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Checking Out the Conditional in French

In English, the conditional allows you to express a daydream, a wish, or a hypothetical situation, such as I would go to Hawaii tomorrow if I could. In French, the conditional is used in the same way but its conjugation is quite different.

To form the conditional of regular -er and -ir verbs, follow these steps:

  1. Start from the complete infinitive, without dropping any part of it.

  2. Add one of the following endings, depending on the subject you’re using: -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, or -aient.

    Be sure to choose the ending that matches the subject you need: for je, choose the -ais ending; for nous, choose -ions; and so on.

For -re verbs, things are almost the same, except the -e of the -re infinitive is dropped. For example, the first person of comprendre (to understand) is je comprendrais (I would understand).

Irregular forms of the conditional must be memorized. Here are the most common ones:

Infinitive Translation Conditional Stem
avoir to have aur-
aller to go ir-
devoir to have to devr-
être to be ser-
faire to do fer-
pleuvoir to rain pleuvr-
pouvoir to be able to pourr-
savoir to know saur-
tenir to hold tiendr-
venir to come viendr-
voir to see verr-

To form the conditional of these irregular verbs, proceed as follows:

  1. Start with the stem of the verb. For instance, for venir (to come), take viendr-.

  2. Add the usual conditional endings to it, choosing the one that matches your subject. For example, if you want to use the first person singular of viendr-, just add -ais.

You use the conditional in the following instances:

  • Daydreaming: To express what things would be like if . . . , use this formula: Si clause (expressing condition) in the imparfait (imperfect) + would-be result clause in the conditional. For example: Si nous étions très riches, nous aurions un chateau. (If we were very rich, we would have a castle.)

  • Giving advice: The French equivalent of should is the conditional of devoir (to have to/must). Use this formula to give advice: Subject + devoir (in conditional) + other verb (in infinitive). For example: Tu devrais raser ta barbe. (You should shave your beard.)

  • Making a polite request: To make a polite request of the type Could you . . . ?, French uses the conditional of the verb pouvoir (to be able to) followed by the infinitive of the other verb. For example: Pourriez-vous fermer la porte s’il vous plait? (Could you close the door, please?)

  • Making an offer: To express an offer like Would you like some water?, French uses vouloir (to want) or aimer (to like) in conditional + whatever you’re offering. For example: Voudrais-tu de l’eau? (Would you like some water?)

  • Expressing a wish: To say what you would like, use vouloir (to want) or aimer (to like) in conditional + whatever you’d like. For example: Nous aimerions gagner le loto. (We would like to win the lottery.)

  • Expressing the future in a past context: You can recognize such sentences by their introductory verb, which is always in a past tense: They said (yesterday) that . . . or he promised that. . . . For example: Maman a promis qu’elle m’achèterait une voiture l’an prochain. (Mom promised that she would buy me a car next year.)

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