While learning French, you're going to come across some expressions or points of grammar that are a little bit difficult to understand, simply because they're quite different from your own native language.
The good news here is, the conditional tense in French isn’t one of them!
Although the form is a little different from the equivalent structure in English, it’s actually very simple for English speakers. Because in most cases, it works in almost exactly the same way as in English.
Here, I’ll look at how the conditional tense works in French to help give you a solid understanding of the basics.
By the end of this post, you'll be able to express a much wider range of meanings in French. You'll know how to talk about imaginary situations, express regrets about the past and much, much more.
All without having to bend your mind around any weird grammar concepts.
Before we look at the conditional tense in French, let’s think about conditional sentences in general.
What is a “conditional”?
A conditional sentence is usually one that begins with “if”. You use them to express the idea that if X condition is met, then Y will be the result.
There are actually quite a few ways to make this kind of “if” sentence in English. But let’s look at the basic types.
Consider these three sentences:
The first sentence expresses a situation that the speaker considers possible or likely. The chance of rain is real, and if that happens, the speaker will stay at home.
Notice that in the first half of the sentence, we use the present tense, “rains”, and in the second half we use “will”.
The second sentence is different because it expresses a hypothetical situation in the future, a situation the speaker doesn’t believe is possible.
The speaker doesn’t think it’s possible or likely that she'll win the lottery. But the sentence expresses what would happen if she did win.
The third sentence is different again. This time, it's a hypothetical situation. But here it's not impossible because the speaker thinks it can’t or won’t happen.
It’s impossible because we're talking about something that has already happened. It happened in the past and (unless we build a time machine and travel back) nothing can change it. Here, we are imagining what would have happened if the situation had been different.
Ok, enough English grammar. We’re here to learn French after all!
But the point is that conditional sentences in French work in almost exactly the same way.
For the first type of sentence, French uses the same construction, except that it uses the French future tense where English uses “will” (English has no future tense):
Here's a reminder of how to form the French future tense.
The other two types of sentence work the same way in French too. But where English uses “would”, French uses the conditional tense.
This tense is why we’re here, so now let’s look at those two types of sentence in more detail.
As we just saw, for an impossible or very unlikely hypothetical situation, English uses “would”.
Notice also that in our example, the verb in the first half of the sentence is in the past, even though the imagined situation takes place in the future:
In French, the equivalent sentence uses the imperfect tense in the first half of the sentence and the conditional tense in the second half, replacing the English past and ‘would’ respectively:
Note also that in French (as in English), you can invert the sentence like this:
In this example, we're talking about a hypothetical situation where both parts of the sentence (the ‘winning’ and the ‘buying’) are imagined to take place in the future.
You'll need to know how to conjugate the French conditional of course. It's pretty simple. All you need are the endings below plus the verb stem.
Here are a few examples of these endings added to verbs to make the French conditional.
Hypothetical situations in the future are probably the most common type of sentence. But you can also use the same structure for a hypothetical situation now, in the present.
Here, the hypothetical situation is right now. The person the speaker is talking to is not there – and can’t be because that person is somewhere else and can’t be in two places at once.
So it's a hypothetical situation that can’t come true. In this kind of situation, in French, we also use if + imperfect + conditional.
Just to be clear, although these sentences use the past tense (English) or the imperfect tense (French) in the ‘if’ half of the sentence, no past meaning is implied.
In both languages, we use these tenses not because we're talking about the past but to show that the situation is hypothetical. It's not real and is somehow removed from reality.
Now let’s look at the third type of sentence. It's not hypothetical because it can’t happen: it's hypothetical because it's in the past and now can’t be changed.
Let’s look at how to express our example sentence in French:
Let’s take this sentence apart a little bit. What's the context?
From the sentence, we can imagine that the speaker has arrived somewhere, let’s say at her friend’s house. When she arrives there, she realises it’s her friend’s birthday.
She didn’t know it was her friend’s birthday before she arrived. So she didn’t bring a present. Now it’s too late to change that. It’s already happened – so there’s no gift!
What we're saying here is, if she had known, the situation would have been different (i.e. she would have brought a present).
With this type of sentence, in French, you use the what's called the pluperfect tense (j’avais su) in the “if” part of the sentence.
The French pluperfect is:
The “would” part of the sentence is expressed using what is known as the perfect conditional. You form this by using the conditional form of the auxiliary verb (here aurais from avoir) and the past participle of the main verb (here, ramené).
One way to think about this is that, compared to the second type of conditional sentence we looked at, everything is bumped one extra step back into the past.
In the second type of sentence, the “if” part of the sentence uses the perfect tense (avoir or être in the present plus the past participle). So, in the third type, you need to use the pluperfect.
In the second type, the “would” part of the sentence uses the conditional in French. So to express “would have”, you need to use the perfect conditional.
Here’s an example:
Sometimes explanations like this can seem a little difficult to grasp. But it's quite logical and follows the same pattern as English. In fact, we can sum it up like this:
There's not always a “correct” type of conditional sentence to use. And the speaker’s choice shows how she feels about the situation.
Let's take a look at an example:
In both sentences, the situation is the same – the person is imagining winning the lottery.
The difference is that in the first sentence, this optimistic person obviously thinks that winning is a real possibility and is already making plans for the future.
But in the second sentence, the person doesn’t really think it'll happen and is just engaging in an idle daydream!
There are one or two other, minor uses of the conditional in French that we need to mention in passing.
One that's easy to understand is in reported speech (when you tell someone what another person said). Again, it works just like in English, with the conditional replacing “would”:
Another use with an equivalent in English is when making polite requests, for example:
Except note here that the literal translation of the French is “I would want” rather than “I would like”.
One use in French that is different from English is illustrated by the following sentence:
This type of sentence is typically found in journalism where somebody wants to avoid making a definitive statement. In English, this would normally be expressed with “supposedly” or “allegedly”:
Finally, one other use that's different from English is to speculate about something being true, similar to when we use “may” or “might” in English:
This sentence is more speculative than if you use the future tense: elle sera peut-être partie.
Although not without its difficulties, the conditional tense is both logical and intuitive for speakers of English.
Perhaps the third kind of sentence – the ones that use the perfect conditional – may seem a little complicated at first. But with a little practice, it’s easy to master.
The French conditional is one piece of grammar that really isn’t so challenging to crack. And that makes a refreshing change!
That said, even if the French conditional is logical to English speakers, you can still find yourself translating in your head when you want to speak.
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So, are you going to add some conditional sentences to your French speaking and writing? Has this post given you the keys and confidence to do it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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