Specific circumstances triggering the subjunctive (2)

Subordinate clauses as the object of a preposition/conjunction

Certain prepositions and conjunctions trigger the subjunctive in their subordinate clause. Generally speaking, they are:

  • prepositions where the subordinate clause describes an event after the main clause1: avant (que), jusqu'à (ce que);
  • certain conjunctions also trigger the subjunctive, at least in formal registers: bien que, quoique, encore que ("although"), à moins que ("unless").

Within the prepositions, we include prepositions such as sans (que), pour (que), which don't really give any time reference at all. And we include phrases that effectively act as prepositions such as:

  • en attendant (que) ...
  • le temps (que) ...
  • pourvu (que) ...
  • de crainte/peur (que) ...
  • afin (que) ..., à seule fin (que)...

Examples with the subjunctive:

Il faut terminer ce travail avant que le patron revienne
We need to finish this job before the boss gets back
On terminera ce travail pourvu que le patron ne revienne pas avant midi
We'll finish this job provided the boss doesn't get back before midday
On terminera ce travail sans que le patron revienne pour nous aider
We'll finish this job without the boss coming back to help us
On terminera ce travail pour que le patron puisse dormir tranquillement ce soir
We'll finish this job so that the boss can sleep soundly in his bed tonight
On essayait de finir le travail de crainte que le patron revienne plus tôt que prévu
We were trying to finish the job for fear that the boss might come back earlier than expected

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Examples with the indicative (prepositions that express an event happening at the same time or before the event of the main clause):

j'étais sur le point de partir quand Marie est arrivée
I was about to leave when Marie arrived
je finirai ce travail dès que j'aurai un moment de libre
I'll finish this job as soon as I have a spare moment
pendant que tu finis tes devoirs, je regarderai la télé
while you finish your homework, I'll watch TV
lorsqu'on parle politique, on dit souvent des bêtises
whenever people talk politics, they often say silly things
J'ai commencé à dessiner aussitôt que j'ai pu tenir un crayon
I started to draw as soon as I could hold a pencil in my hand
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Jones (1996: 193) groups sans que with loin que and non (pas) que as introducing 'negative clauses' that trigger the subjunctive:

Pierre ne veut pas y entrer; non (pas) qu'il ait peur.
Pierre doesn't want to go in; not that he's afraid.
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'Result' clauses

Certain conjunctions introduce a so-called 'result clause' (also called 'manner clause'). They are:

  • de sorte que...
  • de (telle) façon (à ce) que...
  • de (telle) manière que...

and are translated by phrases such as 'so that', 'in such a way that' in English.

When these conjunctions assert a result, they take the indicative; when they non-assertively express a purpose (that may or may not have been achieved), they trigger the subjunctive.

Here is an example of this distinction:

j'ai parlé lentement de façon qu'il a pu comprendre
I spoke slowly so that he could understand (result, assertion)
parle lentement de façon qu'il puisse comprendre
speak slowly so that he can understand (purpose, non-assertion)
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(Note that pour que and afin que always express a purpose, so always trigger the subjunctive.)

Click here to go on to the next page, which deals with the subjunctive in relative clauses.


1. Though the convention in formal French is for après to take an indicative rather than a subjunctive.

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