This post is meant as a guide to what you can find on this site regarding the French subjunctive mood. In a later post I will talk about the functioning of what we now call “literary” subjunctive tenses in medieval texts I have put up on this site.
What Is the Subjunctive?
The subjunctive is a verbal mood used when things are either envisaged as not-quite-real (what is possible/doubtful/contrary-to-fact) or viewed through an emotional haze (what is desired or regretted/feared).
Once upon a time these two functions were handled by two quite separate moods, each with its own set of forms. However, also a long time ago, and well before French began to exist as a separate language, they merged into what we now call the subjunctive.
This hodge-podge mood, with its two different kinds of function, exists in English as well, but only in a comparatively vestigial or moribund form. That is why it is hard for a native English-speaker to get a handle on it in a language (such as French) where it is still very prominent. You can find out more about what this mood looks like in English in this language file: The Elusive English Subjunctive.
The Subjunctive in Everyday Modern French
Someone coming from a subjunctive-poor language like English has a two-fold labor when tackling this mood in French: there are both forms to acquire and uses to learn. For the first, check out Formation of the Present (and Past) Subjunctive. For the chief uses of the subjunctive, go here: French Subjunctive, Main Uses. To complete the picture, you can visit the following:
- §82. Subjunctive Mood (part of Chapter 16 of the online course French for Reading Knowledge)
- Indefinite Expressions Using the Subjunctive
- Conjunctions Followed by the Subjunctive
- The Third-Person Imperative
- “However” Expressions with the Subjunctive
The Subjunctive in Less Everyday (But Still Modern) French
In modern spoken French, only two subjunctive tenses are current: the present and the past. But in past centuries, and even today in literary French, there existed a total of four, the two others being the imperfect and the pluperfect subjunctive.
I go over the forms of these latter two here: The French Literary Subjunctive: Forms. For their uses (which include an important independent use as well as more familiar subordinate uses), see The French Literary Subjunctive: Uses. To add to the portrait, see:
If you’re interested only in conversational French, then you can probably get away with knowing only about the present and the past subjunctive. But if you’re interested in appreciating written French, even twentieth and twenty-first century French, you will need to know about the two other subjunctive tenses. All the more so if you want to read seventeenth and eighteenth century texts; knowledge of the literary subjunctive is indispensable.
To be treated in a subsequent post: the Subjunctive in Mad Beppo’s Old French Texts
David Baugh says
I would most definitely have been more appreciative of the mood had I been not distracted by my lazy and hazy ways back in the day.
Jack David Heaton says
The whole concept of the subjunctive, to the extent I remember it all, continues to fascinate me, such that…..Well, would that I had not drunk away quite so many precious brain cells! Google tells me that “the subjunctive” is indeed the use of a verb expressing “mood.” For example, I take it, dreaming, wanting, longing, wishing, insisting, demanding, asking, yearning, etc. Am I right? All that said, I continue to admire your expertise in the noble French language, Dr. Beppo.