I got an email today with this question:
It’s a nice data point regarding something that’s difficult for us English speakers to remember: penser que (“to think that”) takes the indicative in the present affirmative (that is, when you’re making a statement). However, it takes the subjunctive when it’s used in a question, and when it’s used in a negative.
The Lawless French web site has a succinct description of how it works at this web page. Using the example of devoir that showed up in the email, we would have this (hopefully one of you native speakers out there will double-check me):
- Je pense que tu dois… I think that you should… (present affirmative, takes indicative dois)
- Je ne pense pas que tu doives… I don’t think that you should… (present negative, takes subjunctive doives)…
- Penses-tu que je doive… (present interrogative, takes subjunctive doive)
I hate it when Anglophones complain about the subjunctive–I think it’s charming. I bring this up only because it’s a corner of the grammar that puzzled the heck out of me today. How does this work in the future tense? I have no clue. I’d love to be able to say “I don’t think that Trump will win the election”–present tense? Subjunctive? No clue. Native speakers?
5 thoughts on “The confusion of thinking about the subjunctive”
Je ne pense pas que Trump gagnera l’élection. Ou bien, je pense que Trump ne gagnera pas l’élection… Simple logical thought and form, hoping the thought materialises 🙂
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Thanks, Bea dM!
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Actually there are two possibilities, and they convey a slightly different message .
You can say “Je ne pense pas qu’il sera élu”, or use the subjunctive present ” Je ne pense pas qu’il soit élu” .
The future shows the speaker has a strong opinion about this question, he’s rather positive . The subjunctive, as in its usual function, shows some uncertainty, a softer opinion .
Ah, interesting. I didn’t know that there were sometimes options in French to use the subjunctive or not. Does this happen with other verbs besides penser?
There are many subtleties in the choice of conjugation as well as syntax that give more meta-informations beside the main one . We don’t have to think about this but when well used by a foreigner it shows a high mastering of French .
Other verbs meaning penser que such as croire que, trouver que, work the same of course .
Generally the use of the indicative in place of the subjunctive makes sentences more assertive . For instance after superlatives French grammar commands a subjunctive : “c’est le plus beau que j’aie vu” , ” c’est le moins bon qu’il ait mangé de toute sa vie”. Same for dernier, premier . If someone says ” C’est lui le dernier qui est arrivé” instead of ” C’est lui le dernier qui soit arrivé” indicates that an absolutely certain witness is speaking .