French Grammar For Dummies
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When you need to move beyond the present, you need new tenses! French has about 18 tenses/moods to choose from. The ones you will use the most are present, imperfect, future, conditional, subjunctive, and imperative for the simple tenses; and the present perfect, pluperfect, future perfect, and past conditional for the compound tenses.

How to express past action in French

To express a past action, French has two main tenses to choose from. The passé composé (present perfect) names past actions that occurred, and the imparfait (imperfect) describes what it was like when the past action occurred. The imparfait also describes how things used to be, in your childhood for example, without focusing on a specific date. Here they are in action:

  • Passé composé: Naming a past action: Hier nous sommes allés au ciné. (Yesterday we went to the movies.)

  • Imparfait: What it was like when something happened: Quand je suis sorti ce matin, il faisait beau. (When I went out this morning, the weather was nice.)

  • Imparfait: How things used to be: Quand nous étions petits, nous jouions au parc. (When we were little, we used to play in the park.)

How to express future action in French

The future tense (le futur) describes what will probably happen down the road, like Je finirai ça plus tard. (I will finish this later.)

To describe a future event that is certain to happen, and is almost imminent, French uses the futur proche (immediate future). For example: Il est 6h30, elle va préparer le diner. (It’s 6:30; she’s going to prepare dinner.)

The future is probably the easiest tense to conjugate because its stem is the infinitive. The future endings are: -ai, -as, -a, -ons, -ez, -ont. Here’s the complete conjugation of a regular -er verb in the future.

je mangerai nous mangerons
tu mangeras vous mangerez
il/elle/on mangera ils/elles mangeront

The French conditional tense

The conditional is a simple tense, and its stem is derived from the infinitive, like the future tense (see the preceding section), so it’s a fairly easy one to conjugate, too. The conditional endings are: -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, and -aient.

French uses le conditionnel (the conditional) to express:

  • Daydreams/hypothetical situations, in combination with the imperfect. For example: S’il pleuvait, je resterais à la maison. (If it were raining, I would stay home.)

  • Friendly advice, using the verb devoir (must). For example: Tu devrais manger moins de sucre. (You should eat less sugar.)

  • Polite requests, using the verb pouvoir (can). For example: Pourriez-vous m’indiquer la poste s’il vous plait? (Could you please show me the post office?)

  • Wishes, using the verb vouloir (want) or aimer (like). For example: Nous aimerions gagner le loto. (We would like to win the lottery.)

  • The future in a past context. For example: Sherlock pensait qu’il découvrirait l’assassin. (Sherlock thought he would discover the murderer.)

The French subjective tense

Le subjonctif (the subjunctive) is commonly used in French to say that you want someone to do something, that you’re happy or sad that something is happening, or that you fear something may happen. The subjunctive may seem difficult to native English speakers because it pretty much doesn’t exist in English. Here are some examples of the subjonctif:

Pierre veut que vous partiez. (Pierre wants you to leave.)
Il faut que tu prennes une décision. (It’s necessary that you make a decision.)
Les enfants sont contents que l’école finisse. (The children are happy that school is over.)

A sentence with a verb in subjunctive begins with a trigger phrase and has two different subjects.

  • In the three preceding examples, veut que, Il faut que, and sont contents que are examples of triggers for the subjunctive.

  • The three preceding examples are sentences with two clauses (parts) and two different subjects: Pierre and vous in the first example; il and tu in the second, and les enfants and l’école in the third.

The French imperative

Use the imperative to tell one or several persons what to do or what not to do. It is not a regular tense, because the subject is not expressed, and it has only three forms that are borrowed almost exactly from the present tense conjugation for most verbs.

For example, here are the three imperative forms for -er verbs:

  • From the present tense tu form (you [singular]) of parler: Parle! (Speak!)

  • From the present tense nous (we) form: Parlons! (Let’s speak!)

  • From the present tense vous form (that is, the plural you): Parlez! (Speak!)

The negative commands are formed the same way. You just add ne before the imperative and pas after it, like this:

  • From the affirmative command parle (speak) to ne parle pas (don’t speak).

  • From the affirmative command parlons (let’s speak) to ne parlons pas! (let’s not speak).

  • From the affirmative command parlez (speak) to ne parlez pas (don’t speak).

Compound tense in French

French compound tenses are two-word verb forms that always express an action that is more past than the main action. For instance, in He had already gotten up when his alarm finally went off, the pluperfect verb phrase is had gotten up. French has several compound tenses, and the most commonly used are: the present perfect, the pluperfect, the future perfect, and the past conditional.

A French compound tense is formed by putting together a conjugated form of one of the two auxiliary verbs (also called helper verbs) — être (to be) and avoir (to have) — and the past participle of the main verb.

English and French compound tenses are different in their form (English may use three-word forms) and in their usage. They occur more strictly and frequently in French. Here are some examples of compound tenses in French, with nonliteral English translations:

  • The pluperfect: Il était déjà allé à la boulangerie. (He had already gone to the bread shop.)

  • The future perfect: Je m’amuserai quand j’aurai fini mon travail. (I will play when I am finished with my work.)

  • The past conditional: Si elle avait su, elle aurait choisi l’autre solution. (If she had known, she would have chosen the other solution.)

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Véronique Mazet has a doctorate in French from the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of two successful grammar books. She currently teaches French at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas.

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