The conditional verb tense in French is very similar to the conditional tense in English. But what is the conditional tense in English, you ask? See if you can figure out what features these sentences have in common.
I could come later if it stops snowing.
The game should start in ten minutes (if I remember correctly).
I would eat with you, but I’ve already eaten.
If I had the money, I would go to France on vacation.
She is probably at the store if she hasn’t come home yet.
He must have been out for a run if he didn’t pick up the phone.
If it’s sunny, we should go to the beach.
I would like a table for five (if there’s one available).
The conditional tense is all about cause and effect. It allows us to talk about what we think could happen or what we assume did happen on the condition that something else is going on.
Though we may not explicitly mention the condition, like in the example of asking for a table at a restaurant, it’s implied that we are assuming it hinges on a possibility, namely, that a table is available or that the person is willing to do something for us. For this reason, the conditional is often used to sound more polite when making suggestions or asking questions.
The conditional helps us avoid sounding too demanding, so it’s a crucial tense to learn in French, since it’s the most polite form to use in most common exchanges you’ll have with French-speaking strangers in shops and restaurants.
Je voudrais une bière.
I would like a beer.
Je veux une bière.
I want a beer.
Conditional is used:
1. To express a possibility or potential circumstance (probabilities)
Je ferais le tour du monde, si j’étais riche. I would travel around the world if I were rich.
2. To express uncertainty or doubt
D’après la police, l’assassin serait un homme âgé. According to the police, the killer could be an old man.
3. To soften suggestions or form more polite requests and questions
Pourriez-vous fermer la porte, s’il vous plaît? Could you close the door, please?
4. To talk about desires, hypothetical situations, or speculations
J’aimerais aller à la fête, mais je dois travailler I would love to go to the party, but I have to work.
5. To express “future-in-the-past” events
Il a dit qu’il viendrait. He said [past] he would come [in the future].
Mood or Tense?
In French, the conditional can be referred to as a mood or a tense. Another example of a mood in French is the subjunctive. In certain cases, rather than strictly referring to a time frame in which something happened (which is what tense expresses), it often refers to the speaker’s mood about something, namely that there is some contingency associated with the event.
If you’re describing the future as seen from a “past” point of view, that’s the tense usage. If you’re describing a hypothetical situation, that’s the mood usage. So, the technical classification changes, but the way you form it doesn’t, so you don’t need to worry too much about knowing which is which.
English versus French Conditional
In English, you’ll usually see one of these verbs in the conditional form (called modal verbs) + a second main verb:
can –> could + kick
shall –> should + eat
want –> would + mind
For the simple conditional tense, rather than combining two verbs, in French you simply conjugate the main verb to form le conditionnel.
When you do decide to explicitly express the condition in a second clause, there are specific combinations of tenses that should be used. First we’ll take a look at how to form the conditional, then how to combine it with other tenses to express more complex potential situations.
Creating the Conditional
To create verbs in the conditional, start with the future simple stem of the verb.
Finir (to finish) fin -ir
In the future simple tense, the whole infinitive verb is used as the stem for -er and -ir verbs.
Finir (to finish) in future simple:
Nous finirons [futur simple] le projet l’année prochaine. We will finish the project next year.
For -re verbs, the stem is the infinitive minus the “e.”
Repeindre (to paint again) in future simple:
Je repeindrai ton portrait dans cinq ans. I will paint your portrait again in five years.
After you’ve determined the future stem, simply add the conditional ending. You’ll notice they’re similar to indicative endings but often have an extra “i” in there. They’re also identical to imparfait (imperfect tense) endings.
Luckily, conditional tense is one of the few tenses where the endings are the same for the different types of verbs (-ir, -re, -er), so it’s relatively easy to conjugate!
|Subject||Conditional present ending|
|il, elle, on||-ait|
finir (to finish):
|je finirais||nous finirions|
|tu finirais||vous finiriez|
|il, elle, on finirait||ils, elles finiraient|
Common Irregular Verbs in the Conditional Tense
Some of the future simple stems are irregular. In this case it may be helpful to think of the future stem as the part which doesn’t change according to who did the action.
Venir (to come):
je viendr-ai tu viendr-as il viendr-a
Once you know the future stem (even if it’s irregular), you simply add the conditional (remember they’re the same as imparfait) endings.
Venir (to come):
|je viendrais||nous viendrions|
|tu viendrais||vous viendriez|
|il, elle, on viendrait||ils, elles viendraient|
Our old irregular friends, avoir and être, are up to their usual tricks!
Avoir uses the future stem aur-.
Avoir (to have):
|tu aurais||vous auriez|
|il, elle, on aurait||ils, elles auraient|
The future stem of être is ser-.
Être (to be):
|je serais||nous serions|
|tu serais||vous seriez|
|il, elle, on serait||ils, elles seraient|
It’s common to use the inverted style of questions with conditional, since it’s commonly the go-to conjugation for making a request sound more polite.
When asking questions in French, the verb and subject can switch positions. This should actually feel quite natural to English speakers, since English also uses inverted subject-verb placement to make it clear that we’re asking a question:
Pourrais-tu me passer le sel? Could you pass me the salt?
The difference is that in French this inversion requires a hyphen ( - ) between the verb and subject. The inverted form of questions is even a little more formal than the familiar est-ce-que question introducer:
Est-ce que tu pourrais me passer le sel? Could you pass me the salt?
Using the conditional with est-ce-que is kind of like using something slightly formal, like “Can you please…” rather than the fully formal “Could you please…”
Conditional Past Tense
The conditionnel passé has the same basic structure as the passé composé. You start with either avoir or être, and add the past participle. So, you only need to memorize the avoir and être conjugations (shown above) and you’re on your way to talking about alternate events that “would have” happened if the conditions had been right.
J’aurais rigolé. I would have laughed.
The conditional past is often used with “si” clauses, or if statements. These use a combination of plus-que-parfait (imparfait + past participle) and the conditionnel passé. Don’t worry – if you look at the translations, these are constructed very similarly to English, so they’re not too tricky!
Si tu avais raconté une blague, j’aurais rigolé. If you had told a joke, I would have laughed.
Though forming the conditional present and past tenses may not be too challenging, there are some nuances to using them in the right contexts, which can take some practice. The more examples you see of these tenses in context, the more it will start to feel natural to know when to reach for the conditional. Sign up for a French course like Lingvist’s online course to quiz yourself on the appropriate usage and practice forming the verbs correctly, including the many irregular conjugations!