Forum Rocket French French Grammar present subjunctive in reference to past tense ?

present subjunctive in reference to past tense ?

RobertC106

RobertC106

It appears that when the present subjunctive is indicated, it's also used to refer to the past tense. As in,

 


Je suis surpris que la décoration soit aussi belle.
(I am surprised that the decoration is so beautiful.)

J'ai été surpris que la décoration soit aussi belle.
(I was surprised that the decoration was so beautiful.)

 

or,

 

je suis triste que nous ne puissions pas venir.
(i'm sad that we are not able to come.)

j'étais triste que nous n'ayons pas pu venir.
(I was sad that we were not able to come.)


But, not the future:


il est probable que mon père ne puisse pas venir.
(it is probable that my dad is not able to come.)

il est probable que mon père ne pourra pas venir.
(it is probable that my dad will not be able to come.)

 

Is this accurate?

 

Merci.

Robert
 

Mitchell-Rocket-Languages-Tutor

Mitchell-Rocket-Languages-Tutor

Bonjour Robert,

 

Sorry for the late reply.

 

There is no future subjunctive in French, so will simply use the present subjunctive and refer to a later date (tomorrow, next month etc.).

 

As far as subjunctive is concerned, there are four tense in French:

  1. Present,
  2. Past,
  3. Imperfect and,
  4. Pluperfect

The imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive are literary tenses which we only see in writing or extremely formal situations or perhaps old theatrical dialogue. The present subjunctive is used to cover all present and future context, while the past subjunctive is used to cover all past contexts. There are multiple different combinations of tenses, especially because the indicative clause is not really limited to the tense you can use.

Back to you question: 

Present subjunctive should always refer to a present or future context. In your example:

  • J'ai été surpris que la décoration soit aussi belle.
    (I was surprised that the decoration was so beautiful.)

I'm going to put the discrepancy in the example down to a poor translation, and perhaps to some extent the limited use of subjunctive in English. In French, this sentence indicates that the speaker is still at the event and can still see the decorations. If that is the case, then the English should really be, “I was surprised that the decoration is so beautiful.” This, however, sounds cumbersome in English. If the speaker is no longer at the event then we should use the past subjunctive:

  • J'ai été surpris que la décoration ait été aussi belle.
    (I was surprised that the decoration was so beautiful.)

 

Let me know if this helps and if you have anymore follow up questions.

 

   -   Mitchell

RobertC106

RobertC106

Bonjour Mitchell.

 

Ok, to be clear, if the first clause indicates the need for the subjunctive, you would always use something like:

J'ai peur que mon père ne puisse pas venir la semaine prochaine.

 

and never something like:

J'ai peur que mon père ne pourra pas venir.

 

So if, for whatever reason, one felt the need to use future tense in the second clause, the first clause would need to be phrased in a manner that didn't indicate the subjunctive?

 

Merci.

Robert
 

Mitchell-Rocket-Languages-Tutor

Mitchell-Rocket-Languages-Tutor

Bonjour Robert,

 

Yes, that is correct.

If you wanted to use the future tense in the second clause then you would be indicating a planned or certain (as far as the speaker is concerned) action, therefore we would have to steer clear of the hypothetical or uncertainty that is the subjunctive and instead, use the an indicative tense. 

It is difficult to find direct comparisons between English and French because our use of the subjunctive has dropped off and even then, it is more syntactic rather than inflectional. Having said that, if we were to use the subjunctive and project forward a hypothetical, we also wouldn't use the future tense in English. For example:

  • It's crucial that you be here tomorrow by noon.
  • It's crucial that you will be here tomorrow

This is essentially the same difference you were highlighting above (I just can't use exactly the same examples because it doesn't quite work in English).

 

I hope this helps at any rate,

   -   Mitchell

 

RobertC106

RobertC106

Yes, it has occurred to me how much we use the present tense in this context in English. It just sounds right even without the reference to a later date. Somehow, it's obvious that the reference is to the future, or for some length of time starting now. As in:  It's crucial that you be here. It's important that you're happy. But, in spite of the similarities, considering all the possibilities, it's clearly not the same as the subjunctive in French.

Merci.

Robert

Mitchell-Rocket-Languages-Tutor

Mitchell-Rocket-Languages-Tutor

Bonjour Robert,

 

Yes, you're right. The use of the subjunctive is so much more expansive than in English, which may be what triggered the question. Although it is more expansive and complicated, the subjunctive is used 90% of the time for the present or future, which means you can put most of your effort on the present subjunctive.

 

   -   Mitchell

RobertC106

RobertC106

Bonjour Mitchell.

 

I'm confused about the use of the subjunctive in reference to the past. From what I'm seeing, it appears that the present subjunctive functions as the nonliterary equivalent of the past imperfect subjunctive. As in:

 

Je savais que tu partais.
(I knew that you were leaving.)
Imparfait, but not subjunctive.

 

J'avais peur que tu partes.
(I was afraid that you were leaving.)
Present subjunctive substituted for imparfait in subjunctive clause.


Is this correct?

 

Merci.

Robert

 

Mitchell-Rocket-Languages-Tutor

Mitchell-Rocket-Languages-Tutor

Bonjour Robert,

 

The imperfect subjunctive is a literary tense which we only find in books or highly formal settings. In spoken French, we replace that literary tense with the present subjunctive OR the past subjunctive. What we replace it with is a matter of perspective. That's to say that you can be expressing a current feeling about a past action, or alternatively you could be expressing a past feeling about a past action. I'm going to pull some examples to see if their contrast makes that perspective clear.

 

#1 Present - Present

  • Il est important que tu sois chef. (It is important that you be a leader.)

#2 Imperfect - Present

  • Il était important que tu sois chef. (It was important that you be a leader.)

#3 Imperfect - Past

  • Il était important que tu aies été chef. (It was important that you be a leader.)

 

As mentioned, the subjunctive in English is more syntactic rather than inflectional, so the distinction doesn't come through in the translation, however there is a difference between the second and third example. 

The second example is the most common, partly due to its relative simplicity. However, it also implies that you are, presently, still the leader. Incidentally, note the tense in English, it also remains in the present subjunctive.

The third example is less common, but perfectly fine to use. The distinction here is that you were, but no longer are a leader, or that the importance of being so had a finite period of time in the past. Since our subjunctive isn't inflectional, we can't convey that subtlety in the conjugation of the subjunctive.

 

I hope that help!

 

   -   Mitchell

RobertC106

RobertC106

Ok, Mitchell. I'm just not seeing any evidence of the gray area, wherein the imparfait might be replaced by either the past or present subjunctive in a subjunctive clause. It would appear that as far as the subjunctive clause is concerned, what's past tense is expressed in past tense subjunctive, and what's present, future and, in spoken french, imparfait, is expressed in present tense subjunctive.


I'm sure I'll figure it out the same way I'll hopefully get the feel for the French subjunctive, in general. Just by seeing it in use.

 

Thanks for your insights.
Robert
 

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