Il semble qu'il ait perdu la memoire.

Il semblerait bien qu'il ait perdu la memoire.

I understand that normally a conditional indicates a less likely possibility but when the conditional "semblerait" is combined with an emphatical "bien", can one sense the difference from the indicative "semble"?

Don't they both indicate more or less the same degree of likelihood?

  • 2
    "Il semblerait bien que" with "bien" indicates some sort of confirmation. So that's two differences: mood and "bien". Jun 28 '19 at 8:15

Given other answers, different native speakers have different perceptions. I'm surprised to discover this. To me (native speaker from France), both the mood and the use of bien make a difference.

Il semblerait” puts more distanciation in the claim than “il semble”. The indicative mood “il semble” is the speaker's own perception, whereas the conditional mood “il semblerait” is at least notionally conditional to something, generally an implicit or explicit ”according to [someone else]“ or “based on [some observation]”. If there is an explicit reference for the claim, this may strengthen it in that it makes it more trustworthy. But even with an explicit reference, the use of the conditional mood makes the speaker's statement less strong, more open to being wrong. All else being equal, “il semblerait” is somewhat less likely than ”il semble“.

In principle, using “bien” indicates that the sentence comes as a confirmation of some previously stated claim. This indirectly makes the claim more likely since there is more than one piece of evidence for it. “Il semble(rait) bien” is also often used on its own, without confirming anything, and in that case “bien” has a purely emphatic role which does make the claim somewhat more likely.

Between “il semble” and “il semblerait bien”, I don't have a clear scale of likelihood.

  • Glad to know we agree on anything I deemed relevant. I tend to have the opposite opinion for the purely emphatic “bien” though. To me, depending on the situation, it often carries even less weight (I acknowledge because I don't have anything else to say). Mood and bien often make a difference, but it will be context related, and may go one way or the other. In some cases the fact that there is an explicit reference will make the claim less trustworthy. in other cases it will make it more trustworthy. Jun 29 '19 at 11:30

As a native speaker I do not perceive a difference in degree of likelihood between semble and semblerait, but I have a slight preference for semblerait, whose conditional form feels more in line with the aim of expressing uncertainty.

The addition of bien, however, does increase the perceived degree of likelihood, whether it is used with the present or conditional form.

  • 2
    I agree with you to say that having bien increases the degree of likelihood whatever the tense of the verb, but there's definitely a difference between using the present or the conditional, as OP says the conditional indicates a less likely possibility.
    – None
    Jun 28 '19 at 10:33
  • 2
    Sembler is already carrying the uncertainty hint so using the conditional is telling the uncertainty is itself conjectural. This actually decreases the degree of uncertainty...
    – jlliagre
    Jun 28 '19 at 11:37
  • That sounds very reasonable in theory, in practice I do not feel a difference between the two. And I am not aware of any clear distinction in usage. Regional variations maybe ?
    – Ous
    Jun 28 '19 at 12:55

Neither the use of conditional nor the use of “bien” indicate any quantifiable change in the degree of likelihood.

First, as already hinted at in a comment, the use of “bien” in such cases will be understood as a confirmation marker and has nothing to do with the perceived likelihood besides the fact that it is a confirmation that it does seem like it.

The use of conditional may have several purposes. Two seem particularly relevant here:

  • Attributing the allegation to an external source similarly to the well documented journalistic use of the conditional. It would fit in such a context:

    D'après ceux qui étaient présents, il semblerait qu'il ait perdu la mémoire.

  • Using it as a conclusion of a study or an inquiry process.

    Tout compte fait, il semblerait qu'il ait perdu la mémoire.

    Stating that, all considered, this seems the most likely (but there is no indication as to how much likely it is).


"Il semblerait bien que" is in fact a form in a very small minority usage and "semble bien que" is much preferred. This is what an ngram shows. That is quite posssibly an indication that speakers perceive the somewhat mind-boggling process of reinforcing what one initially presents as an attenuation and I would maybe follow the trend and avoid "il semblerait bien que"; personally, I wouldn't be picky on hearing "il semblerait bien que" and I'd assimilate it more or less with "il semble que".

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