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When to use the subjunctive vs the indicative in French?

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.

 

Head verbs 🗣

Heart verbs 💛

French

English

French

English

penser 

trouver

croire

imaginer

supposer 

avoir l’impression

remarquer 

observer 

constater 

to think 

to find / to consider

to believe 

to imagine 

to suppose 

to be under the impression 

to notice 

to observe 

to note 

vouloir 

désirer 

souhaiter 

préférer

avoir peur 

craindre 

redouter 

être désolé

douter 

vouloir 

exiger 

attendre

s’attendre à ce que

to want 

to desire 

to wish 

to prefer

to fear

to dread 

to fear

to be sorry

 to doubt

to want

to demand

to wait 

to expect

Exception!

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 pleuvepleuvra pas ce week-end.

I hope it won’t rain this weekend.

IMPORTANT

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. 

BUT

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 ?

BUT

Tu crois qu’il est honnête ?
⤷ no subject-verb inversion, so the indicative is used

Do you think he’s honest?
IMPORTANT

Sometimes, you may use either subjunctive or indicative. The use of either will add some subtlety. Read the example below:

  1. Je cherche une babysitter qui puisse parler cinq langues et qui prenne $5 de l’heure.
  2. 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

English

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.

C’est / il est + objective adjectives

C’est / il est  + subjective adjectives

French

English

French

English

évident 

certain 

clair 

probable (<50% chance)

etc.

obvious 

certain 

clear 

possible


bizarre 

étonnant 

surprenant 

choquant 

inquiétant

normal 

probable (>50% chance)

etc.

strange 

surprising 

surprising 

shocking 

worrying 

normal

possible

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
FrenchEnglish

content 

triste 

surpris 

outré

déçu

happy

sad

surprised

outraged

disappointed

Je suis heureux que tu sois dans ma vie.
I am over the moon you are in my life.

IMPORTANT

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!

 

 

French conjunctions calling for subjunctive


English

Conjunction purpose

French

goal

pour que

afin que

de sorte que

de maniere que


in order to

restriction

bien que 

malgré le fait que

à moins que

although 

despite the fact that

unless


condition

à condition que

pourvu que

provided that

time

avant que

jusqu’à ce que

en attendant que

après que* (see below)

before that

until

until

after

fear

de crainte que

de peur que

for fear that

concession

quoi que

quoique

whatever

although

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.

IMPORTANT

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

Want to practice? We have created some exercises on the French subjunctive vs indicative for you!

Unpacking the grammar

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.

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