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I am reading Les désorientés by Amin Malouf. The hero, Adam, is writing to his friend, Naïm, both having left war-torn Lebanon (presumably, since the country is not named), many years before, to seek their futures in the West. Adam has returned visit his old country, on the occasion of the death of a close friend from whom he had been alienated. In his letter, Adam writes this.

Comment expliques-tu que nous nous retrouvions à présent dans le camp des perdants, des vaincus ?

It’s meaning is clear. The sentence expresses, in indirect speech, a simple, declarative proposition. I should have expected the verb to be indicative. Am I to take it that the use of the subjunctive creates some sort of obliqueness of tone? Does it emphasise the unexpectedness or improbability of the circumstances in which Adam and his friend find themselves? Or is this just a perfectly normal use of the subjunctive?

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The use of the subjunctive in your sentence is normal because the main clause of the sentence is a question.

As a rule expliquer que is always followed by the subjunctive if the main clause is an interrogative or negative clause.

Comment expliquer qu'il fasse si chaud ?

That being said, I would not be surprised to hear some people say:

Comment expliquer qu'il fait si chaud ?

but it wouldn't sound natural to my ears, probably colloquial.

When the main clause is affirmative, both, indicative and subjunctive are possible. The subjunctive is probably more frequent, especially if the explanation is shown as someone else's thought:

C'est la façon dont mon professeur explique que le français soit si compliqué.

Having the indicative in the sentence would probably show a greater degree of certainty.

C'est la façon dont mon professeur explique que le français est si compliqué.

This is adapted from p. 376 of the Dictionnaire des pièges et difficultés de la langue française

  • Thank you, Laure, for a crystal clear explanation, and for the helpful reference. I feel O have learned something I can apply in future. – Tuffy Jul 6 at 16:31
  • @Tuffy it's usually easy to answer a well-asked question. Welcome to FL and hope we'll see you again. – Laure Jul 6 at 17:21

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