Living Life in the Subjunctive

September 17

Part of the perks of working for a company in France is that I get to have French lessons paid for by the company. This has been one of the most helpful things for me in diving into the art of speaking French.

I have an absolutely terrific professor who happens to be the most patient and kind of all teachers. I really need that, since my understanding of why the French decided to construct their language the way they did is a constant struggle. I’m always commenting about the rules and difficulty of the language. She always agrees with me and I don’t think she is doing this just to be nice. I really think she does agree with me!

I have serious issues with the passé simple and the passé du conditionnel amongst others, but the one that gets me every time is the subjunctive (le subjonctif). I don’t even get why it exists! What’s more, the rules behind using it are so complicated! How in the world do the French ever get this one down?

Part of the problem with Americans learning the French language is the fact that we really don’t know our own grammar very well. Take for instance someone asking an American what the past perfect tense is. If someone were to ask me that my response would be, “I have no idea, what is it?” I may be wrong in my assumption, but the English language doesn’t necessarily hinge on knowing the parts of speech down to a science. The French language, on the other hand, does. Even the girl in my office, who is French, can quote me the parts of speech she uses in a sentence. I ask her all the time, mostly just to see if I can trip her up. It never works!  She knows it like the back of her hand. Thank goodness she doesn’t ask me about the parts of speech in English, because I would only be able to give her the basics.

One day this got me thinking about the fact that I have never heard of the subjunctive in English. Was there even such a thing and did I use it unknowingly? I decided to do some research on it. In doing this research I was astounded to find out that the subjunctive is used in English, as well, and that I used it quite often. I had never in all my schooling learned of such a thing! It seems that the subjunctive in the English sense is used to emphasize urgency or importance. In French it is used when expressing some doubt, wishing or emotion. Both are used in a subjective sense.

Ashley Davidson-Fisher, 29/09/2011Since I had been using it in English all this time, I figured I could conquer my fears of living in the French subjunctive and just start using it. At some point during my lessons, I told my teacher the issue I was having and she sent me the rules and regulations on the usage of the subjunctive. I have worn those pages out.

She told me the best way to learn it is for me to just memorize all the verbs which would constitute using the subjunctive form. I also started to memorize all the little ‘key words’ that would make the verb which follows take the subjunctive form. Some of these are: pour que, bien que, à moins que, etc.

Once I had these down, I figured I had at least arrived to the point of knowing when to use the subjunctive, now I had to know how to conjugated it. In my studies I learned that the conjugation was not as bad as I had thought. All the regular verbs take the form of the third person plural (ils) then you drop the –ent ending and keep the stem. Regular endings are then added to this stem.

I was getting it, but I’m not going to lie to you; this learning of the French language has been one of the most difficult undertakings of my life. One would think it was easy. Heck, we already speak our own language, so what could be so hard about learning another?

The study of the French subjunctive has also brought me to take a close look at the English language. I now think that English is a very difficult language if you really want to use it properly. We do have a lot of rules and regulations, as well. I have been studying my daughter’s English grammar book and I am amazed at the stuff I don’t know, but use every day. I even bought a book about how learning English grammar will help in learning French grammar.

I would have never thought that I would become fascinated by the intricate parts of a language. I am finding it to be an incredible study and I’ve about brought my daughter to tears when helping her with her English studies when I say, “Hey, guess what? In French that is called the …… tense.” Then I proceed to give her a French phrase as an example because I am so excited about knowing it. Or when I am watching a television show or French film and someone uses the subjunctive. I yell out, “They just used the subjunctive correctly!” One of these days she’s going to haul off and smack me, I just know it.

Learning french with Môsieur J.

A few months ago if someone would have told me that I would be excited about grammar or crazy French rules, I would have given them a dirty look. They would have been right, though, and I have the French subjunctive to thank for it. Without this irritating tense, I would have never come to the point of learning the parts of speech in my own native English and the intricacies of the language.

I’ve discovered a whole new area to study and now I am living life in the subjunctive.

Image credits:
1. Image credit Daffydil, on Flickr.
2. The beloved Bescherelle also know as ‘The French Bible’
3. Image credit Môsieur J., on Flickr

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Ashley Davidson-Fisher

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  1. threeoutside Oct 14, 2011 at 12:16 AM - Reply

    I enjoyed this very much. I continually struggle with French grammar and I, too, have decided that it’s like learning a new art medium! It has intricate rules and if one can master them, you can create lovely art with it. I’m not there yet by a long ways, but it’s fun learning!

  2. stephenuk Oct 14, 2011 at 11:43 AM - Reply

    Blimey Ashley, I always thought my English was pretty damn good, but you have lost me with this one.

  3. Bethany Untied Oct 14, 2011 at 12:16 PM - Reply

    I’m a self-processed language geek, so I totally understand how your studies have led you this way ! 🙂
    Subjunctive is always the hardest concept to teach Anglophones- I usually say, think of it as subjective…as in, just because you want it, doubt it, or like it doesn’t necessarily make it so.
    I remember my first foray into the world of subjunctive- I’d been speaking French for 8 years and hadn’t even HEARD of it, when one day I said ‘il faut que je fais’ and my date corrected me…’non, il faut que je fasse.’ When I asked ‘pourquoi’ he had NO IDEA why, he just shrugged his shoulders and…in the very typical French fashion said…’c’est comme ca.’

  4. Ashley Davidson-Fisher Oct 14, 2011 at 7:02 PM - Reply

    Hi Bethany-
    You had me laughing at the comment “c’est comme ca”! Boy, I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that when asking a question about French grammar. Even my French language professor has said it to me. Also, you’re right about thinking of subjunctive as subjective. It really works!

  5. Bethany Untied Oct 14, 2011 at 8:19 PM - Reply

    Haha I know, I hear ‘c’est comme ca’ all the time !

  6. Bethany Untied Oct 14, 2011 at 8:20 PM - Reply

    Oh and I think I meant self-confessed not self-processed…not sure what happened there 😛

  7. Judy MacMahon Oct 15, 2011 at 8:12 AM - Reply

    Hi Ahley, what a fabulous article! Bethany is aware of my struggles with the french subjunctive. I have now passed fear and i love it! When i discovered it exists in Enlgish i was amazed too. I think I am becoming an absolute pain as my heightened awareness of my own language astounds me! Thanks again Judy

  8. Ashley Davidson-Fisher Oct 15, 2011 at 9:28 PM - Reply

    @threeoutsice- I agree! It is fun learning:) I have to admit that it took me a very long time to come to that conclusion, but once I was able to grasp some of the language, that’s when I started to love it. The plateau of learning is the hard part. I’m always happy for the peaks!

    @stephenuk- Try out the Bescherelle! That thing will really blow your mind! I wish something this extensive existed for English:)

    @Judy-I was so surprised about how little I knew of the English language structure! I speak it correctly ( sans slang!), but I really think now that our language is just as complicated. A crystal ball would have been nice. If I would have had one as a kid to know that I was going to learn French one day, I would have studied English grammar a bit more!

  9. Ashley Davidson-Fisher Oct 15, 2011 at 9:31 PM - Reply

    Oops to threeoutside! I spelled your name wrong, in the comment above. Sorry for the typo 🙂

  10. Craig Underhill Apr 12, 2014 at 9:49 PM - Reply

    Merci pour ce pièce. J’adore le son du subjunctive. Je souhaite que je puisse le maîtrisé.

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