Learning French little by little

French Subjunctive 101 : Understanding the Basics

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.

En bas – Down / At the bottom / In front of

En bas is usually used to mean “down”,  “at the bottom” or ” downstairs”:

Ne regardez pas en bas ! – Don’t look down!

Les pièces sont en bas du puits – The coins are at the bottom of the well.

Elle est en bas – She is downstairs.

Il faut que vous fassiez demi-tour en bas de la rue – You need to turn around at the bottom of the street.

However, en bas also has the more idiomatic meaning of “in front of” (a building):

Je suis en bas de chez moi – I am in front of my house.

Je suis en bas de l’hôtel – I am in front of the hotel.

You can of course, still use devant which has the same meaning.

Coûter Cher – To Be Expensive / To cost dearly

This is an interesting French expression because it adds cher to coûter which translates to “To be expensive” or “To cost dearly”. It’s a little confusing because “cher” is an adverb, whereas “expensive” is an adjective, so the two don’t line up exactly, so “to cost dearly” may be slightly more accurate. This means that cher is invariable because it is modifying the verb coûter, so it does not agree with the subject; in plain(ish) English, coûter is conjugated as normal and cher remains the same.


Ça coûte cher! – That’s expensive! (lit: it costs dearly)

Cette chemise coûte cher ! – This shirt is expensive!

Les maisons dans ce quartier coûtent cher – The houses in this area are expensive.

Il a fait une erreur qui lui a coûté cher – He made a mistake that has cost him dearly.

Ces vacances vont coûter cher ! – This holiday/vacation is going to be expensive!

Faire demi-tour – To Make a U-Turn

French has loads of phrases that use faire, this one is used to mean “make a U-Turn”. It can be used in exactly the same ways as in English; to either physically turn around or to “change your mind about something”.

Technically, faire un demi-tour is used with the physical U-Turn, however, in general usage the article (un) is often dropped, and the phrase takes on the meaning of to turn back, or, turn around. When the article is included, the U-Turn is the specific 180 degree movement that is often made in a car.

To conjugate faire demi-tour simply conjugate faire as normal and leave the demi-tour alone.


La route a été bloquée, donc on a fait un demi-tourThe road was blocked, so we made a U-Turn.

Je faisais demi-tour quand Je me suis écrasé contre un réverbère – I was turning around when I crashed into a lampost/street light.

Plus tôt il m’a dit qu’il allait laver la voiture et puis, il a fait demi-tour en me disant qu’il ne voulait pas le faire – Earlier he said he was going to wash the car, then did a u-turn by saying that he didn’t want to do it.

Passé Récent: Venir de faire qqc – To have just done something

While not officially tenses, French has a couple of verbs that function as the near future (futur proche) and the recent past (passé récent). Here we are looking at venir de faire qqc which means to have just done something, placing the action in the recent past.

Venir as a verb on it’s own means “to come”, however, it’s not useful to attempt to translate venir de into a phrase with “come”, but rather to just accept that when de + infinitive follows venir it means that the action has just been completed.

To conjugate venir de faire qqc, simply conjugate venir as normal, followed by de + infinitive of the verb that has just been done (venir de + infinitive). It can be conjugated in either the present tense, meaning “to have just done something” or in the imperfect meaning “to had just done something”.

Examples in the Present Tense

Il vient de manger le dîner – He has just eaten diner.

Je viens de voir un OVNI – I just saw a UFO.

Elle vient d’aller chercher les enfants – She has just picked up the children.

Ils viennent de revenir de vacances – They have just returned from holiday/vacation.

Il vient d’y avoir un accident – There has just been an accident.


Examples using the Imperfect

Je venais de revenir de vacances quand ma mère est arrivée – I had just returned from holiday when my Mother arrived

On venait de finir de manger quand le téléphone a sonné – We had just finished eating when the phone rang.

Il venait d’y avoir un accident, donc, J’ai fait demi-tour There had just been an accident, so I turned around



Note: qqc is short for quelque chose, meaning “something”

Conjugating Il y a

Il y a is idiomatic meaning “There is/are”, but how do you conjugate this in to different tenses? Well, you simply conjugate avoir (a) to the relevant tense using the “Il/Elle/On” form:

Present: Il y a – There is/are.

Imperfect: Il y avait  – There were.

Passé composé: Il y a eu – There have been.

Future: Il y aura – There will be.

Conditional Present: Il y aurait – There would be.

Conditional Past: Il y aurait eu – There would have been.

Past perfect: Il y avait eu – There had been.

Future Perfect: Il y aura eu – There will have been.

Near Future: Il va y avoir – There is going to be.

Near past: Il vient d’y avoir – There has just been.

Negation with Plus

Because French uses a two part negation that wraps the conjugated verb, we get a very different word order. These three negations using plus get me every time:


This one is used for no longer, or places anymore at the end of the phrase.

Je n’ai plus de lait – I no longer have any milk / I do not have milk anymore.

Il ne peut plus le faire – He can no longer do it / He cannot do it anymore.

Nous n’avons plus de famille – We no longer have any family / I do not have family anymore.

Ne … pas plus

Ne…pas plus is for no more (or places the anymore before the noun). If used with a number Ne…pas plus de is translated as no more than“.

Nous n’avons pas plus de famille – We have no more familyWe do not have anymore family.

Il n’y a pas plus d’un oeuf – There is no more than 1 egg

Ne … plus rien

This one uses plus for no longer/anymore and rien for nothing/anything in English both parts need to be translated:

Je ne peux plus rien manger – I can no longer eat anything / I cannot eat anything any longer.

Je ne vois plus rien – I no longer see anythingI do not see anything anymore

Il ne se soucie plus de rien – He no longer cares about anythingHe doesn’t care about anything anymore.*

*This uses the verb “se soucier de” (to care about something) so the “de” is placed between plus and rien.

French Moods – An Overview

If tenses convey the time at which something takes place then a mood is the form of the verb that conveys the speakers attitude towards the action they are describing. French has 6 moods:


This is the most common mode used for stating facts:

Je suis un homme – I am a man,

J’ai mangé une pomme – I ate an apple

Vous aimez lire les livres – You like reading books


This mood is used to give commands, and the subject is usually left out:

Ferme la porte – Close the door

Ne mange pas ça ! – Don’t eat that!

Dépêches-toi !- Hurry up!


Unsurprisingly this mood is used to state that something could happen or would have happened if a condition is met:

J’irais au magasin si je voulais plus de lait – I would go to the shop if I wanted more milk.

Elle aurait gagné si elle avait essayé un peu plus – She would have won if she had tried harder.

Although the condition doesn’t always need to be stated, sometimes it’s implied:

Vous auriez aimé la pièce – You would have liked the play  (if you had gone to see  it).

Je voudrais une bière s’il vous plait – I would like a beer please (if you have one).


The subjunctive is used for unreality or subjectivity in the viewpoint of the speaker and is used to express feelings towards another persons actions. It’s a bit tricky for us native English speaker because we tend to reword the subjunctive so we can use the imperative mood:

Je veux qu’il soit heureux – I want him to be happy (I want that he be happy)

J’aime qu’elle lave la voiture – I like that she is washing the car.


An impersonal mood expressing simultaneity, or that two things are happening at the same time. These are “-ing” words (gerunds) in English, however, the English gerund is often substituted with the infinitive when it does not refer to two actions happening at the same time:

Il tombe en courant – He fell over while running

J’écoute la musique en conduisant – I listen to music while driving


Another impersonal mood that expresses a verbs meaning without specifying a point in time. In English the infinitive is expressed as to + verb, but in French is can also be used in the same way as an English gerund (-ing word acting as a noun):

Il va acheter un gâteau – He is going to buy a cake

Nager est amusant –   Swimming is fun.


Garder vs Tenir

Both tenir and garder mean “to keep”, so when do you use one over the other. Well, tenir is used more for a physical action, such as keeping hold of something, while garder is used when you mean to retain possessions or attitudes. Naturally, there is some cross over with these words and cases where either could be used.


Je garde le riz dans la boîte – I keep the rice in the box.

Ils gardent le silence – They keep silent.

Elle a gardé ses lettres – She kept his letters

Je tiens les yeux fermés – I am keeping my eyes closed.

Vous devez tenir votre chien en laisse – You must keep your dog on the lead.

Il tient le thé au chaud* – He is keeping the tea warm.

* My dictionary says that tenir is used to mean “maintain”, however it seems that garder may also be used in this case. A quick Google search shows that “Il tient … au chaud” has over 22 million results and “Il garde … au chaud” has around 700,000.

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