What is the subjunctive?

The most important things to know about the subjunctive are:

It is not a tense

It is a ‘mood’ or -

An expression of uncertainty

One of the problems we have is that in English we will use words like ‘may’ plus our normal verb to express uncertainty but in French we use the subjunctive form of the verb. This does not change the meaning of the verb, just expresses an uncertainty within the verb.

Here is an example:

‘I am worried that the train may be late this afternoon’ translates as:

‘J’ai peur que le train soit en retard ce l’après-midi.’

Here I am using the third person singular (the train) present subjunctive of the verb ‘to be’ (‘être’) which is ‘soit’ to express uncertainty.

If I am certain the train will be late, I simply use the future tense:

‘The train will be late this afternoon.’

‘Le train sera en retard ce l’après-midi.’

One of the reasons that we worry about the subjunctive (J’ai peur que le subjonctif soit difficile.’) is that it is does not appear to be regular. Because we use it so much everyday it takes on irregular forms that have to be learnt. Also, some verbs do not make the change to a different form – they stay the same. So, it can be confusing!

However, if you can learn the subjunctive forms of just ‘être’ and ‘avoir’, you will have gone a long way to mastering the use of the subjunctive required in GCSE French.

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