How And When To Use The Conditional Tense In French

  • Adrien Renault
    Written byAdrien Renault
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How And When To Use The Conditional Tense In French

The French conditional tense.

It can be tricky at first glance if you have just discovered it in a French course.

You’ll need to understand verb conjugations confidently to master French conditionals.

Knowing when to use which tense doesn’t have to be an impossible task. You’ll also find that once you can identify patterns in French verb conjugations, the French conditional tense simply rolls off the tongue.

It just requires a tiny bit of practice. 😊

That’s what this guide is here for - to help you practice! Have a look to begin understanding the French conditional tense.

You’ll also find plenty of examples to help you.

What are the French conditional tense and mood?

The French conditional tense refers to a moment in the future that we describe or view from the past.

When it is used as a mood, similar to the French subjunctive, the French conditional tense describes hypothetical situations.

These situations can happen when particular conditions are fulfilled - hence the name le conditionnel.

What is the English counterpart of the French conditional tense?

You might have come across the French conditional words aimerait, pourrait and devrais.

These are three typical examples of the French conditional tense. In English, we might use the words ‘would like’, ‘could’ or ‘should’, to describe hypothetical situations.

These are the equivalents of the French conditional tense above.

How do we use the French conditional tense?

To answer this, let’s examine this example of the conditional tense in English:

I could eat a piece of cake, but I don’t want any cavities.

As mentioned, the conditional verb in this sentence is ‘could’.

But what would happen if we used a different conditional verb? Let’s take a look

I should eat a piece of cake, but I don’t want any cavities.

I would love to eat a cake, but I don’t want any cavities.

The first example features the conditional verb ‘should’.

It indicates that under certain conditions, the speaker would be obliged to eat a piece of cake - how fortunate!

In the second example, under certain circumstances, the speaker wants to eat a piece of cake and would do so. But only if the sugar didn’t give them cavities!

Now, what are the French equivalents of these sentences?

Je pourrais manger un morceau de gâteau, mais je ne veux pas de caries.

Je devrais manger un morceau de gâteau, mais je ne veux pas de caries.

J’aimerais bien manger un gâteau, mais je ne veux pas de caries.

Before, we highlighted the three conditional French verbs used to describe conditional tenses and moods.

Can you spot them in the sentences above?

How do we conjugate the French conditional tense?

One thing to take note of with the French conditional verbs is that all of them possess certain endings.

This means you’ll notice patterns when conjugating French conditional verbs.

Say you needed to tell your flatmate that they should leave the keys on the countertop.

The verb conjugation is required to express this in French. This is how you might say this:

Tu devrais laisser les clés sur le comptoir de la cuisine.

Conjugating the French conditional tense (regular verb endings)

When you conjugate the French conditional tense, some verb endings for each subject pronoun are regular.

Here is how you should conjugate regular conditional verbs in the present tense:

Pronoun (Eng / Fr)Conditional Suffix -er verbsConditional Suffix -ir verbsConditional Suffix -re verbs
I Je/j’-ais-ais-ais
You tu-ais-ais-ais
You, he, she il-ait-ait-ait
We nous-ions-ions-ions
You (all) vous-iez-iez-iez
You, they, they ils-aient-aient-aient

The reason regular French conditional verbs are called regular is that the structure of their stem remain the same when they are conjugated.

The only thing you need to do is explore the above table, check which personal pronoun you would like to make the subject of the sentence and add the verb ending to make the conditional tense.

Conjugating the French conditional tense (irregular verb endings)

You’ll come across some verbs in French whose stems do change when they are conjugated in the conditional tense.

Two examples of stem changing French verbs are avoir and être.

Here is how you should conjugate the verb avoir to form the French conditional tense:

Personal pronounConditional (avoir)
tuTu aurais
Il/elleIl/elle aurait
nousNous aurions
vousVous auriez
ilsIls/elles auraient

Frequently used irregular French verbs and how to conjugate them

Some of the more frequently used irregular conditional tense French verbs include:

  • Devoir - (to know)
  • Venir - (to arrive)
  • Voir - (to see)
  • Faire - (to do)
  • Pouvoir - (to be able to)
  • Aller - (to go)

Because they are irregular, conjugating these verbs in the conditional tense requires you to change their infinitive stems.

Take a look at how these stems alter when conjugating them:

  • Devoir changes to devr + the conditional tense verb ending
  • Venir changes to viendr + the conditional tense verb ending
  • Voir changes to verr + the conditional tense verb ending
  • Faire changes to fer + the conditional tense verb ending
  • Pouvoir changes to pour + the conditional tense verb ending
  • Aller changes to ir + the conditional tense verb ending

Let’s now clarify this a bit more by looking at the conditional verbs for venir and aller.

Personal pronounConditional (venir)Conditional (aller)
Je/j’Je viendraisJ’irais
tuTu viendraisTu irais
Il/elleIl/elle viendraitIl/elle irait
nousNous viendrionsNous irions
vousVous viendriezVous iriez
ilsIls/elles viendraientIls/elles iraient

Using si in French to form a conditional sentence

We use the word si in French when we want to form a conditional sentence.

The conditional sentences that contain the word si normally have two different clauses.

This is similar to English, with the word si translating to ‘if’.

Conditional clauses and clauses containing the future tense

So, let’s start nice and easy and take a look at an English example of a conditional sentence in the present tense.

If you go to the party, I will go with you.

You’ll notice the use of the word ‘if’, the fact that this sentence has two clauses - separated by a comma, and features a verb in the future tense in its second clause ‘will go’.

This sentence would translate to French as:

Si tu vas à la fête, j’irai avec toi.

To understand how to construct these sentences, a good idea is to follow the following language formula:

Clause 1 containing si and a verb in the present tense + clause 2 (containing a verb in the future tense).

Now, here are a couple of examples of some French sentences that also use this formula

Si vous vous couchez tôt, vous dormirez suffisamment.

If you go to bed early, you'll get enough sleep.

Si vous vous réveillez trop tôt, vous vous sentirez fatigue.

If you wake up too early, you'll feel tired.

Did you notice how these conditional sentences follow the above formula?

The second clause always features a verb in the future tense - such as dormirez or sentirez.

You might also notice another thing here, which are the reflexive pronouns. The word vous for instance hasn’t mistakenly been repeated.

One is the personal pronoun, the other is the reflexive part of the verb.

Conditional clauses and clauses containing the present conditional

Now, we’ll turn our focus to the present conditional, but don’t panic. Again, we’ll start in English. Take a look at the following sentence:

If I had the perfect clothes, I would go to the party.

In this sentence, the two clauses are separated by the comma.

The first clause contains the word ‘if’, with the second clause containing the conditional phrase ‘would go’. The phrase ‘would go’ uses the present conditional tense.

This is the main difference between the sentences in the section above, which used the future tense in the second clause.

With this understanding, let’s now have a look at some French examples of clauses containing the present conditional, which are similar in structure and contain the word si.

Si nous allons en Angleterre, nous apprendrions la langue plus rapidement.

If we go to England we would learn the language faster.

S’il fait beau aujourd’hui, nous devrions aller au parc et profiter du temps.

If it is sunny today, we should go to the park and enjoy the weather.

Did you notice all of the verbs in the second clauses take the present conditional tense in these examples?

And did you notice their endings?

They’re all conjugated using the nous form of the present conditional.

So, our formula for creating conditional sentences such as these is:

Clause 1 (containing si) + clause 2 (containing a present tense conjugated conditional verb)

This formula can work in its reverse form as well. You could well have:

Clause 1 (containing a conjugated conditional verb) + clause 2 (containing si).

Here’s an example of this formula working in reverse:

Nous aurions plus de chance, si nous jouions plus souvent à la loterie.

We would have better luck if we played the lottery more often.

Try out the formula for yourself once you’ve begun to remember the verb conjugations in the conditional tense - it’s a great way to learn French as a beginner!

Conditional clauses and clauses that use the pluperfect

The formulas above extend to one other tense - the pluperfect tense.

You can therefore use the word si in similar ways but tweak your meaning.

As we’ve done before, let’s first have a look at an English example to help us understand this sentence structure:

If they had eaten less spicy food, they would have felt better during the plane journey.

Again, this sentence features two separate clauses.

And again, one features the word ‘if’.

But, contrary to the previous two sections, the first clause uses the past perfect tense ‘had eaten’, and the second clause uses the conditional perfect ‘would have felt’.

Conjugating the conditional perfect in French

Now, before we dive into a few examples, let’s look at how to conjugate the conditional perfect in French.

We’ll use the verb arriver

Personal pronounConditional perfect (arriver)
Je/j’Je serais arrivé
tuTu serais arrivé
Il/elleIl/elle serrait arrivé
nousNous serions arrivé
vousVous seriez arrivé
ilsIls/elles seraient arrivé

The formula for the conditional perfect is:

Conjugated conditional auxiliary verb + verb in past participle

But let’s clarify even further how we form the conditional perfect. You should first take the conjugated conditional form of the verb avoir, or the verb être (which are auxiliary verbs).

In the above table, the auxiliary verbs are serais, serrait, serions, seriez and seraient.

You’ll then need to combine these with the past participle verb, which is formed by adding -é to the main verb.

Now, let’s return to the conditional clauses and clauses that use the pluperfect

Examples of the conditional clauses that use the pluperfect

Here are a few examples of this structure in French:

S’ils étaient partis à l’heure, ils seraient arrivés à l’heure.

If they had left on time, they would have arrived on time.

Si elle l’avait aidé dans les moments difficiles, il serait resté.

If she had helped during the difficult moments, he would have stayed.

S’ils avaient nettoyé la maison, ils auraient été moins gênés.

If they had cleaned the house, they would have been less embarrassed.

Ils auraient été plus heureux s’ils avaient économisé plus d’argent.

They would have been happier if they had saved more money.

As with the previous sections, these examples can be inverted. Here’s how these sentences would look in their inverted forms:

Ils seraient arrivés à l’heure s’ils étaient partis à l’heure.

They would have arrived on time if they had left on time.

Il serait resté si elle l’avait aidé dans les moments difficiles.

He would have stayed if she had helped during the difficult moments.

Ils auraient été moins gênés s’ils avaient nettoyé la maison.

They would have been less embarrassed if they had cleaned the house.

S’ils avaient économisé plus d’argent, ils auraient été plus heureux.

If they had saved more money, they would have been happier.

They say it’s easier when you know how. But it gets even easier with examples and practice. Practice will help you get it right, so…

Master French conditionals with a bit of verb conjugation practice

There’s no way to get around French verb conjugations, unfortunately.

They’re important when learning the conditional tense, so this should be first on your list of things to focus on.

Then you’ll need to think about the sentence structures that will help you express the French conditional tense and mood effectively.

Some of the formulas in this guide will help you with this, but you might want to back up what you know by listening to native speakers. Matching up the written forms of sentences and their formulas with how they are expressed out loud is one way to learn at an intermediate level.

Put in the practice and you’ll master the French conditional tense in no time.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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