The French Literary Subjunctive: Formation
Forms You Won't Want To Be Without
In my opinion, anyone who is going to be reading French that is the least bit formal needs to have a handle on the literary subjunctive tenses (imperfect and pluperfect).
Table of Contents
Formation of the Imperfect Subjunctive
The imperfect subjunctive is easy to form and to recognize, so long as you have a good grasp of the passé simple.
If you are not completely comfortable with the formation of the passé simple, go at once to the French Language file Simple Past and study it diligently.
A verb in the simple past, as you are aware (or should be, by now), is made up of three elements:
Base + Typical Vowel + Personal Endings
An imperfect subjunctive verb can also be described as having three elements:
It is exactly the same as the Base of the simple past: parler: parl-; finir: fin-; vendre: vend-; recevoir: reç-, etc.
Again, it is the same as the Typical Vowel of the simple past: -a- for -er verbs, -i- or -u- for all other verbs.
What I am calling the personal endings is made up of a double-s (-ss-) infix and the personal endings stricto sensu, which are: -e, -es, -t, -ions, -iez, -ent. The -ss-, present (one way or another) in all six forms, is what makes the imperfect subjunctive so easy to recognize. True, in the third person singular it has been reduced to a vestigial ˆ, but that too (so say I) is easy to recognize.
Base + Typical Vowel + (Infix&)Personal-Endings
- Base +
- “Y” (= a, i, or u) +
- sse sses ^t ssions ssiez ssent
|(base) Y sse||(base) Y ssions|
|(base) Y sses||(base) Y ssiez|
|(base) Ŷ t||(base) Y ssent|
Some examples. Throughout the table the Typical Vowel is green and in large format:
|parler (p.s. parlai, etc.)||finir (p.s. finis, etc.)|
|rendre (p.s. rendis, etc.)||avoir (p.s. eus, etc.)|
|être (p.s. fus, etc.)||venir (p.s. vins, etc.)|
Note that the imperfect subjunctive has a circumflex accent over the vowel of the third person singular, which is the only thing distinguishing this form from the simple past for the same person and number, for all except -er verbs. The difference in pronunciation is non-existent (or all but, in the case of –er verbs). I have colored the subjunctive typical-vowel-plus-endings red.
|simple past||imperfect subjunctive|
The simple past, meanwhile, has circumflexes in the first and third second persona plural forms. In the next table I have yellow-highlighted the simple past circumflexed forms and colored red the imperfect subjunctive circumflexed form.
|simple past||imperfect subjunctive|
The imperfect subjunctive of regular -ir verbs has considerable overlap with present subjunctive forms (as also does the simple past of these verbs with the present indicative). Here are all four tenses laid out for you with identically similar forms marked in a variety of colors:
|present indicative||simple past|
|present subjunctive||imperfect subjunctive|
In addition to which, the forms finissions, finissiez can be not only present or imperfect sujunctive, but also indicative imperfect.
Regular -re verbs, like regular -ir verbs, have -i- as their Typical Vowel in Simple Past and Imperfect Subjunctive, but to their credit do not have anything like the dreadful overlapping of the -ir forms.
Where This Tense Came From
Students of Latin will have no trouble discerning that the ancestor of what we now call the French “imperfect subjunctive,” with its characteristic -ss- infix, is the Classical Latin pluperfect subjunctive:
(fust >) fût
Subjunctive Slippage in Late Latin
How did the pluperfect subjunctive eventually become an imperfect subjunctive?
The Classical Latin system of four subjunctive tenses had inherent weaknesses, and partly collapsed when Latin shifted from (principally) a pitch accent in the classical period to a stress accent in Late Latin, with the result that unaccented syllables began to lose their distinctive character. The stress accent became particularly strong (and unaccented syllabes particularly imperilled) in Gaul as a result of the influx of Germanic speakers.
Two of the subjunctive tenses, the perfect and the imperfect subjunctive, became impossible to distinguish from other verb forms. Of the original four, only the present and the pluperfect managed to persist: the present, because on the whole its forms remained distinctive enough, 1 and the pluperfect, because of its very notable -ss- infix.
Here is how the French language eventually dealt with the situation:
- Present subjunctive. Persisted into modern French (with many adaptations).
- Perfect subjunctive. Latin forms disappeared. French created a new compound tense (passé du subjonctif).
- Imperfect subjunctive. Latin forms disappeared. The Latin pluperfect stepped in to take its place.
- Pluperfect subjunctive. Latin pluperfect having been adopted for use as imperfect, French developed a new compound tense to replace it (the Modern French pluperfect subjunctive [see below]).
However, in the Middle Ages, the former (Classical Latin) pluperfect subjunctive retained some of its previous functionality in contra-factual conditional sentences, since it could be used to refer to either present contrary-to-fact situations (its new function) or past ones (the function it had in Classical Latin). The sentence Se ceo fust vrai, il vos tuast could mean either
- “If that were true, he would kill you”; OR…
- “If that had been true, he would have killed you”
…depending on the context.
Formation of the Pluperfect Subjunctive
It couldn’t be easier! Take the imperfect subjunctive forms of avoir or être, depending on your verb, and add the perfect participle form of your meaning verb. Try it!
|Most Verbs||House-of-Being Verbs||Pronominal Verbs|
(I would have sneezed)
|je fusse resté(e)
(I would have remained)
|je me fusse retourné(e)
(I would have turned around)
|tu eusses éternué||tu fusses resté(e)||tu te fusses retourné(e)|
|elle eût éternué||elle fût restée||elle se fût retournée|
|nous eussions éternué||nous fussions resté(e)s||nous nous fussions retourné(e)s|
|vous eussiez éternué||vous fussiez resté(e)(s)||vous vous fussiez retourné(e)(s)|
|elles eussent éternué||elles fussent restées||elles se fussent retournées|
Once you have finished assimilating the contents of this file, go to: The French Literary Subjunctive: Uses.
- Present subjunctive in Classical Latin was nonetheless, in my opinion, a mess, and that mess has continued into modern French. See the French Language file Formation of the Present Subjunctive and, in particular, Part IV. Confusions.↩
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