The Logic Behind the French Subjunctive

The subjunctive mood in French, also known as subjonctif, can be quite a pain to use. Not only is its conjugation tricky, especially for irregular verbs, but the fact is you just don’t get it. Why bother? French people use the subjunctive all the time, but ask them when and why they do so, and chances are they have no idea. Well, for you, it’s different. French isn’t your mother tongue, so you have to understand it to speak it right.

The Subjunctive: What’s the Point?

It’s actually quite simple. The subjunctive is used to speak about something that doesn’t exist. You already know the conditional mood, right? Well, it’s not that different. Their statements aren’t in our reality. Let’s look at this sentence:

Si j’étais un animal, je serais mignon.
If I were an animal, I would be so cute.

The conditional mood here lets you imagine you’re an animal. Well, you can do this with the subjunctive mood too. The difference is that the subjunctive is dependent on a structure based on “que.” So you have to bring it up. It can’t exist by itself. Here, we’ll use the verb “imaginer” to introduce the subjunctive.

Imagine que je sois un animal. Je serais tout mignon.
Imagine that I am an animal. I would be very cute.

Notice that we still use the conditional mood in the second sentence. The two moods work well together as they express something that’s not true now.

The Subjunctive in the Future

“Now”: a very important word indeed if you want to understand the subjunctive. Something that will be true in two seconds isn’t true now, and it may never happen. So in theory, you can’t use the indicative, even the future, for something we can’t be sure will happen. Let’s look at this sentence:

Ses amis l’appelle pour qu’il ne soit pas seul.
His friends call him so he won’t be alone.

At the moment his friends call him, he’s alone. And after they call him, he’ll no longer be alone. That’s why we always use the subjunctive after an objective (pour que, afin que, se sorte que…). Now, with “avant que”:

Il va se coucher avant qu’il ne fasse nuit.
He goes to bed before it gets dark.

You may think we should use the future here as we’re sure the night will come. But there are two points you should consider: 1) future is different from certainty, and 2) the point of the sentence is: it’s still daytime, and I have to sleep before night, which is the opposite of daytime. So the statement can be read as:

“He goes to bed before” = TRUE,
“It’s dark” = FALSE

That’s why we also use the subjunctive to express doubt, as it’s, by definition, something we don’t believe in, we don’t believe to be true. So here’s an opinion:

Je pense qu’il va venir.
I think he’ll come.

And here’s a doubt:

Je ne pense pas qu’il va venir.
I don’t think he’ll come.

“I don’t think” = TRUE
“He’ll come” = FALSE

Actually, it’s quite interesting because here we have the choice between the future and the subjunctive depending on the level of doubt implied by the verb “think” about your own statement. “Je ne pense pas qu’il vienne.” Or “Je pense qu’il ne viendra pas.”

The exceptions

Even with this logic, you’ll understand the subjunctive about 90% of the time. But French is an old language that’s seen a lot of change, so there are still exceptions that may defy all logic. Sorry about that! But if you come across a subjunctive that you feel isn’t justified, you might just be right. That’s often the case when the subjunctive follows “le fait que” or expresses a feeling about something that happened.

For example:

Le fait que tu sois en retard montre que mon cours ne t’intéresse pas.
The fact that you’re late shows that you’re not interested in my class.


Je suis content que tu sois là.
I’m happy that you’re here.

Those are both cases where the subjunctive may seem unnecessary, but it’s still used.

Anyway, I hope this article has helped you understand the subjunctive a bit better. If you want to delve deeper into the cases where it’s used, be sure to check out All the uses of the subjunctive in French!

In conclusion, I hope that this brief introduction to the subjunctive mood in French has been helpful to you. While it can be a challenging topic, mastering the subjunctive can greatly improve your French language skills and help you communicate more effectively with native speakers. If you want to learn more, I invite you to check out my eBook “French in Paris 3,” which covers the subjunctive mood in depth, along with other important aspects of French grammar and vocabulary. Thank you for your interest and happy learning!