Though French has a wide variety of tenses, ranging from simple present tense to the imperfect, the conditional tense is by far one of the easiest to use. This verb tense is necessary to discuss events that could have happened had life played out differently and things that could occur in the future, provided you take current action to make it a reality. In the sections to follow, we will discuss a general overview of the conditional tense, then narrow it down to the past, present, and future versions of it.
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The conditional tense deals with hypothetical situations and can be best compared to the English auxiliary verb “would”, as well as “could” or “should”. These words express uncertainty and represent a world in which the expressed thought could come to life, but it not certain to do so. The conditional is one of the more simplistic of French tenses and can be used in a variety of situations, including in reference to the past, the present, and the future.
The most prevalent feature of the conditional tense is that it describes events that are not guaranteed to occur. For example, when used in reference to some future event, the English speaker might use the conditional tense to say, “If I won the lottery, I would buy a brand new car.” French uses the tense in the same manner, often using “if, then” statements to merge conditional thoughts together.
For more information about the different tenses and other aspects of the French language, take a look at this course on learning to speak conversational French!
The conditional used in the past reflects events that could have occurred had some individual chosen a different option. An example in English of the conditional in the past would be, “If I had gotten my master’s degree, I would be a professor instead of a high school teacher.” The past conditional refers to an event that cannot occur, since it takes place in the past. The choice was already made and the speaker cannot change the event, only speak of what may have happened had they gone down a different path.
This particular subset of the conditional tense is also referred to as the “conditional perfect”. To create the past conditional, you will need to use the conditional version of the helping verb “avoir” and the past tense of the verb. A few examples are listed below:
- Si je l’avais vu, je l’aurais acheté. If I had seen it, I would have bought it.
- Il serait venu si nous l’avions invité. He would have come if we had invited him.
Take note of the multiple versions of avoir used in the statements above. The “If” (Si) phrases typically denote the “av-“ form of avoir, while the “then” part of the phrase takes the “aur-“ version. Also, consult a list of verbs that take être when used in the past tense to determine when “ser-“ should be used instead of a version of avoir.
The present conditional takes place in the here and now, describing events that would be currently occurring if certain factors were not preventing it. For example, in English, a phrase such as “He would eat if he were hungry” represents the present conditional. He would be eating right now, but is not because certain factors (lack of hunger) are preventing the event from occurring.
In order to create the present conditional tense, you need to take the infinitive form of the verb and add the appropriate ending according to the chart below.
Sample verb: Manger (to eat)
- Je mangerais
- Nous mangerions
- Tu mangerais
- Vous mangeriez
- Il/Elle/On mangerait
- Ils/Elles mangeraient
To learn more about the facets of the conditional tense, as well as many other French tenses, check out this course on French grammar for beginners!
The future conditional discusses events that could potentially occur in the future provided something about the present is manipulated. The future version of this tense is the only one that discusses happenings that actually could come about, since they take place in the future. An example of the future conditional is:
- Le candidat a dit qu’il aiderait les pauvres. The candidate said he would help the poor.
The event is occurring right now (candidate said), but refers to some future event that could potentially happen (help the poor), provided the candidate is true to his word.
If you clicked on the link to beginner French provided in the introduction and enjoyed the course it led to, perhaps you’d benefit from this subsequent course on learning French. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about French verb tenses, check out this blog post on ten French verb tables for the ten most common verbs!