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Can anyone tell me how one decides between the subjunctive and indicative in a clause dependent on nouns that are modified by the superlative or the adjectives premier, dernier, unique, seul? I've seen many cases where both are used. What is the nuance that is being expressed if  one says, for instance


      Pierre est le meilleur jouer que j'aie vu

      C'est la première personne qui ait regardé l'émission

      rather than

      Pierre est le meilleur jouer que j'ai vu

      C'est la première personne qui a regardé l'émission




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most of the time you'll find the subjunctive after superlatives or the adjectives you mentioned, the indicative is also possible but quite rare, the subjunctive would come quite naturally. Not sure that natives would make the difference...

the subjunctive will insist on the superlative whereas the indicative will insist on the verb of the subordinate:

Le meilleur vin que j'ai jamais bu : I drank  wines that were not as good as this one

Le meilleur vin que j'aie jamais bu : there is no better wine, although I drank a lot of different wines

Pierre est le meilleur joueur que j'ai jamais vu: I saw a lot of player who were not as good as him

Pierre est le meilleur joueur que j'aie jamais vu: he is the best player, and I saw a lot of them.

As I mention on this page about the subjunctive in relative clauses, one rough rule of thumb that you can use is that the subjunctive is roughly equivalent to English "ever".

So in e.g. "He's the first person who (ever) saw the film", in English you can use "ever" as a way of emphasising the 'uniqueness' of the person in carrying out the action, or you can omit "ever" to make a more matter-of-fact statement. In French, using the indicative is a bit more like this matter-of-fact statement without "ever".

Now, one big problem with this rule of thumb, of course, is that "ever" is only used in the past in English, whereas this indicative/subjunctive difference applies to other tenses in French. (So one way of applying it to a present statement, for example, is to first shift the sentence into the past before applying the "ever" rule.)

Thanks for both the replies. The 'ever' way of deciding  definitely simplifies choosing between the subjunctive and indicative. 

isn't subjectivity a factor?  to me, in the first sentence, you're making a judgment which demands the subjunctive.  in the second, it's presumably a fact that the person was the first. 

Pierre est le meilleur jouer que j'ai vu

C'est la première personne qui a regardé l'émission

I just found this note.  copying it hence lack of accents:

in clauses whose antecedent’s modified by a superlative or by adj such as premier, dernier, seul, indicative’s used when speaker wishes to state an objective fact.  if an element of doubt or personal opinion or of subjective feeling, subjunctive may be used.  

c’est le plus beau muse’e que je connaisse
quel est le plus grand edifice qu’on ait (a) construit a paris
c’est le seul homme qui puisse (peut) faire cela
c’est le plus long voyage que nous avons (ayons) jamais fait

consolidating my notes, i found this from another source today:

Superlative of Opinion

C'est le plus petit homme que j'aie jamais rencontre'


C'est le plus petit + "de" takes the indicative:

C'est le plus petit des hommes que j'ai rencontre's.

(notice the "s" at the end as well).   

Thanks for taking the time to give those answers, Alan. Just to clarify, if a superlative of opinion is followed by 'de' indicating one of a group the indicative is used and if not subjunctive. Is this because in making it part of a group you're emphasising that you're only comparing it to the limited number in this group and therefore can state this as a fact whereas in "c'est le plus petit homme que j'aie jamais rencontré" you're potentially comparing that person to everyone else in the world, so it's much more doubtful and subjective?

perhaps someone else can see the logic.  To me, it's not a judgment to say that a man is the smallest man i've ever seen, whereas it would be subjective to say that X is the best male singer in the world.  But at least you can see the rules and then decide how much effort you want to make to abide by them.  My understanding is that French people have great difficulty with the subjunctive and violate it routinely


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