Three things I didn’t know I knew about the subjunctive

Posted on 25/02/2012


Health warning: you probably don’t want to read this unless you’re already advanced in French and have a fairly good grasp of what you thought were the rules of the subjunctive.

When I first started teaching French, I often had to bite my lip when I turned over the page of a grammar book in a lesson, in order to not say “Ohh! There’s a rule! I thought that was just random!”. Being a native speaker, there were things I just knew: I knew it was au Canada, but en France, but I had no idea this was because Canada – which doesn’t end in e – is masculine, while France – which does – is feminine.

This morning, I’ve been teaching an advanced subjunctive lesson, and found myself shaking my head and apologising for the craziness of French, while at the same time admiring the subtlety and beauty of it. And I discovered, although at some base instinct level I knew already, three things that seem a little loopy.

1) Je ne doute pas  doesn’t take the subjunctive.

Fair enough, you say (if you’re an advanced learner, that is). There’s no doubt. If there’s no doubt, then there’s no subjunctive.

Which is how I justified it to my student, and it all made sense, until he pointed out to me that yes, but it’s negative! Just like je ne pense pasje ne crois pas, etc, which all take the subjunctive, as I have relentlessly drilled into him. I thought there was no exception to this. And to my French brain, je ne doute pas isn’t really an exception. But I can see why that explanation might be unsatisfactory to others.

2) Je suppose que…

Actually, there are a few examples of this: verbs which take or don’t take the subjunctive depending on what exactly they mean. If je dis que refers to something I am telling you, no subjunctive. If it refers to something I am telling you (ordering you) to do, then a subjunctive is necessary.

Supposer que is my favourite, though. In sentence like I suppose the bus will late, no subjunctive is necessary. But in sentences like let’s suppose that x = 3…. you need one; in other words, when you are expressing a hypothesis, and you need to suppose something in order for the hypothesis to work, then you need a subjunctive.

Yeah, I know.

3) Il semble que…

With this one I had to throw up my hands and admit defeat. While it sort of seems logical that il semble que take the subjunctive – it’s not definite, after all – then why on earth would il me semble que not? Yet it doesn’t.

Go figure, as the Americans would say.


— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.
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