…). The same logic works with avant que:

               Il se couche avant qu’il ne fasse nuit. → He goes to sleep before night.

You may think: why don’t we use the future here as we are sure the night will come? Well, there are 2 points you should consider: 1) future is different form certainty 2) the point of the sentence is: while it is still daytime, he has to sleep before night, which is the opposite of daytime. So the statement can be read as:

Il se couche avant = TRUE

Il fait nuit = FALSE

That will explain why we will also use the subjunctive to express the doubt as it is, by definition, something we don’t believe in, we don’t believe to be true. Here is an opinion:

               Je pense qu’il va venir. → I think he’ll come.

And here is a doubt:

               Je ne pense pas qu’il vienne.→ I don’t think he is coming.

               Je ne pense pas TRUE
                Il va venir FALSE

Actually it is quite interesting because here we would have the choice between the future and the subjunctive depending on the level of doubt implied by the verb penser about your own statement.

               Je ne pense pas qu’il viendra. → I don’t think he’ll come.

   Je pense qu’il ne viendra pas. → I think he won’t come.


Exceptions: the illogic use of the subjonctive

With this logic, you can understand 90% the time you face a subjunctive. There will still be exceptions as French is an old language that usage transforms a lot sometimes against all logic. Sorry for that J So you may tell yourself that a subjunctive is not justified and you may be right. It is true with the subjunctive following le fait que or a feeling about something that happened.

               Le fait que tu sois en retard montre que mon cours ne t’intéresse pas. → The fact that you are late shows that my class does not interest you.

               Je suis content que tu sois là.

I hope it helped. Check the article about the cases where to use the subjunctive to go further. You can ask questions in the comment section, I’d be happy to answer it. If you want to correct my English, feel free to do it. I’d like to improve. J

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