Table of Contents
- I. In Noun Clauses After the Expression of…
- II. In Adverbial Clauses (after Certain Conjunctions)
- III. In Adjective (Relative) Clauses, When…
- IV. Third-Person Imperative
Far be it from me to attempt to sort out how the subjunctive and optative moods functioned in the misty mists of Proto-Indo-European (circa 3500 B.C.), or how the two merged and produced millennia later the many-functioned subjunctive mood of Classical Latin.1
In any case, speaking very generally French took over for itself (and in its own way) the two main functions of the Latin subjunctive: doubt-potentiality and desire-aversion. Whatever the case may be in certain forms of spoken French, in contemporary written French (and in spoken French that is to any degree soutenu) the subjunctive is still very much alive. It is, however, largely limited to subordinate uses, in contrast to classical Latin, where it also had important independent uses.
For the few non-subordinate uses of the subjunctive, see, sometime in the future, the not-yet-existent Language File on the subject.
The subjunctive occurs in three kinds of subordinate clauses.
- Noun clauses (propositions complétives). In these the subordinate clause functions like a noun, most often a direct object of the verb of the main clause; it is introduced by a simple que. It is the words coming before the que that call for the subjunctive after it.
- Adverbial clauses (propositions circonstantielles). The clause functions like an adverb, i.e., it modifies the verb of the main clause. It is introduced by a more complicated conjunction than a simple que. The conjunction itself (almost always) is what calls for the subjunctive.
- Adjective or relative clauses (propositions adjectives, relatives). The clause functions like an adjective, i.e., it modifies a noun. It is introduced by a relative pronoun (qui, que,…). It is the dubious ontological status (so to call it) of the antecedent that calls for the subjunctive.
Another use frequent enough in modern French may or may not be considered “subordinate”: it is what I call the—
I. In Noun Clauses After the Expression of…
Subjunctive is called for in the subordinate clause, when the words in the main, introductory clause express:
A. A Wish, a Piece of Advice, or a Command
- Je désire, souhaite, voudrais que tu viennes. (I desire, wish, would like you to come [that you should come.])
- Je recommende que tu ne reviennes pas. (I recommend that you don’t return [that you (should) not return].).
- je demande, ordonne,2 exige qu’elle s’en aille. (I ask her to leave, I order her to leave, I demand that she [should] leave.)
Verbs of Petition Favor the Dative and an Infinitive
Many verbs that involve asking a person to do something (or proposing that a person do something) prefer, in place of a clause (with a subject and a personal verb in the subjunctive), a construction with the person an indirect object (in red) and the verb an infinitive preceded by de (blue-highlighted).
- Elle a dit aux élèves de se taire. (She told the students to be quiet.)
- Elle leur à proposé de faire des calculs. (She suggested to them to do sums.)
- Elle leur a demandé de la laisser en paix. (She asked them to leave her in peace.)
- Elle leur a ordonné de sortir. (She ordered them to leave the room.)
Using instead a clause with subjunctive verb is said to make the request or command more emphatic.
B. An Emotion (Positive or Negative)
- Je suis content qu’il vienne. (I am happy that he / is coming / will come.)
- Je suis triste qu’il s’en soit allé. (I am sad that he left.)
- Je crains qu’elle ne m’en veuille. (I am afraid that [= I fear lest] she has it in for me.)
C. A Doubt or Denial
The doubt can be expressed with a personal or an impersonal verb.
- Je doute qu’il vienne. (I doubt that he / is coming / will come.)
- Elle nie que le président ait dit cela. (She denies that the president said that.)
For anything only possible or less likely (improbable, impossible, untrue), use the subjunctive.
- Il est impossible, il n’est pas vrai, Il n’est pas certain, Il est possible qu’il ait raison. (It is impossible, It is not true, It is not certain, It is possible that he is right.)
The indicative is used if the likelihood is at least probable:
- Il est probable, vraisemblable, sûr, certain qu’il a raison. (It is probable, likely, sure, certain that he is right.)
Verbs of belief follow more or less this division. Affirmative belief is followed by the indicative (since you are a reliable person, the fact that you believe a thing makes it at least probable). Negative belief make the thing is improbable and is followed by the subjunctive. A verb of belief in the interrogative is in a grey zone, but it may indicate uncertainty and therefore may be followed by the subjunctive.
- Negative. Je ne crois pas qu’il ait dit cela. (I don’t think he said that.)
- Interrogative. Sometimes: Crois-tu qu’il ait dit cela? (Do you think he said that?)
- Positive. Je crois qu’il a dit cela. (I think he said that.)
D. A Judgment
These judgments are impersonal in form, but in fact personal (belonging to the writer or speaker), and imply the need for or desirability of an action.
- Il est nécessaire, essentiel, bon, temps, normal, désirable, etc., que tu viennes. (It is necessary, essential, good, (high) time, only-to-be-expected, desirable for you to come [that you (should) come].)
- il faut que tu viennes. (You must come = It is necessary that you [should] come.)
When the person the judgment applies to is generic or understandable from the context, a construction with infinitive can be used instead. Il faut is followed directly by the infinitive phrase; il est + [adjectif] is followed by de plus the infinitive phrase.
|With the Person Expressed:
|Without the Person Expressed:
|Il faut qu’elle vienne.
(She must come = It is necessary that she should come.)
|Il faut venir.
([Someone, most likely: YOU] must come = It is necessary to come.)
|Il est essentiel que tu répares cette faute.
(It is essential that you [should] repair this fault.)
|Il est essentiel de réparer ses fautes.
(It is essential to repair one’s faults.)
II. In Adverbial Clauses (after Certain Conjunctions)
Conjunctions requiring the subjunctive include those indicating concession, purpose, fear, anteriority. and potentiality.
For a list of conjunctions followed by the subjunctive (as well as those followed by the indicative), and an attempt to put them into groups, see the Language File Conjunctions in Groups.
But When the Person Goes Without Saying…
The French language has a love/hate relationship with its subjunctive mood, and it avoids using the subjunctive when it can. With many of these conjunctions, if the subject of the two verbs (in the main clause and in the subordinate clause) is the same, French prefers to use a construction with the infinitive. (In impersonal judgments, analogously, as we have seen, infinitive constructions can be used when the person concerned is generic or implicit.)
In this next table are contrasted use of subordinating conjunctions with, and without, a person expressed. In three cases (bien que, quoique, and pourvu que), there is no construction with the infinitive.
|Two Subjects: Conjunction and Clause||One Subject: Preposition and Infinitive|
|à condition que. Je vous épouserai, à condition que vous grâciez mon frère, condamné à mort.
(I will wed you, on condition that you pardon my brother, condemned to death.)
|à condition de. Tu recevras une somme énorme, à condition de quitter cet endroit et de ne jamais revenir.
(You will receive an enormous sum, on condtion that you leave this place and never return.)
|à moins que. À moins que tu ne téléphones, nous ne saurons pas si tu es là.
(Unless you telephone, we won’t know if you are there.)
|à moins de. À moins d’y aller vous-même, vous ne pouvez pas être sûr.
(Short of going there yourself, you can’t be sure.)
|afin que. Il leur écrit afin qu’ils sachent ce qui se passe.
(He writes to them so that they may know what is happening.)
|afin de. Elle les invite afin de ne pas rester seule.
(She invites them so as not to remain alone.)
|avant que. Je veux m’en aller avant qu’il n’arrive.
(I want to leave before he arrives.)
|avant de. Éteignez votre cigarette avant de vous endormir.
(Put out your cigarette before going to sleep.)
|bien que, quoique. Bien qu’il soit déjà tard, il viendra nous voir.
(Although it is already late, he will come see us.)
Quoique sa famille ait de l’argent, il travaille.
(Although his family has money, he works.)
|Even when only one subject is involved, a clause is necessary: Quoiqu’il l’aime, il va la quitter.
(Although he loves her, he is going to leave her.)
However, ellipsis is possible when the verb is être: Quoique (Bien que) très jeune, il connaît la vie.
(Although [he is] very young, he knows what life is like.)
|pour que. Nous sortons pour que tu puisses étudier.
(We are going out so that you can study.)
|pour. Elle se tait pour mieux pouvoir entendre.
(She shuts up the better to be able to hear.)
|pourvu que. Je viendrai, pourvu que vous me payiez le voyage.
(I will come, provided that you pay for my trip.)
|sans que. Jean est entré sans que nous l’ayons aperçu.
(Jean entered without our noticing it.)
|sans. Il est parti sans payer le loyer.
(He left without paying the rent.)
III. In Adjective (Relative) Clauses, When…
The subjunctive is used in relative clauses when some kind of restriction has been placed on the existence of the antecedent.
A. The Antecedent’s Existence Is Denied
- Il n’y a personne dans notre groupe qui connaisse bien le Kenya. (There is nobody in our group that knows Kenya well.)
B. The Antecedent’s Existence Is Placed in Doubt
- Y a-t-il quelqu’un ici qui puisse m’aider? (Is there somebody here who can help me?)
- Je cherche an appareil qui SOIT en bonne condition. (I am looking for a device that is in good condition.)
C. The Antecedent Is Rare or Unique
- C’est le meilleur film qu’il ait jamais tourné. (It’s the best film he ever made.)
- C’est le roman le plus passionnant que je connaisse. (It’s the most fascinating novel I know.)
- Il y a peu de gens, hélas, qui connaissent et apprécient Shakespeare. (There are few people, alas, who know and appreciate Shakespeare.) –Frédéric Lemaître, in Les Enfants du paradis
IV. Third-Person Imperative
This is a way of expressing a command in the third person. It is the equivalent of our English “Let (so-and-so) (do something)” construction. In French, Que is followed by the subject and the verb in the subjunctive.
- “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Jameson come over!”
Red rover, red rover, que Jameson vienne de ce côté!
- “Let them eat cake!”
Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!
- “Somebody arrest him!”
- “Let George say what’s bothering him.”
Que Georges dise ce qui le trouble.
Sometimes constructions of this kind, usually fixed expressions, can occur without the introductory Que. For more on this matter, see here.
- For an overview of the subjunctive in Proto-Indo-European and in its daughter languages, go to the Wikipedia article on the subject and read selectively.
- But see the note-box following.
Quotations illustrating this grammatical feature
Le prophète est celui qui s’oppose à ce que le moyen devienne fin, à ce que la forme extérieure soit cherchée et servie pour elle-même.
The prophet is a person opposed to the means becoming an end, to the exterior form’s being sought for and served for its own sake. –Yves Congar, Vraie et fausse réforme dans l’Eglise (p201)
So let it be written — So let it be done!
Qu’on l’écrive ainsi — et qu’on le fasse pareillement! – Rameses (Yul Brynner) in The Ten Commandments (1956)