C'est le seul enfant qu'ils aient

Spanish Translation

Él es el único hijo que tienen.

Is there a reason for using the subjunctive in this example?

I can imagine it’s due to “le seul enfant” acting as a trigger. Maybe it’s literary style.

I’d go for “C’est leur seul enfant” instead. :slight_smile:

I’m just out of hospital, so it took me a while to see it. I’ve since found a couple of examples:

the only ones who understood
▸ la seule qui n’a or n’ait pas compris

The example above shows that both the indicative and subjunctive can be used. As always, you can’t tell for certain if a person understands something - unless you test them. Barring that case, the intrinsic uncertainty of knowing someone else’s mind is expressed by the use of the subjunctive.

The next example is now pretty familiar looking to me. Here, the speaker is showing some uncertainty, i.e. there might be some else who can help that they are unaware of.

▸ c’est la seule qui puisse t’aider
she’s the only one who can help you

Which brings me back to the original cloze sentence where the speaker is saying, more or less, “to the best of my knowledge they only have one kid.”


I think the subjunctive implies a requirement: They only have one child, to provide for them, to give them grandchildren, etc.

Typical, tough, subtle French grammatical usage at work here:

When a relative proposition is introduced by an antecedent that suggests a superlative idea, the subjonctive is frequently used.

That is often the case when such adjectives are used: seul, premier, dernier, principal, unique, meilleur…

le premier succès que j’aie eu
le meilleur souvenir que je puisse mentionner
le seul qui l’ait fait
l’unique client qui vienne tous les jours

The implied meaning is: of all possibilities, of all options, of all scenarios, of all alternatives…

The indicative would be correct in all the examples above if you do not want to suggest such a broader meaning and prefer to remain strictly descriptive and factual.


Thanks Anxos,

I’ve found a link, French Subjunctive With Superlatives, which covers the superlatives that you mention and their use with the subjunctive.

The following adjectives require the subjunctive when you’re not absolutely sure that what you are saying is a fact.

  • premier
  • dernier
  • seul
  • unique
  • principal

I think the author that you kindly mention has wrongly conflated different concepts.

There is no uncertainty in the sentence:

Il est le seul qui soit venu.

But a French will understand the implied nuance:

Il est le seul qui soit venu (de tous ceux qui auraient pu venir).

The superlative idea triggers the subjunctive because in French:

“le plus + adj” requires the subjunctive in a following relative proposition:

Il est le plus grand sportif qui soit.

Il est le plus intelligent que je connaisse.

Seul, premier, dernier, principal, unique, meilleur, etc… trigger the subjunctive by mimicry of that rule.

No notion of subjective uncertainty.

If I am not mistaken, the same rule applies in Italian, for the same reasons as far as I can tell:

l’unico che sia riuscito a…

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I have to admit that I somewhat doubtful that a qualified language teacher with a MA in French language and literature is going to get things mixed up.

Hi, I’m Jennifer…
I’m a real French teacher. I’ve been teaching French professionally for over 20 years. I have a BA in English & French, and an MA in French language and literature.

However, I could still be persuaded by your argument that Jennifer, with her 20 years of experience, is wrong if you were able to supply a link or two supporting your understanding of the use of the subjunctive in this area.

The position presented above is that of the Grevisse French grammar, article 1117 R2 b) 1., page 1438, in the chapter on relative propositions.

Grevisse or Jennifer? I have no doubt that she is competent and meant well, but Grevisse is my pierre de touche on difficult issues.

@Anxos, Thanks for the reference.