Specific circumstances triggering the subjunctive (1)

Sense of 'negation' in the main clause

In general:

A negated verb, or a verb, noun or adjective with a 'negative sense' triggers the subjunctive in any relative clause that it governs.

So that includes words such as douter/douteux/doute que..., impossible/impossibilité que..., improbable/improbabilité que... but it also includes negated verbs il n'est pas possible que..., il n'y a rien que..., and adjectives negated with peu: il est peu probable que.... Examples:

il est peu probable qu'il puisse venir
it is unlikely that he'll be able to come
il n'y a rien qui puisse m'empêcher
there's nothing that can stop me
je ne crois pas qu'il puisse le faire tout seul
I don't think he can do it on his own
l'impossibilité que ce projet réussisse
the impossibility of this project succeeding
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Note, however, that the subjunctive isn't triggered in everyday French where the negated verb is être in the phrase ce n'est pas ... qui ...:

ce n'est pas moi qui pourra vous aider
I'm not the one that will be able to help you

With the phrases et non pas..., et non point...

In form French, the phrase non pas can be used to ellide a previous verb. For example:

nous cherchons une personne honnête et non pas une personne qui soit...
we're looking for an honest person, and not a person who is...

In this case, the subjunctive seems to predominate. The largely equivalent phrase non point, in common written usage until some time in the 1800s but nowadays rare, also triggers the subjunctive.

Subordinate clause can be paraphrased by cette situation etc

The subjunctive encapsulates a non-assertion or "imagined situation". So:

Verbs, nouns and adjectives that could have a phrase such as cette situation, cette possibilité, cette action as their object tend to trigger a subjunctive in any subordinate clause that acts as their object.


je permettrai cette action
I'll allow this action
je permettrai qu'il vienne
I'll allow him to come
je veux cette situation
I want this situation
je veux qu'il vienne
I want him to come
elle a renié cette possibilité
she denied this possibility
elle a renié que le terrorisme puisse nous toucher
she denied that terrorism might affect us
je m'attendais à cette situation
I expected this situation
je m'attendais à ce qu'il le fasse
I expected him to do it
supposons cette situation
let's suppose this situation
supposons qu'il vienne avant 8 heures
let's suppose he comes before 8 o'clock
il faut cette action2
we need this action
il faut qu'il réussisse
we need him to succeed
ils ont proposé cette situation
they proposed this situation
ils ont proposé que je vienne à 8 heures
they proposed that I (should) come at 8 o'clock, they suggested me coming at 8 o'clock
elle préférerait cette option
she'd prefer this option
elle préférerait que je vienne plus tard
she'd prefer me to come later
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Note that the clause must be paraphrasable and above all be a non-assertion. A big clue in English is that a 'tenseless' verb construction such as "for him to do it", "him doing it", "that he sould do it" is used rather than a 'normal' verb ("he came", "he will come"). Contrast this with verbs that clearly introduce an assertion, such as reported speech. In such cases, the verb in the subordinate clause remains in the indicative:

ils ont dit que Marie est morte
they said that Marie is dead
j'ai entendu dire que François Fillon est le nouveau premier ministre
I've heard that François Fillon is the new Prime Minister
il a expliqué que ce n'est pas possible
he explained that it isn't possible
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In thease cases, we wouldn't gnerally use one of the "tenseless" constructions in English: *they said Mary being dead, *I've heard Fillon being..., ??he explained it not being possible.

The 'emotive' construction with adjectives

There is a construction être ADJECTIVE que... which commonly takes a subordinate clause with a subjunctive and where the corresponding paraphase would be ... DE/PAR cette situation:

je suis content de la situation
I'm happy with the situation
je suis content que tu puisses venir
I'm happy that you can come
elle est outragée de/par cette attitude
she is outraged by this attitude
elle est outragée que Marie ne puisse pas venir
she is outraged that Marie cannot come
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Subordinate clause as the subject of the sentence

When a subordinate clause is the subject of a sentence, the subordinate generally has its verb in the subjunctive.


qu'il vienne est très important
him coming is very important
qu'il ne puisse pas venir est regrettable
him not being able to come is regrettable
qu'il ait dit ça m'a choqué
that he said that shocked me
qu'il ne puisse pas venir s'explique très facilement
him not being able to come is easy to explain
qu'elle puisse venir est très probable
her being able to come is very probable
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It is common to switch such sentences round, so that the logical subject isn't actually in the subject position of the sentence, and instead a 'dummy subject' (typically ça or il) is inserted at the beginning of the sentence. But the subordinate clause still generally takes the subjunctive:

ça m'a choqué qu'il ait dit ça
I was shocked that he said that
il est très important qu'il vienne
it is very important for him to come
ça s'explique très facilement qu'il ne puisse pas venir
it is easy to explain him not being able to come
ça ne m'étonnerait pas qu'il vienne trop tard
I wouldn't be surprised if he was too late
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However, the subjunctive is overridden (but only in the 'switched round' sentence) in cases where the subordinate clause more clearly expresses an assertion, such as with adjectives évident, probable:

il est très probable qu'elle pourra venir
it is very probable that she'll be able to come
il est probable/fort possible/vrai qu'elle viendra
it is probable/quite possible/true that she'll be coming
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Dislocated clauses

The subjunctive is also triggered in so-called "dislocated clauses" (que ..., c'est...), such as:

qu'elle puisse venir, c'est certain
that she can come is certain
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Further circumstances triggering the subjective...

Click here for further circumstances triggering the subjunctive.


1. In informal speech, après (que) can actually trigger the subjunctive, probably by analogy with avant (que).
2. The verb falloir actually provides some counter-evidence to our notion of the subjunctive replacing a noun phrase paraphase. In informal speech, it is possible to omit the subject il when the object is a clause, but not, apparently, when it is a noun phrase: "(il) faut que tu réussisses"vs. "*(il) faut cette situation".

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.