[Intuitive course #4] The irrealis explained: when and how to use the subjunctive in French

I sometimes write intuitive courses, which are language courses put in my own words in the hope that they’ll be as clear to some people as they’ve been clear to me when I came up with them.

I usually write them in French, but I’m making an exception today as I will be… teaching French. To be specific, a peculiarity of French that I’ve been asked about a lot: the subjunctive.

Contents

  1. Summary
  2. In English
  3. In French
    1. Why
    2. Where (in situations)
    3. Where (in sentences)
    4. The tenses
    5. Hold on, is that imperative or subjunctive?
    6. Hope and belief

Summary

If this isn’t your first time reading about the French subjunctive, you’ve probably come across explanations on the fact that this mood – subjunctive is a mood – is triggered by such situations as doubt and possibility. And since you’re here, maybe that wasn’t enough for you. But have you ever been taught that the subjunctive is a type of irrealis? Aah, a new word, I hear you scream. But, hey, it’s already kind of clear – bless English for having loaned from Latin –: irrealis… unrealistic? Almost.

The irrealis is a wide set of moods used to portray something that is not concrete at the time of speaking. It’s applied roughly the same way in every language. Each language uses a different specific set of grammatical moods, but its application is clear: possibility, doubt, wish, necessity, etc. Yeah, you know about that. But don’t think in terms of situations: think in terms of irrealis. Is the topic known, for certain, or hypothetical, proposed?

In French, the full list of the aspects covered by the subjunctive is the following: wanting, wish, desire, obligation, doubt, uncertainty, necessity, purpose.


In English

As it so happens, English itself is not without a subjunctive:

  • The cat is here: assertion, realis;
  • I wish the cat were here: wish, irrealis → subjunctive triggered.

 

  • I know the cat is here: known information, realis;
  • I would rather the cat be here: believed information, irrealis → subjunctive triggered.

Of course, the English subjunctive is somewhat literary and not always intuitive (it’s not used in familiar speech, but is often still formally taught). In terms of literariness, I believe the Bible can’t be beaten:

And if he be not able to bring a lamb, then he shall bring for his trespass.

The ”if” implies a condition, here rendered by the subjunctive as irrealis.

Sometimes, the border between realis and irrealis is a bit blurry, but it (almost) always makes sense in the end:

  • I find that I don’t speak French well: thought as true → assertion → realis;
  • I’m told that you like French: believed as true → sure information → realis.

I find that this introduction might usefully highlight the role of the subjunctive. However, you can’t just calque that onto french. That wouldn’t work. Want proof? The French ”if” (« si ») doesn’t trigger the subjunctive like it does in English, but the imperfect instead.

  • If I am a cat… Si je suis un chat… → demonstration → the expected present trigger;
  • If I were a cat… Si j’étais un chat… → hypothesis →  imperfect trigger.

This template is visible in English too.

  • If I do it… Si je le fais… → demonstration → the expected present trigger;
  • If I did it… Si je le faisais… → hypothesis → imperfect trigger.

In French

Why

If you ask a native French speaker about the role of the subjunctive, they will likely say ”meh, I’m not sure” or ”it’s just the grammatical thing to do” or even ”it’s useless”, if not attempt to clumsily attribute a false purpose to it. But the truth is that the subjunctive does carry the meaning of irrealis: a detectable layer of uncertainty that the speaker might not be able to explain, but that they perceive, consciously or not, just like I’ve shown in the previous English examples.

The subjunctive is not just a bare grammatical trigger that you have to take into account if you wish to not be lynched by natives. Nothing emerges in language without a purpose to fill, nor remains without one.

Before entering the wonderful world of examples, a quick reminder: the definition I give of the irrealis and subjunctive will be true of all languages, not just French and English. But the way each language manages them can differ. In fact, reading this article will teach you about all of the Romance subjunctives: Portuguese, Spanish, French, etc.

The reasons I apply my article only to French are the following: 1) my examples are in French; 2) languages all have specific ways of managing certain things that I might not know of; 3) these language-specific peculiarities can sometimes extend the practical use beyond theoretical applications; 4) French is the best language in the world.


Where (in situations)

Going to examples, we will see the subjunctive pop up everywhere because it’s not deprecated in French. You can’t just drop it, saying “hey, colloquial speech, mate!”. Don’t.

  • Fact vs wish
    • The cat is here Le chat est là ;
    • I wish the cat were here J’aimerais que le chat soit (j’aimerais que le chat est là)
  • Fact vs doubt
    • He has driven Il a conduit ;
    • I doubt that he has driven Je doute qu’il ait conduit (je doute qu’il a conduit)
  • Assertion vs assumption
    • He is able to do it Il peut le faire ;
    • He has to be able to do it Il faut qu’il puisse le faire (il faut qu’il peut le faire)

Note: many subjunctives are mandatory and cannot be disregarded, such as the first and third ones above, but others walk their own path of deprecation (such as the second one) and tend to be replaced with the indicative by some speakers. I’m teaching the grammatical thing to do at all times, and most of the time what any native would do, but don’t be surprised if some French speakers use the subjunctive infrequently in certain cases. The frequency of usage can also vary dialectally.


Where (in sentences)

There is a well-known rule of thumb given out to learners, according to which the « que », here meaning the relative “that”, is always followed by the subjunctive, but it is, in fact, wrong and works only about half the time. A bare relative clause doesn’t trigger the subjunctive if its content is realis.

  • I think that the cat is here Je pense que le chat est là

Nevertheless, it is true to say that the subjunctive is always introduced by « que » (which will be reduced to « qu’ » before a vowel).

Not all « que » compound conjunctions trigger the subjunctive either.

Vocab

  • étant donné que → given that
  • parce que → because
  • dès que → as soon as

 

  • Given that he likes cats, no Étant donné qu’il aime les chats, non → fact, indicative;
  • He has a cat because he likes them Il a un chat parce qu’il les aime bien → fact, indicative;
  • As soon as you throw something, the cat runs after it Dès que tu lances quelque chose, le chat court après → assertion, indicative.

Other such conjunctions, on another hand, do carry an irrealis sense (I’m not giving the full list).

Vocab

  • à moins que → unless
  • pour que → so that
  • bien que → despite

 

  • Unless he likes cats, no À moins qu’il aime les chats, no* → conditional, subjunctive;
  • He gives his cat toys so that it’s happy  Il donne des jouets à son chat pour qu’il soit heureux → purpose, subjunctive;
  • The cat plays despite the fact that it’s tired Le chat joue bien qu’il soit fatigué → concession, subjunctive.

* This will also be seen as « à moins qu’il n’aime les chats, non » with the negator being part of the conjunction.

Hold on. This last example tells us about a fact as well, but it’s in the subjunctive? Yeah, well… This is a case that you should regard as an exception: « bien que » always triggers the subjunctive. Unfortunately, not everything makes sense in linguistics. That also kind of makes it fun, right?

The first example brings up another issue: the subjunctive might be hard to detect because its spelling and pronunciation don’t differ from the indicative form in the first group, except for the first and second plural persons.


Regular present indicative of the first group

Singular Plural
1 -e -ons
2 -es -ez
3 -e -ent

Regular present subjunctive of the first group

Singular Plural
1 -e –ions
2 -es –iez
3 -e -ent

  • I begin; I have to begin Je commence ; il faut que je commence → indicative, then subjunctive;
  • We begin; we have to begin Nous commençons ; il faut que nous commencions → indicative, then subjunctive.

On another hand, this can trigger a strange case of double I <ii>, sometimes <yi>, which is not a typo.

  • We forget; we have to forget Nous oublions ; il faut que nous oubliions → indicative, then subjunctive;
  • We pay; we have to pay Nous payons ; il faut que nous payions → indicative, then subjunctive.

This can happen in all groups, but the verbs « être » and « avoir » (“to be” and ”to have”), being thugs, don’t want this <yi> thing (that’s the sole exception here, besides the fact that the whole verbs are irregular).

  • We are; we have to be [something] Nous sommes ; il faut que nous soyons [quelque chose] → indicative, then subjunctive. (soyions)
  • We have; we have to have [something] Nous avons ; il faut que nous ayons [quelque chose] → indicative, then subjunctive. (ayions)

The tenses

Technically, the French subjunctive has four tenses: present, which we’ve covered extensively, past, imperfect, and pluperfect.

The past subjunctive is easy because it’s simply a compound of an auxiliary in the subjunctive and a participle. Training the conjugation of the auxiliaries is key here.

  • He has to take the cat; he has had to take the cat Il faut qu’il prenne le chat ; il faut qu’il ait pris le chat → present subjunctive, then past subjunctive.
  • He has to go [somewhere]; he has had to go [somewhere] Il faut qu’il aille [quelque part] ; il faut qu’il soit allé [quelque part] → present subjunctive, then past subjunctive.

Imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives are now totally deprecated in familiar speech; they will only be used humorously. These tenses are visible in dated literary works. Don’t bother learning them as a beginner.

Here’s a couple examples for the sake of beauty.

  • He had to take the cat Il fallait qu’il prît le chat → imperfect subjunctive.
    • Today, we would rather say: Il fallait qu’il prenne le chat → present subjunctive.
  • He had had to take the cat Il fallait qu’il eût pris le chat → pluperfect subjunctive (imperfect subjunctive auxiliary + past participle).
    • Today, we would rather say: Il fallait qu’il ait pris le chat → past subjunctive (present subjunctive auxiliary + past participle).

Technically, a text in the past tense should get its subjunctives to agree in the past tense as well for tense agreement (such as in the main examples above), but many contemporary writers ignore tense agreement in that case, which means that they use the secondary lines above, while all writers still used the first pattern in the 19th century. The imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives are perceived as old-fashioned today, even in literature.

Note: the third person singular imperfect subjunctive form generally looks like the third person singular simple past form with a diacritic added.

  • He took the cat  Il prit le chat → simple past (literary);
  • He had to take the cat Il fallait qu’il prît le chat → imperfect subjunctive.

Hold on, is that imperative or subjunctive?

Sometimes, imperatives take the form of the subjunctive. The cases are few but worth noting.

  • Please wash your hands Veuillez vous laver les mains
  • Have courage!Ayez du courage !
  • Be niceSois gentil

Some forms are outright confusing.

  • Long live France! Vive la France !

Here, the « que » is implied: « que vive la France ! ». It’s a third person imperative, which uses the subjunctive (the imperative forms of « vivre » are normally « vis » (singular) and « vivez » (plural and/or formal)).


Hope and belief

Spoiler alert: this chapter is interesting and useful (yes, I enjoy advertising myself) but it’s optional and fairly advanced, so maybe you’d rather ignore it as an absolute beginner.

The verbs ”to hope” (« espérer ») and ”to believe” (« croire ») sound irrealis (it’s unsure at the time of speaking), but they do, in fact, introduce realis speech. As though faith makes them real.

  • I think that’s him Je pense que c’est lui.
  • I believe that’s him Je crois que c’est lui.

Brace yourselves now because witchcraft is about to occur. In the negative or in the interrogative form, these verbs trigger the subjunctive.

  • I don’t think that’s him Je ne pense que ce soit lui.
  • I don’t believe that’s him Je ne crois pas que ce soit lui.

 

  • Do you think that’s him? Penses-tu que ce soit lui ?
  • Do you believe that’s him? Crois-tu que ce soit lui ?

Shocked yet? It’s not over. If the verbs are both negative and interrogative, they… don’t trigger the subjunctive.

  • Don’t you believe that’s him?  Ne penses-tu pas que c’est lui ?
  • Don’t you think that’s him? Ne crois-tu pas que c’est lui ?

Now that you are fairly bedazzled, I do have to moderate the tone of this chapter. This rule does look nice and can make some sense (raise eyebrows all you like, let the native speak), however the subjunctive trigger on both the interrogative and the negative form is infrequent.

But don’t think I only pretended to teach you something so that my article might be longer and look more serious. It is true that I wouldn’t usually use the subjunctive on the interrogative and subjunctive triggers, but I would switch between indicative and subjunctive in the negative form depending on my intent.

  • I don’t think that’s him, like, 75% sure Je ne crois pas que ce soit lui.
  • I don’t think that’s him, like, 99% sure Je ne crois pas que c’est lui. 

 

  • Do you think that’s him? Like, you do you, but… really, man? Penses-tu que ce soit lui ?
  • Do you think that’s him? You seem so certain, I’ll just butter it up Penses-tu que c’est lui ? 

 

Now, don’t get ahead of yourself. This is the result of a personal analysis of my own speech and not something that I do consciously, nor that is necessarily perceived the way I just explained it. The whole chapter is about showing off how cool the subjunctive is. But the true point is to show that it has one. The subjunctive. A point. By showing how I can modulate my intent by turning it on or off, I basically demonstrate that it does carry meaning. If you understand that, all you have to do now is memorize the conjugations.


I don’t pretend to have made a full course about the French subjunctive. There are plenty of exceptions and irregularities that I haven’t covered. The true goal of the blogpost was to help you reconsider the role of the subjunctive and give you a few tricks that might make it easier for you to use. Let me know if I failed, so I can help you better in the comments! Thanks a lot for reading. ❤

Big thanks to my many proofreaders as well, without whom I would have been explaining French grammar with an awful English grammar!

 

4 commentaires

  1. Il eût fallu que je fusse fort sot pour vous contredire, mon bon monsieur, sur cet article, bien que je ne sois pas, il est vrai, au sommet de mes facultés cérébrales !

    Your opinion about switching to indicative or subjunctive for verbs like « penser/croire » looks arguable to me. After all, subjunctivity does depend on the level of certainty you give to what’s asserted. « Ne crois-tu pas que c’est lui?/Ne crois-tu pas que ce soit lui? » is a good example reflecting different speech acts. From a pragmatical (linguistics) perspective, both are directive IMO, but only the latter (which equals to: « I share your doubts AND I want your mind on the question ») truly requires a piece of information; the former equals to: « I’m convinced it is him AND I want you to acknowledge it », hence the indicative), so, what it actually wants is approval, and the question is almost rhetorical.

    I would also add the case where a particular mood is triggered by an indirect object, or lack thereof:
    Il semble qu’elle ait un rhume => It seems she has a cold => subjunctive, cause I’m not sure about my assertion
    Il me semble qu’elle a un rhume => It looks like she has a cold to me => indicative, because the fact that this evaluation is subjective and uncertain is already marked by the pronoun (me, « to me »)

    Anyway, subjunctive in romance languages is a big mess^^ « penser que » always triggers the indicative in Italian; regardless of the sentence type! Those are but a grammatical crystallization of espistemological appreciations about certainty according to various groups of speakers…

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. There was no way I could avoid an argument with you on this one. 😀 I mean, I deserve it; truly, the course is a shortcut, but I think it’s well balanced between thorough teaching and mentioning peculiar cases (I don’t think aiming to teach things to C+ students is worthwhile at all). Like you said, it’s a mess. Intentional mood switches are worth an entire blogpost on their own, and they’re fascinating, but boy… You’ve got to settle somewhere. Your example with the cold is incredibly clear though; I hope that some of the people who will hunger for more details will bother to scroll down.

      J'aime

      1. Oh but the « penser » example, as I said, was a good one, I meant « arguable » in the sense of « defendable », cause that’s also how I’d use both forms^^ plus, you did specify that pair of example was a part of your idiolect. Anyway, the subjunctive is so tricky that there is no definitive grammatical point setting once and for all which for we should use in some situations.

        I fully agree with you that the main deal is leading learners to understand what that mood is and how to use it. This is well written IMO, neither too rigid, specific, « class-like », neither too simplistic or overly vulgarized. That may really come helpful.

        Aimé par 1 personne

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