So, this is the millionth subjunctive article that you’ve read and you’re still non the wiser, but actually, the subjunctive isn’t as tricky as it seems. Some explanations I’ve seen are unnecessarily complicated, the kind of thing only grammarians understand – which I am not – so let’s see if we can get the basics of this mood down without all the grammar babble.

Firstly, we do have the subjunctive in English, but it’s usage is mainly archaic, however, the following should sound quite familiar to English ears: “Wish you were here”, “If I were President”, “God bless you”, “If need be” and all these are using the subjunctive. So what’s happening here? Well they are expressing some kind if unreality (I’m not president but if I were…),  will (I want God to bless you), desire (You are not here, but I wish you were), doubt (I’ll do it if need be, but I probably won’t have to) or feeling.

That’s all great, but how do you figure out when to use it in French?

Firstly, the subjunctive in French is nearly always introduced by que – there are some exceptions which will be covered in future posts – but if you don’t have que in your sentence then the subjunctive in unlikely.

Secondly, the subjunctive needs more than one person, if there is only one person involved in your sentence then you don’t need to use the subjunctive. (Once again, I’ll be explaining what to do instead).

Thirdly, it needs somebody hoping, wishing  wanting, doubting or feeling something for the other person (or things) actions.

So, let’s create our first checklist that we can use to see if the subjunctive is required:

  1. Is more than one person (or thing) involved?
  2. Does one person have a feeling, wish, hope or doubt about another persons (or things) actions?
  3. Does it require que?

Firstly, let’s start in English: I want to say “I want you to make a cake”, let’s go through our checklist:

Q. Is more than one person (or thing) involved?

A. Yes, me and you: I want you to make a cake

Q. Does it have one person having a feeling, wish, hope or doubt about another persons actions?

A. Yes, I want you to make a cakeMe wanting you to make a cake.

Now for the final part of the checklist. When one person has a feeling about another persons actions, guess what, we need to introduce the second person with que, so:

Q. Does it require que?

A. Yes!

Excellent, We’ve answered yes to all the checklist items that we need in order to use the subjunctive:

Je veux que tu fasses un gâteau – I want you to make a cake. (I want that you make a cake)

Now,the literal translation is a little different from our original English sentence (“I want that you make a cake”), but that doesn’t sound so odd in English, we just need to remember that if one person has a feeling about another person or things actions we need to introduce person 2 with que, so we get the formula:

person 1 + feeling + que + person 2 + subjunctive conjugation of verb + optional additional info

So let’s take this formula and see if it works with our sentence.

person 1 feeling que person 2 subjunctive conjugation of verb Additional info
Je veux que tu fasses un gâteau
I want that you make a cake

Yes! let’s try another, how about “I am happy that you are making the cake”.

Let’s follow our checklist:

Q. Is more than one person (or thing) involved?

A. Yes, “I” and “you”.

Q. Does it have one person having a feeling, wish, hope or doubt about another persons actions?

A. Yes, I am happy that you are making the cake.

Q. Does it require que?

A. Yes, because we need que to introduce person 2, actually we would use “that” in English as well, so it’s not confusing at all here.

Person 1 feeling que person 2 subjunctive conjugation of verb Additional info
Je suis contente que tu fasses le gâteau
I am happy that you made the cake

Excellent! We have now constructed our second sentence using the subjunctive mood.

One thing that’s important to remember is that person 1 and person 2 must be different (we will look at a few exception in future) and don’t need to refer to a single person but can also refer to multiple people and in that instance person 1 can also be part of the person 2 group (“I and we”, “you and we” etc).

So, to clear this up let’s just take a look at: “I am annoyed that we forgot the cake”.

Our checklist again:

Q. Is more than one person (or thing) involved?

A. Yes, “I” and “we”.

Q. Does it have one person having a feeling, wish, hope or doubt about another persons actions?

A. Yes, once again I am annoyed that we forgot the cake. It doesn’t matter that “I” am also a member of  “we”,  me having a feeling about “we” is still seen as two separate grammatical people even though I am a member of “we” and “we” refers to multiple people.

Q. Does it require que?

A. Yes and in fact we need “that” (que) in English too, so it’s pretty straight forward.

Person 1 feeling que person 2 subjunctive conjugation of verb Additional info
Je suis fâché que nous ayons oublié* le gâteau
I am annoyed that we forgot the cake

Here I have just introduced the fact that a “person” in this sense is a grammatical person (a subject), so doesn’t necessarily have to be singular, it can also be “they” and “we” (as it was in this case) and doesn’t need to be a pronoun, it may also be a persons name (e.g. “Louise is happy that Léo ate his dinner” – Louise est contente que Léo aient mangé son dîner) or noun (e.g. “Léo wants his toy robot to jump” – Léo veut que son robot jouet saute). In technical grammatical terms this is described as “The subject of the main clause is different from the subject of the subordinate clause”, which may help if you have a good grasp of grammar. It will also be useful for future posts if you know how to identify a subject, as I will move away using the term “person” and instead use the term “subject” as we get deeper into the subjunctive mood.

Phew! That’s it for part 1, we still have quite a bit to get through, and in the next subjunctive article I will be looking at the compulsory subjunctive.

 


*This has been conjugated in the subjunctif passé, which uses the subjunctive of the auxilary verb (avoir in this case) and the past participle of the verb (oublier). I’ll post more on this in a future article.

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