The uses of the subjunctive are, admittedly, somewhat esoteric. While it does not quite change the meaning, the subjunctive tense changes the mood, typically used to express subjective actions, including will/want, emotion, doubt, possibility, necessity, and judgment.
This mood, so very unfamiliar and foreign to English speakers, is enough to strike terror into the heart of anyone learning French. However, this is a somewhat undeserved reputation. With a little practice and a little mindfulness, using the French subjunctive can actually be painless.
The vast majority of the use of the French subjunctive in spoken French is in the present tense, and so that is what this article will be focusing on. Keep in mind that there are also many rare uses of the subjunctive, primarily in older literature that will not be covered in this article.
Mercifully, conjugating in the subjunctive tense is relatively easy. Most verbs actually conjugate quite regularly.
For the 1st, 2nd, 3rd person singular and 3rd person plural, the stem of the 3rd person plural in the present tense is used, which typically involves taking away the -ent ending. This works for -ir, -er and -re verbs, in addition to many irregular verbs. For example:
ils partent => part-
ils dansent => dans-
ils apprennent => apprenn-
ils boivent => boiv-
First Person Plural
For the 1st and 2nd person plural, you do the same thing except take the 1st person plural stem from the present tense. For example:
nous partons => part-
nous dansons => dans-
nous apprenons => appren-
nous buvons => buv-
With many verbs, this will result in the same stem. However, remembering this slightly more complicated version of the rule will help you avoid pitfalls with verbs that have multiple or irregular stems, like with the verbs “apprendre" and “boire" above.
The verb endings for the present tense subjunctive are as follows:
There are a few – mercifully few – verbs that conjugate irregularly in the subjunctive tense. However, not only do they tend to be verbs that are irregular in virtually every other tense (and so easier to remember as irregular), but they also follow slight patterns.
être: je sois, tu sois, il soit, nous soyons, vous soyez, ils soient
avoir: j'aie, tu aies, il ait, nous ayons, vous ayez, ils aient
A few verbs just use irregular stems, but otherwise conjugate normally:
faire => fass-
savoir => sach-
pouvoir => puiss-
And finally, there are a handful of verbs that have two stems that use an irregular stem for all conjugations other than for 1st and 2nd person plural.
vouloir => veuill- (but nous/vous voul-)
aller => aill- (but nous/vous all-)
valor => vaill- (but nous/vous val-)
A good way of thinking about conjugating subjunctive verbs is that it makes the last vowels sound. For instance, while in the present tense one says “il part" without pronouncing the “t", giving it a longer sound, in the subjunctive tense one says “il parte", thus pronouncing the “t" and giving it a more abrupt sound. While this way of thinking about it doesn't always work, if you're uncertain of how to conjugate then this will you get you in the ballpark.
There are a number of common constructions in which the subjunctive is used. As previously stated, rare constructions will not be covered in this article, since most of them are not commonly utilized in spoken French.
The most common use is in the dependent clause of subjective actions, after the “que" or “qui". These include expressions of will/wanting, emotion, doubt, possibility and judgement. Some example expressions:
will/wanting: aimer mieux que, il est essentiel que, il faut que
emotion: aimer que, craindre que, il est bon que
doubt/possibility/opinion: douter que, il n'est pas probable que, il est impossible que
The subjunctive is also used in many conjunctions that are considered to express subjective actions. For example:
Je cours pour que je sois en forme.
Trickily, the subjunctive is also used in subordinate clauses with negated or indefinite pronouns, that is, with expressions like “ne… personne" or “quelqu'un" after “qui/que". For example:
Je ne regarde personne qui me connaisse.
Je regarde quelqu'un qui coure.
For an article on some good online verb conjugators that can conjugate the subjunctive for you, check out this article.
Ideas for Lesson Plans
Trying to figure out how to teach this material? To teach how to conjugate in the subjunctive, it's important to drill students so that it really sticks in their heads. Repetition is your friend!
Have them write out statements in French about their desires, their emotions, their doubts, their needs, all using subjunctive. This can be done in either an essay or story format mixed in with other verb moods, or just as a series of standalone statements.
To teach them how to differentiate between when to use the subjunctive and when to use the indicative, try coming up with sample statements in English and have them translate the phrases into French, forcing them to choose between the subjunctive and the indicative. This can also be done as a fill-in-the-blank exercise with just the verb.