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My understanding is that the subjunctive imperfect tense is rarely used in spoken language.

But then, what would you use in a case where you would need it?

For example, to translate the rather forced example "He was unhappy although he was working," wouldn't working turn out to be subjunctive imperfect? Il était malheureux bien qu'il travaillât ?

How should this work?

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    I would say "Il était malheureux bien qu'il travaillait", but I may be wrong... – Random Nov 19 '15 at 8:07
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    Same here. I would translate Il était malheureux bien qu'il travaillât to "He was unhappy although he had been working" – Paul Picard Nov 19 '15 at 13:22
  • ....did someone say it was a duplicate? I don't see any close votes. – temporary_user_name Nov 20 '15 at 2:48
  • Sorry for the confusion. I was just afraid that my mention of the other question and its slight relevance here might be wrongly interpreted as a claim that yours is a duplicate. I clearly went overboard trying to make it clear that that was not my intention. Thanks and, once again, sorry. – Papa Poule Nov 20 '15 at 13:58
  • I'm not sure that I can ever truly forgive you, this has hurt me too much. – temporary_user_name Nov 20 '15 at 14:18
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The subjunctive imperfect is not always used in formal writing even when it should be, and basically never used in speech. Using it in speech is not only formal but definitely stilted. It is surely de rigueur for a speech at the Académie française but nobody uses it in ordinary life.

Where formal grammar requires a subjunctive imperfect, normal speech substitutes either a subjunctive present or an indicative imperfect. The subjunctive present is the most common substitution, but here it doesn't work, I'm not sure why. Medium-formality speech and informal writing might use the indicative imperfect. Using bien que with an indicative present is rather shocking to hear, but with the imperfect, it can be acceptable.

Il était malheureux bien qu'il travaillait.

But it would be more common to avoid having to use the subjunctive altogether.

Il était malheureux, et pourtant il travaillait.

  • "rather shocking" lol – temporary_user_name Nov 19 '15 at 22:50
  • Also, is it really common practice to avoid constructions with subjunctive in general? – temporary_user_name Nov 19 '15 at 23:07
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    @Aerovistae I don't think so. It's just that this sentence calls for a subjunctive imperfect, but that is never used in speech (and not all that much in writing), so we look for an alternative. Because the subjunctive present doesn't work here, recasting the sentence to not require the subjunctive is the preferred solution. Besides, in speech, it's common to avoid subordinate clauses, because they require more careful planning than coordinate clauses. – Gilles Nov 19 '15 at 23:10
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You are correct, subjunctive imperfect is no different than subjunctive present, except for the explicit past tense. In spoken language it is common practice to substitute one for the other (or often indicative imperfect, which is broadly used) though, as Random suggested above.

I always assumed it is often disregarded in modern spoken language because of its akwardness - learning that tense tends to give nightmares even to most french-speaking kids :)

  • Really? Do a large percentage of native French speakers not have the imparfair du subjonctif conjugation patterns memorized? Or you just mean kids balk at it when they get to that point in school. – temporary_user_name Nov 19 '15 at 17:10
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    @Aerovistae: People (native speakers) can read it, but can't use it properly (certainly not without laughter anyway). Exceptions are probably less than 1% in both cases. – Stéphane Gimenez Nov 19 '15 at 20:17
  • native kids (think third graders) have a hard time memorizing a tense they've likely never heard before and might not use at all, thus the fear to be randomly tested on that precise tense :) Thus, you could say mastering the subjunctive imperfect is a skill in itself. – Calimero Nov 19 '15 at 20:29
  • @Aerovistae Yes, as a native speaker, I've never used that tense... We only see it in books, where the style is important. – Random Nov 20 '15 at 9:24
  • By the way, is the t at the end of travaillât silent or no? Assuming yes but asking anyway. – temporary_user_name Nov 20 '15 at 16:41
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As a non-native speaker, I really try to avoid the subjunctive whenever possible.
Of course, just not using it when perhaps it should be used is certainly an option (and it's one that I employ quite/too often), but whenever I’m aware of a legitimate, nearly synonymous, indicative alternative to the “ … que + subjonctif” clause in question, I try to remember to use it.

In the case of “bien que,” my go-to subjunctive-avoiding alternative to try to capture “although/even though” is:

même si.”

So I’d translate your sentence as:

“Il était malheureux, même s'il travaillait/même s'il avait un boulot."

Although this might be an incorrect/less precise/less fancy translation, I personally find it a bit less harsh on my inner ear than hearing myself using the indicative with a well-known “ … que + subjonctif" clause.

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    While this isn't the answer I'm looking for, it is a valid approach to getting by with a second language, and something we all do. That being said, I encourage you to memorize the subjunctive conjugation...it's actually very easy. If you memorize the regular pattern and then the irregular roots of the 10 most common or so (faire -> fass-, devoir -> doiv-, pouvoir - > puiss-, aller -> aill-, avoir -> ai/ay, etre -> soi/soy, vouloir -> veuill-, savoir -> sach-), then that takes care of like 90% of cases. – temporary_user_name Nov 19 '15 at 17:08

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