Use the French subjunctive mood to talk about doubt, uncertainty, or emotions and the indicative mood to discuss facts and certainties. Often, my students will stop what they are saying and ask me worriedly, “Do I need the subjunctive here?” If I had to give you some tips to determine when to use the subjunctive, I’d break it down into three bullet points:
- When something is not real (it is abstract) or not sure (it may not happen)
- When using an adjective expressing emotions, judgment, or thin probability
- After conjunctions to be learned by heart
Like the indicative, the subjunctive mood can also be used in different tenses. Typically, the French present subjunctive will be used, but there is also an imperfect subjunctive tense in French. In this post, we’ll review when to use the subjunctive (in either tense) as opposed to the indicative. Let’s take a look!
Table of Contents
For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.
How to use the subjunctive vs indicative with head and heart verbs in French?
One clue for when to use the subjunctive versus the indicative in French is that the subjunctive will almost always be used with “heart” verbs, while the indicative is used with “head” verbs. To help you understand the difference between the two, imagine two worlds to visualize the concept of indicative and subjunctive:
If we follow the logic from above, head verbs call for the indicative, whereas heart verbs call for the subjunctive.
HEAD: Je pense qu’il est tard.
I think it is late.
HEART: J’ai peur qu’elle soit déjà partie. ⇒ the imperfect subjunctive!
I’m afraid she’s already gone.
Espérer (to hope) is an exception in French. While it may seem like a heart verb, it actually calls for the indicative in the future tense.
J’espère (I hope) + future tense in French!
J’espère qu’il ne
pleuve → pleuvra pas ce week-end.
I hope it won’t rain this weekend.
All head verbs in the negative call for the subjunctive. Why? Because we are talking about something that is not real or certain anymore.
J’ai l’impression qu’il est mal-à-l’aise.
Je n’ai pas l’impression qu’il soit mal-à-l’aise.
I’m not under the impression he may be ill at ease.
Also, all the head verbs in the interrogative (using French subject-verb inversion only) call for the subjunctive. Why? Because if you ask the question, a doubt is implied.
Crois-tu qu’il soit honnête ?
Tu crois qu’il est honnête ?
⤷ no subject-verb inversion, so the indicative is used
Sometimes, you may use either subjunctive or indicative. The use of either will add some subtlety. Read the example below:
- Je cherche une babysitter qui puisse parler cinq langues et qui prenne $5 de l’heure.
- Je cherche une babysitter qui peut parler cinq langues et qui prend $5 de l’heure.
I am looking for a babysitter who could speak 5 languages and charge $5 per hour.
→ In which sentence do I think such a talented babysitter charging so little exists?
In sentence (1) I reckon it could be hard or impossible to find because I used the subjunctive.
In sentence (2) I reckon I’m likely to find one!
When to use the subjunctive with negation in French?
As you may already know from learning to form the present tense subjunctive, sometimes negation in French calls for the subjunctive. Here are two other examples of negation for which you’ll need to remember to use the subjunctive.
- il n’y a pas / rien / aucun / etc. (there is no)
French negation phrase
il n’y a pas
there is not
il n’y a rien qui / que
→ Il n’y a rien qui lui fasse plaisir.
→ Il n’y a rien que je veuille acheter.
There is nothing that could make him happy.
There is nothing I want to buy.
il n’y a aucun
→ Il n’y a aucun candidat qui nous satisfasse.
There is no satisfying candidate.
il n’y a personne
→ Il n’y a personne qui puisse vous aider?
Is there no one that could help you?
sans que (without)
Elle est partie sans que je lui dise au revoir.
She left without me saying goodbye.
When to use the subjunctive with adjectives in French?
Use the subjunctive with adjectives expressing emotions or probability in certain contexts, such as with c’est or il est or the verb être.
- C’est or il est + adjective expressing emotions, judgment, or thin probability requires the subjunctive. Objective adjectives, like those shown below, will require the indicative mood instead.
Il est scandaleux qu’ils soient partis sans payer.
It is outrageous they left without paying.
→ Are you wondering what the difference between c’est and il est is in French? Well, in this case, c’est is casual and il est is formal.
- être + adjective expressing emotions requires the subjunctive, as well
The list could be never-ending, so I am just giving you a few examples here.
|être + emotion adjectives|
Je suis heureux que tu sois dans ma vie.
I am over the moon you are in my life.
Adding an adjective to trouver [to find / to consider] calls for the subjunctive.
Je trouve qu’il fait chaud.
I find that it’s hot.
Je trouve bizarre qu’il fasse chaud.
I find it odd that it’s hot.
Which conjunctions call for the subjunctive?
Some conjunctions are followed by the subjunctive and need to be learned by heart. It is about memory work here but also about logic, so even though the list below is not exhaustive, you can decide whether to use the subjunctive or not by understanding the meaning of the conjunction. Conjunctions expressing a goal, restriction, condition, time, or emotion (like fear) will require the subjunctive.
Let’s break it down!
Nous irons voir le film pourvu qu’il y ait de la place.
We’ll go see the film provided there are seats left.
Bien que son frère la mette en colère, elle l’aime.
Even though her brother gets on her nerves, she loves him.
After après que (after), you may use either the indicative or the subjunctive. Between you and me, the proper way is to use the indicative because what follows actually happened and is therefore real. But French speakers do love the subjunctive, so they use it instead!
PROPER USE: J’ai appelé ma mère après qu’il est parti.
I called my mother after he left.
MOST COMMON USE: J’ai appelé ma mère après qu’il soit parti.
I called my mother after he left.
In brief: Key things about the subjunctive in French
When using the subjunctive and indicative moods in French, remember the following:
- Am I rational? → indicative OR Am I subjective and emotional? → subjunctive
- Is what we are talking about likely to happen or exist? Yes → indicative, No → subjunctive
- être + adjective expressing a feeling, a judgement or a thin probability → subjunctive
- Memory work: conjunctions expressing goal, restriction, condition, time, fear → subjunctive
A mood is the form a verb takes to express various states: the indicative mood is for facts, the imperative mood is for commands, the subjunctive mood is for wishes and possibilities, and the conditional mood is for conditions and to express hypothetical ideas.
Conjunction are words or several words linking two sentences, like “although,” “if,” “even though,” etc.