Subjunctive (Subjonctif)

by Stephen C. Ohlhaut
(the article is published with the permission of the author)

The subjunctive is used normally in a subordinate clause (in other words, after the word que or some other conjuctions) where the preceding main clause requires the subjunctive. Like in English, French requires the subjunctive where the main clause expresses some doubt, wishing or emotion.

Expressions of doubt

Impersonal expressions of necessity

In French, impersonal expressions of necessity require the subjunctive in the subordinate clause. In English, an example of an impersonal expression of necessity would be: "It is essential that he finish the work." The subject of the main clause is "it." However, "it" doesn't refer to any person, place, thing or concept; it has no antecedent. That is why the expression "it is essential" is considered impersonal. The rule is the same for the French equivalent Il est essentiel. Some common expressions of necessity include:

Expressions of desirability and insistance

Most expressions of desirability or insistance in French, whether personal or impersonal require the subjunctive. Most of these expressions require the subjunctive even if the expression is in the negative. For instance, "I desire that you come" and "I don't desire that you come" would both require the subjunctive in French. Here are some of these expressions:

Expressions of fear

In French, there are two principal expressions used for fear. Both of these expressions, when followed by que require the subjunctive and, when desired, the pleonastic 'ne'. They are avoir peur, de peur que and craindre.

Conjunctions requiring the Subjunctive

There are many conjunctions in French that require the subjunctive following them. It is very difficult to know which conjunctions require the subjunctive and which don't. Memorization is about the only sure way to get it right. Unfortunately, it would be impossible to reproduce an exhaustive list, but here are some of the most important:

However, if there is no change of subject between the two parts of the sentence, an infinitive construction is preferred, in which case certain conjunctions take on a prepositional form (pour, afin de, à condition de, de peur de, sans); a few conjunctions (quoique, pourvu que) have no prepositional form, and their form remains the same when used with a repeated subject. So,

Indefinite antecedents

Probably the most interesting use of the subjunctive in French is in the case of an indefinite antecedent. This is one of the few times that the subjunctive can exist in a sentence without the word que.

An indefinite antecedent exists when the object talked about, or referenced in the main clause is nonexistant or its existance is in doubt. This case comes about usually when talking about a search for something or someone with certain qualities. Here are a few examples:

Remember: The main point of the subjunctive here is to indicate doubt or uncertainty about the existence of the person who can work independently. That person has not yet been located. In this example, there is no one who wants to come to the party. Since such a person is nonexistent, the subjunctive is used. However, if there is someone who wants to go to the party, the subjunctive is not used: The main point here is that the person talked about does exist and is not theoretical. In such a case, use the indicative.


A superlative is an expression of totality or uniqueness that, in English, is usually expressed with the ending -est and some other words. For example, words such as "greatest", "best", "most", "only" are examples of superlatives. When these equivalents in French are followed by que, they are normally followed by a clause in the subjunctive:

Concessive statements

The phrases où que wherever, quoi que whatever, qui que whoever, quel que whichever, and si + adjective + que however, are followed by the subjunctive:

Set expressions and commands

Certain set expressions are conjugated in the subjunctive:

A sentence beginning with Que... followed by the subjunctive denotes a command or an exhortation:

Pleonastic ne

In certain subjunctive constructions, the false or pleonastic 'ne' is used. this usage has mostly disappeared from spoken French, but you will still see it in written French. Be sure to recognize it for what it is and not immediately see a negative. if pas or any other second element of negation (rien, jamais, plus, etc.) is there too, however, you are dealing with a real negative.

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