When do I use the subjunctive?
On the previous page, we saw that the subjunctive is a special verb form generally used to express something that isn't an assertion: a 'snapshot of a situation' rather than a simple 'statement of fact' (like saying 'him doing it' or 'him to do it' as opposed to 'he does it' or 'he did it'). Now in practice, certain words lend themselves to introducing a non-assertion. So these words and structures tend to trigger the subjunctive. On this and the following pages, we'll look in more detail at what those types of word tend to be.
Note that we won't deal just now with how to form the subjunctive. In the examples, we'll just use these forms:
On later pages, we'll explain how to form the subjunctive of other verbs.
The subjunctive by itself doesn't really carry any particular meaning and generally isn't used in a sentence on its own. It is always triggered by some other word in the sentence. Or at least, the subjunctive is triggered by the notion of "non-assertion", which in turn tends to be introduced by certain types of word. In practice, the subjunctive is always used in a subordinate clause ("sentence within a sentence"). (There's a possible counter-example in the form of subjunctive imperatives that we'll see below.) Words that trigger the subjunctive in their subordinate clause can be:
In English, subordinate clauses are usually introduced by words such as that, which, who, where etc. In French, subordinate clauses are inroduced by words such as que, qui, où etc. So that means that subjunctive forms in French are basically always introduced by one of these words.
Normal indicative verb forms are marked for tense (present, past, future). The subjunctive is an essentially "tenseless" form, or at least it just has a time value of "non past". That will hopefully become clearer in the examples that follow.
Specific circumstances triggering the subjunctive
1. Though the convention in formal French is for après to take an indicative rather than a subjunctive.