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I am reading a French grammar book and came across a part I find a bit confusing. It states the following:

Je ne crois pas que Daniel est coupable. I don’t think Daniel is guilty.

Je ne crois pas que Daniel soit coupable. I don’t think Daniel is guilty.

The first sentence above means “I am actually sure Daniel is innocent.” In the second example, there is some doubt about his guilt (or innocence). The difference will be detected in context and with the intonation of the voice or through gestures.

I've never been particularly skilled at using the subjunctive, but I find this slightly difficult to understand and was wondering if someone could elaborate on what is mentioned in the book, potentially through other examples.

What confuses me specifically is why a distinction is needed when one is [100%] certain of something (indicative) as opposed to when one believes something, but not "adamantly," if that is the right word for it (subjunctive). It seems odd to have "degrees" of belief in this particular instance (either you believe Daniel is innocent, or you don't).

Is such a distinction common in everyday French? Is the indicative/subjunctive used more in instances like this? Whenever I've learned about use of the subjunctive, frequently I see that "only subjunctive must be used after ______ que" or "only indicative must be used after ______ que" so the idea that both could be used and that it only depends on the speaker's certainty confuses me.

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This is particularly hard to explain. Native speakers themselves use the subjunctive without understanding it. But since a distinction still exists, chances are that it serves a purpose in several places.

In your example, if the sentence is meant to provide information or weighs on the process of determining whether Daniel is guilty, indicative will be used. Like any statement it carries doubt and could be subjective. Using the indicative is obviously not a way to get rid of all that.

If the topic of the exchange is something different, the subjunctive is a way to mention whether Daniel is guilty, without weighing on it. In this case you'd rather not assume he is guilty.

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  • Thank you for the answer. I'm still a little bit confused about the different uses. For the indicative, would it be used if, for example, the conversation was about Daniel? And for the subjunctive if, for example, the conversation was about something else? I want to make sure I understand this correctly. Apologies if this is hard to explain; I've never been great with the subjunctive.
    – Kman3
    May 31 at 14:28
  • Vous avez raison, les gens utilisent le subjonctif sans réfléchir à son sens. Il fait généralement partir d'expression toutes faites (il faut que etc.). Il n'y a qu'a voir l'habituelle erreur du après que + subjonctif.
    – XouDo
    Jun 1 at 13:18
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You'd rather translate croire by "believe" and not "think".

Croire somewhat implies that you trust something and do not question it so je crois qu'il est coupable means "my belief is that he is guilty" and je ne crois pas qu'il est coupable means the opposite, "my belief is that he is not guilty".

Of course, when saying that, you state your opinion and not a fact so are ready to listen to different opinions. A stronger statement would be for example je sais qu'il est coupable with which you do not consider the fact he might be innocent.

With the subjunctive, you still have a belief but about something that involves some uncertainty so the meaning of je ne crois pas qu'il soit coupable tends toward "my belief is that he might not be guilty".

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