How to Use the French Past Subjunctive

The past subjunctive, like the present subjunctive, expresses uncertainty

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The past subjunctive is used for the same reasons as the present subjunctive: to express emotion, doubts, and uncertainty. Before going on, review the rules for using the subjunctive to make sure you understand them. Note that the only difference between the present subjunctive and the past subjunctive is tense; usage is the same for both.

The past subjunctive is used when the verb in the subordinate clause, the verb that follows que, happened before the verb in the main clause.

The past subjunctive can be used in a subordinate clause when the main clause is either in the present tense or the past tense.

When the Main Clause is in the Present Tense

  • Je suis heureuse que tu sois venu hier. > I'm happy that you came yesterday.
  • Nous avons peur qu'il n'a pas mangé. > We're afraid that he didn't eat.

When the Main Clause is in the Past Tense

Or it may be used in a subordinate clause when the main clause is in the past tense. Note that if the main clause did not call for the subjunctive, the subordinate clause would have been in the past perfect, because the subordinate clause happened before the verb in the main clause. Therefore, the subordinate clause should technically be in the pluperfect subjunctive. But that is replaced by the past subjunctive in all but the most formal French.

  • Il doutait que vous l'ayez vu. > He doubted that you had seen it.
  • J'avais peur qu'ils soient tombés. > I was afraid that they had fallen.

How to Compose the Past Subjunctive

The French past subjunctive is a compound conjugation, which means it has two parts:

  1. subjunctive of the auxiliary verb (either avoir or être)
  2. past participle of the main verb

Like all French compound conjugations, the past subjunctive may be subject to a grammatical agreement:

  • When the auxiliary verb is être, the past participle must agree with the subject.
  • When the auxiliary verb is avoir, the past participle may have to agree with its direct object.