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The Subjunctive and the Conditional in French

It’s all about moods

Part 2: The Subjunctive

 

4) We saw the forms for the subjunctive on page 1, section 1. Just to briefly review, the endings -e, -es, -e, -ions, -iez, -ent are added to the present indicative ils form without the -ent. Up next is the hard part, usage of the subjunctive.


In French, there are four moods. We have thus far seen two of them:

 

Indicative

Describes things as they are to the best of the knowledge of the speaker.

Conditional

Describes things that may or may not be true, depending on circumstances.


The third mood, the subjunctive, is far and away the trickiest. Like the conditional, the subjunctive is not used for simple statements of fact. But rather than depending on an objective condition, it depends on subjective perception. Use of the subjunctive cues the listener that the content of the phrase is strongly affected by the speaker’s beliefs, thoughts, perceptions or emotions. I like to say that it’s all in the speaker’s head, because in a way, it really is.

 

4a) There are two ways that a phrase can be all in a speaker’s head. The first of these is if the content of the phrase does not exist in reality, only in the imagining of the speaker:

 

I don’t think he is coming. (Je ne crois pas qu’il vienne.)

 

It is unlikely she will have enough time to help us. (Il est peu probable qu’elle ait assez de temps pour nous aider.)

 

In both these examples, the second part of the sentence is not established fact. In the first, it’s even believed to be false! That is, the gentleman’s arrival and the lady’s time are not things of which we are assured. They are hypotheticals postulated for the sake of the argument. Let’s look at some more:

 

I doubt you’re right. (Je doute que vous ayez raison.)

 

It is not certain that the president will decide that way. (Il n’est pas certain que le président prenne cette décision.)

 

Again, the speaker is not making statements of fact. These are things envisioned in the speaker’s mind so that their likelihood can be discussed.

 

There is one example in this category that is particularly tricky:

 

Before he comes, the bedroom must be cleaned. (Avant qu’il vienne, il faut nettoyer la chambre.)

 

The first phrase is in the subjunctive because the action hasn’t taken place, therefore it must be at this point only in the speaker’s mind.

 

4b) The second use of the subjunctive will seem the most bizarre to English speakers, and it is the reason I characterize the subjunctive as the “all in your head” mood. In French, there are times when a speaker’s attitude or view about something – even if it is factually known – is the overriding concern in the sentence:

 

I am happy she is coming. (Je suis content qu’elle vienne.)

 

She is sad that it is raining. (Elle est triste qu’elle pleuve.)

 

I regret the fact that he is unhappy. (Je regrette qu’il soit mécontent.)

 

The primary clause in all these sentences indicates an emotion of the speaker/subject of the sentence. As a result, it is understood that the events in the second part exist not as independent information about the external world, but as imagined events that serve as emotional stimuli for the mind of the subject. For example, in the first sentence it does not matter whether the girl is or is not coming. What matters is that her not coming would provoke sadness in me. Likewise, we can say of the girl in the second sentence that rain provoked sadness. Whether or not it is raining is not at issue; her response to the rain is. We could therefore go out on a limb and say that were it not raining, she might be happy (or might not) but that once rain started, unhappiness would necessarily ensue since the idea of it raining provokes sadness.

 

If all the above seemed like too much, why not move on to the third and when we recap the moods it may make more sense.

 

4c) Our third use of the subjunctive mingles the first and second. It expresses things that may or may not be so and how the subject of the sentence would like to see them. It is what in some forms might be called the subjunctive of the imperative. Forget explanations, here’s an example:

 

I wish that you would help me. (Je veux que tu m’aides.)

 

We ask that you would come as soon as possible. (Nous prions que vous veniez aussitôt que possible.)

 

Long live the king! (Vive le roi !)

 

The third sentence could be expanded to “We desire that the king would live a long time” (Nous désirons que le roi vive). In all three cases, the subject is expressing what he/she/they would like to see the subject of the subjunctive clause do. We can imagine the subject of the sentence imagining the actions in question coming to pass and the good things that would result.

 

Now comes the recap, after which all will make sense. Right?

 

5) The three main moods of French (we’ll leave the imperative for another day).

 

Indicative

Something the speaker takes to be true.

Conditional

Something that may be true or may be false, depending on whether a condition is met.

Subjunctive

Something that effectively takes place in the subject’s/speaker’s mind because it is either a matter of envisioning a thing not known to be true or focusing on the emotion or feeling the thing provokes rather than the fact of the thing.

 

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