If you had a bright bundle of balloons on a perfect summer’s day, would your smile be as big as hers?
I know mine would.
If I asked you to, could you ask that same opening question in French, or do you tend to avoid French sentences that include “if”?
Does your brain knot up when you start thinking about all the things you could have done or would have done or should have done?
Well, there’s no need to avoid these thoughts any longer! You’ve mastered the imperative and you’re great with the future simple, so I’m confident you can catch this curveball.
Are you ready for it?
Here we go: It’s not actually a tense; it’s a mood. And it’s called the conditional.
The conditional can become quite simple once you’ve learned a few tricks to master it. With this guide, you’ll emerge a master for sure! You’ll probably even find yourself with a smile on your face, just like our carefree balloon-holding girl.
But first off, what’s a mood? You’ll often hear the French conditional erroneously referred to as a tense. (Yup, as we’ve done right up there in the title, so we can grab all the people searching the internet for “French conditional tense” and set them straight!) But, like the indicative and the imperative, the conditional is a mood. Moods, unlike tenses, describe how an action takes place, not when.
Conjugated verbs have a mood and a tense, and because the conditional can be conjugated in the past, it’s a mood, not a tense. Most tenses are first learned in the indicative mood; you then learn them in other moods, like the conditional, the imperative and the subjunctive.
So now that that’s clear, let’s move on to the heart of this topic: the French conditional!
Why to Use the French Conditional Mood
But let’s start at the beginning. Before getting into how to use the conditional, it’s important to know why to use the conditional: What does it mean, and why and when should you be using it?
The conditional is used in French to express events that are not guaranteed to occur—events that depend on certain conditions to come true. This is why the mood is called the conditional. Of course, we express these ideas in English, so why does it sound so foreign when we tackle the conditional in French?
In English, when we speak in the conditional mood, we use helping verbs like “would” and “could.” In French, you need to use a whole new conjugation to evoke the same meaning. This is one of the reasons that the conditional can seem a bit tough at first, but we promise, it’s not really all that complicated!
How to Form the French Conditional Conjugations
One of the first things you need to learn when approaching the conditional is how to conjugate it. There’s a fairly easy rule and—for once—no exceptions!
To form the conditional in French, you must start with the future simple tense root.
For regular 1st group verbs, like parler, this root is the same as the infinitive: parler-.
For regular 2nd group verbs, like choisir, this root is the same as the infinitive as well: choisir-.
For regular 3rd group verbs, like descendre, this root is the same as the infinitive, minus the final “e”: descendr-.
There are several irregular roots in the future simple; these irregular roots are the same in the conditional. Here are just a few:
Avoir — aur–
Savoir — saur-
Etre — ser-
Faire — fer-
Voir — verr-
Aller — ir-
To these roots, add the same endings as with the imperfect. If you need a refresher, the endings are as follows:
And that’s it! Much simpler than you expected, right? If you know the imperfect and the future simple, you’re more than halfway there. All you need to learn now is when it’s appropriate to use the conditional.
When to Use the French Conditional Mood
The conditional mood is generally taught by exploring si or if clauses first. There are three si clauses in French, which is one of the times the French conditional is used. It’s the principal way to use it, which is why it’s important to master this first before moving on to other ways the conditional can be used.
So let’s start with si clauses. The first si clause doesn’t actually use the conditional mood at all, so it’s a great place to introduce the form without having to remember all those new conjugations just yet:
Si + Present, Future Simple
Si j’ai le temps, je t’appellerai. (If I have time, I’ll call you.)
This si clause expresses certain actions taken in the future should an event occur in the present. One implies that the present action is nearly certain, thus the use of the future instead of the conditional.
The second si clause in French is as follows:
Si + Imperfect, Conditional
Si j’avais le temps, je t’appellerais. (If I had time, I would call you.)
This si clause expresses actions that are based entirely on a condition. It is implied that the action is possible but not certain.
The third si clause in French is as follows:
Si + Pluperfect, Past Conditional
Si j’avais eu le temps, je t’aurais appelé. (If I’d had time, I would’ve called you.)
This si clause expresses a certain amount of regret. It’s the idea that “should have” or “could have” expresses in English. As you can see from the above sentence, the past conditional is quite easy to form once you know the conditional and the passé composé. Like the plus perfect or plus-que-parfait, the past conditional is a composed tense made up of the conditional of the auxiliary verb (être or avoir, depending on the lexical verb) and the past participle of the lexical verb.
Aside from the si clauses, which are the principal use of the conditional in French, you can also use the conditional to express politeness, particularly with verbs expressing desire, like vouloir or aimer.
Je veux un sandwich. (I want a sandwich.)
Je voudrais un sandwich. (I would like a sandwich.)
J’aime le cinéma. (I like the movie theater.)
J’aimerais venir au cinéma avec vous. (I would like to come to the cinema with you.)
Peux-tu me donner un stylo ? (Can you give me a pen?)
Pourrais-tu me donner un stylo ? (Could you give me a pen?)
You can also use the conditional to give advice:
Tu dois faire tes devoirs tout de suite. (You must do your homework right now.)
Tu devrais faire tes devoirs tout de suite. (You should do your homework right now.)
When to Not Use the French Conditional
Laid out in this way, the conditional seems quite simple, but heads up! There are a few common mistakes made when using the conditional, even by native French speakers!
Don’t use the conditional with all verbs to “be polite”
One of the key mistakes made when using the conditional in French is overusing the politeness aspect of the conditional. Some learners assume that because the conditional makes a sentence more polite, it makes all sentences more polite and therefore end up writing entire emails to their boss or teacher in the conditional.
Unfortunately, applying the conditional to any and all sentences doesn’t make them more polite. The politeness aspect of the conditional should really only be used with verbs expressing desire, like vouloir, aimer, désirer or with verbs that incite action from the other person—like pouvoir or devoir. Other than these verbs, err on the side of caution when considering the conditional to express politeness.
Don’t use the conditional immediately after si
Another mistake that is very commonly made by French people is using the conditional on both sides of the si clause:
*Si j’aurais su, je l’aurais fait. (*If I would had known, I’d have done it.)
Instead, say: “Si j’avais su, je l’aurais fait.” (If I had known, I would have done it.)
You should never use the conditional immediately after si. This error stems from the fact that, as with much of modern French parlance, words are being dropped from oral French. The si of the si clause is one of these, and without the si, some people overcorrect and use the conditional twice.
If you’re practicing French immersion to improve your French, you may hear this when speaking with your French friends, and if you are attempting to sound as French as possible, you might be tempted to copy them. Resist the urge! This use of the conditional is wrong and shouldn’t become a habit, even in conversation.
Once you’ve learned the proper ways to use and conjugate the conditional, you’ll be well on your way to mastering this advanced French mood.
And One More Thing…
Now you might be thinking, “So if even natives make grammar mistakes, who can I trust, exactly?”
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