Contrary to popular belief, the French conditional isn’t actually a tense.
Rather, it’s a mood, which describes how an action takes place (as opposed to when).
Luckily, the French conditional is quite simple once you’ve learned a few tricks to master it.
And this guide is here to show you how!
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—i.e., events that depend on certain conditions to come true (hence the term “conditional”). Of course, we also 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 the conditional can seem a bit tough at first—but we promise, it’s not really that complicated!
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 example:
Notice that, in all verb groups, the root is the same as the infinitive (although the final “e” is dropped in the third group).
As you might know, there are several irregular roots in the future simple. These irregular roots are the same in the conditional. You only have to add the same endings as with the imperfect—like the ones below.
|French Irregular Verbs
In all of the entries, the translation of the verbs would be “would + present form of verb”—e.g., aurais means “would have”.
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.
The conditional mood is generally taught by exploring si (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.
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 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. It implies that the present action is nearly certain, thus the use of the future instead of the 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’s implied that the action is possible but not certain.
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 (perfect tense). Like the pluperfect or plus-que-parfait , the past conditional is 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 the following.
|French Verbs Expressing Desire
|Present Simple Tense
| Je veux un sandwich.
I want a sandwich.
| Je désire un café.
I want a coffee.
| J'aime le cinéma.
I like the movie theater.
| Peux-tu me donner un stylo ?
Can you give me a pen?
| Je voudrais un sandwich.
I would like a sandwich.
| Je désirerais un café.
I would like a coffee.
| J'aimerais venir au cinéma avec vous.
I would like to come to the cinema with you.
| Pourrais-tu me donner un stylo ?
Could you give me a pen?
You can also use the conditional to give advice. For example, let’s use devoir (must):
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.
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 (e.g., vouloir, aimer, désirer) or with verbs that incite action from the other person (e.g., pouvoir or devoir).
Other than these verbs, err on the side of caution when considering the conditional to express politeness.
Another mistake 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’re 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.
Now that you know all about the French conditional, you’re ready to try it out! The key to learning about this form is to practice, practice, practice.
Speak the example sentences in this post out loud. Write them down on flashcards and practice them again in a week, then again in two weeks. Look for it in vlogs, TV series and other videos that use everyday French.
You don’t have to wait until you come across the word in native content, though. Just use FluentU to find the conditional in authentic videos.
FluentU has many native French videos like movie clips, trailers, commercials, interviews and more. You could be on the lookout for the conditional form as you watch videos on FluentU, using the interactive subtitles to see a definition as you watch.
You can also try the search feature. Search the program for a specific word and you’ll see flashcards of that word for any of its meanings, as well as any common phrases where it appears. It will also show you videos where you can see the word being used naturally.
Since FluentU lets you make flashcard decks, you can make one for the conditional and practice the different conjugations with the personalized quizzes on the program. And if you get the iOS or Android app version, you can also practice speaking these words out loud through audio questions.
Already comfortable with the conditional? Then go ahead and practice it in actual conversations with French speakers. You might also want to include it anytime you’re practicing your French writing.
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.
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