What is the subjunctive?

The subjunctive is a special form of the verb used in certain cases. Generally, it expresses something that is not an assertion, or in simple terms not a "fact" expressed by the sentence. To illustrate partly what that means, let's dive straight in with an example of the French subjunctive. Consider the following sentences of English:

I believe that John is ill.
I'm sorry that John is ill.
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It's not obvious on the surface, but there's a subtle difference between the structure or emphasis of the two sentences. The first sentence places more of an emphasis on the fact that John is ill, whereas the second places more of an emphasis on the speaker's reaction to John being ill. We can see this difference if we imagine turning the sentences round so that John is ill becomes the "main" part of the sentence. This is readily possible in the first case:

On the other hand, it would sound odd in English to say:

In French, it is common to mark this difference of emphasis with a subjunctive verb form. The I believe... case is expressed with a "normal" (indicative) present tense verb. But the I'm sorry... case– where the emphasis of the sentence is the speaker's reaction– is generally expressed with a special subjunctive verb form:

Je crois que Jean est malade.
I believe that Jean is ill.
Je suis désolé que Jean soit malade.
I'm sorry that Jean is-SUBJUNCTIVE ill.
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In this case, the special form soit is the present subjunctive form of the verb être. (And of course, the normal indicative form is est.) In general, the subjunctive is used for verbs that aren't asserting or stating a fact. On the next page, we'll refine our idea of what an "assertion" is.

The example above is just one type of sentence when French uses the subjunctive. To get a better understanding of what is the subjunctive, we need to look more closely at the idea of an "assertion".

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.