french tenses explained

Sliced, Diced and Explained Concisely: French Tenses, Summed Up

Stay calm.

It’s not as bad as it looks, I swear.

Really, I can explain everything!

At first glance, French tenses may seem senseless and horrifying.

But it’s important not to freak out, and to take your learning one bite at a time.

You can’t cram all those conjugations overnight.

Still, it can be helpful to understand why you’re learning them in the first place.

Looking at how the different tenses are actually used can help give meaning to your learning, and save you from feeling lightheaded every time you see a verb table.

So that’s what we’re going to do here.

We’re going to take a calm, rational and complete look at all the tenses, right now.

Deep breath.

The French language actually has over 20 tenses (including composite tenses and moods), and most of them were still taught in schools at least until the early 1970s (though some of them hadn’t been used for many decades even by then).

Today we most frequently use about 12 different verb tenses in French, and in this article I’ll explain those tenses to help you out with your written and spoken French.

Due to the fact that French literature as late as the 18th and 19th centuries still contains some of those less common tenses, I’ll include some of them here as well.

Today you’ll get a broad but simplified insight into the French language. I’ll lay out each these tenses in categories, giving you an easy example of each form in each circumstance.

Since this can get quite complicated for the uninitiated, I’m going to cut it all up in manageable pieces for you, starting with verb forms.

Getting to Know the French Verb Forms

First off, verb forms are separated into six categories. Each of those categories may be conjugated in different tenses.

The categories are:

1. L’indicatif (indicative), which includes the most common tenses used to express oneself in everyday spoken and written French.

2. Le conditionnel (conditional), which is used when a “condition” is implied.

3. Le subjonctif (subjunctive), which is used to express emotion/judgment and is usually contained in a subordinate clause introduced by que (that/which).

4. L’impératif (imperative), which is used to express a command.

5. L’infinitif (infinitive), which is just the bare tense of the verb, unconjugated.

6. Le participe présent (present participle), which is just the equivalent of the English “ing” form.

Now, I’ll tell you right away that I’m not going to overwhelm you with a bunch of conjugated verbs.

Instead, I’ll be focusing on how these forms are used in each of their tenses.

But first, let’s take a closer look what these verb forms are all about.

This may seem like a lot, but just hang tight. It’ll all make more sense when we get to the examples.

Tenses of the Indicatif 

The indicatif form is composed of the following:

  • One present form.
  • Five past forms, which are imparfait (imperfect), passé composé (compound past), passé simple (simple past), plus-que-parfait (pluperfect) and passé antérieur (anterior past).
  • Two future forms, which are futur (future) and futur antérieur (future anterior).

Tenses of the Conditionnel 

The conditionnel contains only three tenses:

  • One present form.
  • First past form, or passé première forme.
  • Second past form, or passé deuxième forme.

Tenses of the Subjonctif 

The subjonctif contains four tenses and one has not been in use in spoken French for a very long time (but you can still find it in older literature):

  • One present form.
  • Three past forms, which are the imparfait (imperfect), passé (past) and plus-que-parfait (pluperfect). This last one is rarely used in contemporary French.

Tenses of the Impératif 

The impératif has only two forms:

  • One present form.
  • One past form.

Tenses of the Infinitif 

Only two simple forms here as well:

  • One present form.
  • One past form.

To keep things (relatively) simple, we’ll stick to the present forms of these last two in this post.

Bite-sized Pieces: When to Use Each Verb Form

When to Use the Indicatif  Tenses

When speaking French, what you’ll hear more often than not are verbs in the indicative tenses. Here are some examples of a simple phrase through all the different tenses of the indicatif form.

Let’s say you want to say…”I’m eating a baguette” or a variation on that phrase. Here’s how it would vary through the different tenses in the indicative.

The présent of the indicative:

Je mange une baguette.
(I’m eating a baguette.)

The imparfait:

Je mangeais une baguette quand elle a appelé.
(I was eating a baguette when she called.)

The passé composé:

J’ai mangé une baguette.
(I ate a baguette.)

The passé simple:

Je mangeai une baguette.
(I ate a baguette.)

You wouldn’t actually use this last tense when talking to someone (you’d use the passé composé instead), but you might see it in a novel or story.

The plus-que-parfait: 

Si seulement j’avais mangé une baguette je n’aurais pas faim maintenant !
(If only I had eaten a baguette, I wouldn’t be hungry now!)

The passé antérieur (the equivalent of the plus-que-parfait that you might run into in literature):

Si seulement j’eus mangé une baguette…
(If only I had eaten a baguette…)

The futur:

Je mangerai une baguette en arrivant à Paris.
(I will eat a baguette upon arrival in Paris.)

The futur antérieur:

Quand j’aurai mangé une baguette, je me sentirai mieux.
(When I [will] have eaten a baguette, I’ll feel better.)

When to Use the Conditionnel Tenses

The présent of the conditional:

Je mangerais une baguette si je pouvais.
(I would eat a baguette if I could.)

The passé première forme (first past form) of the conditional:

J’aurais mangé une baguette si tu en avais acheté.
(I would have eaten a baguette if you had bought some.)

The passé deuxième forme (past second form) of the conditional (which is not used anymore in common French):

J’eusse mangé la baguette si j’eus eu assez de sous.
(I would have eaten a baguette if I had had enough money.)

When to Use the Subjonctif Tenses

Depending on your level of French listening and speaking skills, you may or may not have used this tense before, but it’s worth knowing it, as it’s used in common French all the time.

The présent of the subjunctive:

Il faut que je mange une baguette.
(It is necessary that I eat a baguette.)

Easy, right? Looks just like the présent of the indicative of manger. The good news is that the present tense conjugation of -er verbs in the subjunctive is fairly straightforward. But, as I’m sure you can imagine, there’s a lot more to this subjunctive thing than initially meets the eye.

The passé of the subjunctive:

Mon père doute que j’aie mangé une baguette.
(My dad doubts that I ate a baguette.)

Now, these next two are fairly rare…

The imparfait of the subjunctive:

Il fallait que je mangeasse une baguette.
(It was necessary that I eat a baguette.)

Most people nowadays would just say, “Il fallait que je mange une baguette.” All that time saved on thinking of the imperfect subjunctive conjugation can now be spent eating baguettes. A win for all.

The plus-que-parfait of the subjunctive:

Il ne pensait pas que j’eusse mangé la baguette.
(He didn’t think I had eaten the baguette.)

You won’t hear these last two tenses in the streets in today’s France, but you’ll encounter them in novels and poetic language.

When to Use the Impératif

Mange une baguette !  (Eat a baguette!) (tu form)

Mangez une baguette !  (Eat a baguette!) (vous form)

Mangeons une baguette !  (Let’s eat a baguette!)

When to Use the Infinitif

J’ai envie de manger une baguette.
(I feel like eating a baguette.)

When to Use the Participe Présent

Je parlais tout en mangeant une baguette.
(I was talking all while eating a baguette.)

Now you’ve had a basic overview of the French tenses and what they can express.

Don’t worry if you’re already forgetting the names of those tenses. Even native French speakers do.

The most important thing is to get a sense of how to use the correct form in the right circumstance. Nobody will ever ask you to know what tense you’re speaking, but they’ll know if you’re not using the correct one.

And as French people like to do, they may even correct you.

But don’t get offended, as this will only help you improve your fluency in the French language!

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