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Understanding French Tenses and When to Use Them

There comes a time in every language student’s life where they’re ready to throw in the towel. That time is usually when they figure out that there are over twenty different French tense and mood combinations to learn. Fear not, whether you’re pulling your hair out trying to learn each one or are just starting out learning French tenses, this guide will help you learn the basics of each tense, in the time it takes to have a cup of coffee. We’re going to recap the present, whiz through the past, dive into the future, and even take a look at the more advanced French tenses. Now pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable…

Introduction to French Tenses: Verb Groups

To begin, you need to know the three verb groups, otherwise you’re going to wonder what on earth I’m talking about throughout this article. Regular verbs are split into three groups based on the ending of the word. Each of these groups follows the same pattern in various French tenses, so once you’ve learned the rule, you can apply it to all of the other verbs from that group.

There’s a running joke among French-learners that there are more exceptions than rules, and in this case, it’s a major exception: irregular verbs. The verb groups only cover the regular verbs and that means you must learn the irregular verbs by heart, there’s no alternative! For now, let’s get back to regular verb groups.

  • Verb Group 1: “ER” verbs
  • Verb Group 2: “IR” verbs
  • Verb Group 3: “RE” verbs

The French technically don’t have a 3rd regular verb group, they simply have the “verbes du troisième groupe” which encompasses all verbs ending in “RE”, regular and irregular. Seeing as that doesn’t help anyone to learn the rules, we’re going to look at the regular verbs as their own group, and worry about the irregular verbs later.

For each group, simply remove the verb ending (er, ir, re) and what you’re left with is called the verb stem. Next, you add on a new ending, according to the subject and the tense, as shown in red in each verb table.

Le Présent – Present Tense

While the English language uses simple and progressive versions of the present tense, the French has just one: le présent. All you have to do is take the regular verb stem and add a different present tense ending, depending on which verb group it belongs to.

Present tense verb endings

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

aime

finis

attends

Tu

aimes

finis

attends

Il/elle

aime

finit

attend

Nous

aimons

finissons

attendons

Vous

aimez

finissez

attendez

Ils/elles

aiment

finissent

attendent

Examples:

  • Je commence à travailler à 8h tous les jours – I start work at 8 a.m. every day
  • Il nourrit son chat avant de partir – He feeds his cat before he leaves
  • Nous vendons notre maison pour en acheter une plus grande – We’re selling our house to buy a bigger one

Le Passé Composé – Past Tense

There are two past French tenses to learn first: le passé composé and l’imparfait. The passé composé is formed in the exact same way as the English present perfect. It takes the verb “avoir”, conjugated depending on the subject, paired with the past participle. The French past tense is used for all kinds of past tense situations, from completed actions to sudden feelings.

Each regular verb group once again takes the stem and adds a new ending, é, i or u.

Passé composé tense verb endings

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb:

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

ai aimé

ai fini

ai attendu

Tu

as aimé

as fini

as attendu

Il/elle

a aimé

a fini

a attendu

Nous

avons aimé

avons fini

avons attendu

Vous

avez aimé

avez fini

avez attendu

Ils/elles

ont aimé

ont fini

ont attendu

Examples:

  • J’ai parlé avec la maîtresse de ma fille – I spoke with my daughter’s school teacher
  • Il a rempli sa bouteille d’eau – He filled his water bottle
  • Elles ont perdu leurs clés – They’ve lost their keys

L’imparfait – Past Tense

The French imperfect tense is used to talk about actions that continued for a duration of time in the past, similar to the English “was/were + ing” or “used to”. It is also commonly used with verbs that depict feelings or state of mind.

I think you’re starting to see why we needed to look at verb groups earlier, because yet again ER and RE verbs lose their original ending, and gain an imperfect ending, but this time the IR verbs are a bit more complex. IR verbs drop the R and add SS, before adding the imperfect ending. Does that sound mind-boggling? I promise it’s not too complicated, take a look at the table to get some clarification…

Imperfect tense verb endings

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

aimais

finissais

attendais

Tu

aimais

finissais

attendais

Il/elle

aimait

finissait

attendait

Nous

aimions

finissions

attendions

Vous

aimiez

finissiez

attendiez

Ils/elles

aimaient

finissaient

attendaient

Examples:

  • Quand j‘étais* jeune, je dansais dans les carnavals – When I was young, I used to dance in carnivals
  • En tant que styliste, il choisissait les tenues des mannequins – As a stylist, he used to choose the models’ outfits
  • Nous entendions de la musique dans les rues – We used to hear music in the streets

*irregular verb alert! This is the irregular verb être in the imperfect tense

Le Plus-que-parfait – The Pluperfect

Now that you know the imperfect verb endings, you can use them with the verb “avoir” along with the past participle to create a whole new tense: the pluperfect. This French tense is used for actions that took place before another past tense action.

Pluperfect tense verb endings

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb:

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

avais aimé

avais fini

avais attendu

Tu

avais aimé

avais fini

avais attendu

Il/elle

avait aimé

avait fini

avait attendu

Nous

avions aimé

avions fini

avions attendu

Vous

aviez aimé

aviez fini

aviez attendu

Ils/elles

avaient aimé

avaient fini

avaient attendu

Examples:

  • Elle avait déjà mangé quand les invités sont arrivés – She had already eaten when the guests arrived
  • Nous avions couru tellement loin que nous avons fait une sieste après – We had run so far that we took a nap afterwards
  • Il avait tondu la pelous avant d’arroser les plantes – He had mown the lawn before watering the plants

Le Futur Proche – Future Tense

There are two main French tenses to talk about the future. The first is the futur proche, or near future, which is used to talk about things that will happen in the immediate future (i.e. within the next few minutes) or things that we are sure will happen. It is formed by taking the verb “aller”, conjugating it in the present tense and adding the infinitive verb. This is just like the English equivalent “going to”.

Near future tense verb table

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

vais aimer

vais finir

vais attendre

Tu

vas aimer

vas finir

vas attendre

Il/elle

va aimer

va finir

va attendre

Nous

allons aimer

allons finir

allons attendre

Vous

allez aimer

allez finir

allez attendre

Ils/elles

vont aimer

vont finir

vont attendre

Examples:

  • Dépêche-toi, ta mère va arriverHurry up, your mom’s going to arrive
  • Révisez encore un peu et vous allez réussirRevise a little more, and you’re going to succeed
  • C’est un gentil chien, il ne va pas te mordreIt’s a nice dog, he’s not going to bite you

Le Futur Simple – Future Tense

The second future tense is the simple future, which is used to talk about situations in the future which may or may not actually happen. For example, you might intend to do something but can’t guarantee that something won’t get in the way. That’s why it’s often used to talk about the distant future.

It’s a simple tense to form, hence its name, as all you have to do is take a regular verb, leave it in the infinitive form if it ends with an “r” and just add on the future endings. If the verb ends in an “e” (those in the third verb group), then you drop the last letter before adding the new ending.

Simple future verb endings

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

aimerai

finirai

attendrai

Tu

aimeras

finiras

attendras

Il/elle

aimera

finira

attendra

Nous

aimerons

finirons

attendrons

Vous

aimerez

finirez

attendrez

Ils/elles

aimeront

finiront

attendront

Examples:

  • Vous mangerez chez mamie un autre jour – You’ll eat at Grandma’s house another day
  • Nous bâtirons une nouvelle vie ensemble – We’ll build a new life together
  • Elle nous répondra quand elle aura le temps – She’ll reply to us when she has the time

Difference between futur simple and futur proche:

It can be hard to know which future tense to use, but the best way to remember is to ask yourself two questions:

Is it decided and planned out, or is it just an intention?

Is it in the near future or distant future?

  • Nous allons voyager en Asie cet été – We’re going to travel in Asia this summer

Near future, already planned and paid for, not much can get in the way = le futur proche.

  • Nous voyagerons quelque part un jour – We’ll travel somewhere one day

Distant future, no date set or reservations made, can’t guarantee that something won’t prevent it from happening = le futur simple.

  • J’ai un appel manqué de ma soeur, je vais la rappeler en rentrant – I have a missed call from my sister, I’m going to call her back when I get home

You plan to call her back, you’re dead set on doing it, for example you might be worried that it was important = le futur proche.

  • J’ai un appel manqué de ma soeur, je la rappellerai en rentrant – I have a missed call from my sister, I’ll call her back when I get home

This is far more nonchalant, while you intend on calling her back, you’re not going to write a note-to-self in case you forget = le futur simple.

Le Conditionnel – The Conditional

The next French tense that it is important to know is the conditional tense. The conditional can be used in the present, past and future, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves! The most important is of course the conditional present, which is used in a variety of situations. It can be used to add formality and politeness, to give advice or suggestions, for wants and wishes, or for imaginary scenarios. We can compare it to the English “would” and “could”.

You will see that the endings here are the same as the imperfect endings, but with the difference that instead of removing the original infinitive ending, we keep it, just like in the simple future, with each infinitive verb finishing with an “R” before adding the new ending.

Conditional present verb endings

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

aimerais

finirais

attendrais

Tu

aimerais

finirais

attendrais

Il/elle

aimerait

finirait

attendrait

Nous

aimerions

finirions

attendrions

Vous

aimeriez

finiriez

attendriez

Ils/elles

aimeraient

finiraient

attendraient


Before you look at the example sentences, you need to be familiar with what is known in French as the “si clause”. This is a sentence which uses “if” and always requires the conditional tense. For the present conditional we’re going to use “si” + the imperfect tense followed by the present conditional. You can also use the French conditional tense on its own, as shown in the first example.

Examples:

  • Je préférerais aller à Bordeaux – I would rather go to Bordeaux
  • Si tu avais plus de temps tu apprendrais à parler le mandarin – If you had more time, you would learn Mandarin
  • Si vous mangiez plus de légumes, vous grandiriez plus vite – If you ate more vegetables, you would grow faster

Le Conditionnel Passé – The Past Conditional

The past conditional is used to express regret and blame. It’s a compound tense using a mixture of the conditional tense and past participles. It’s formed by conjugating the auxiliary verb “avoir” in the conditional tense, with the endings as shown above, then adding the past participle of each verb.

Past conditional tense verb endings

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb:

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

aurais aimé

aurais fini

aurais attendu

Tu

aurais aimé

aurais fini

aurais attendu

Il/elle

aurait aimé

aurait fini

aurait attendu

Nous

aurions aimé

aurions fini

aurions attendu

Vous

auriez aimé

auriez fini

auriez attendu

Ils/elles

auraient aimé

auraient fini

auraient attendu

Examples:

  • J’aurais aimé aller avec toi – I would have liked to go with you
  • Si nous étions embarrassés nous aurions rougiIf we were embarrassed we would have blushed
  • Il vous aurait rendu votre argent si vous l’aviez demandé – He would have given you your money back if you had asked

This French tense is frequently used with the irregular verbs pouvoir and devoir to show regret (could have, should have).

Le Subjonctif – The Subjunctive

Last but not least, every French learner should know the basics of the subjunctive. It’s by far the hardest thing to learn, so I’m going to try to make this quick and as easy to understand as possible, while covering the essential points.

The subjunctive is a mood that emphasizes the subjectivity of a sentence. It can show wishes, emotions, doubt, possibility, uncertainty and more. It’s vital to remember that the subjunctive follows the word “que” but not every “que” must be followed by the subjunctive mood.

Confused yet? Hang in there!

Subjunctive mood verb endings

 

ER verbs

IR verbs

RE verbs

Example verb

aimer

finir

attendre

Je

aime

finisse

attende

Tu

aimes

finisses

attendes

Il/elle

aime

finisse

attende

Nous

aimions

finissions

attendions

Vous

aimiez

finissiez

attendiez

Ils/elles

aiment

finissent

attendent

The best way to start learning the subjunctive mood is to remember when it’s used, and then learn some of the most common phrases that introduce this tense.

When to use the subjunctive?

  1. To express wants, wishes and desires e.g. vouloir que, préférer que
  2. To show needs and give orders e.g. il est nécessaire que, il faut que
  3. To communicate moods, emotions and feelings e.g. être content que, craindre que
  4. To convey doubt and uncertainty e.g. douter que, il se peut que
  5. For possibility and suppositions e.g. il est possible que, il semble que, s’attendre que
  6. To indicate other common moods e.g. il est normal que, il est important que, il vaut mieux que

Examples:

  1. Je veux qu’elle me donne la télécommande – I want her to give me the remote control
  2. Il est nécessaire que vous finissiez le rapport avant la réunion – It’s necessary for you to finish the report before the meeting
  3. Je crains que personne ne nous entende – I fear that nobody can hear us
  4. Elle doute que tu chantes aussi bien que tu le dis – She doubts that you can sing as well as you say you can
  5. Il est possible que le public n’applaudisse pas – It’s possible that the audience might not applaud
  6. Il est normal que tu défendes ta famille – It’s normal for you to defend your family

The most common term used to introduce the subjunctive is “il faut que”. Here are a few examples to help you use the subjunctive mood like a pro. Don’t forget, this term is only ever used in the third person and could be literally translated as “it must be that”.

  • Il faut que tu demandes avant de s’assoir – You must ask before you sit down (literally: it must be that you ask before you sit down)
  • Il faut que nous obéissions la loi – We must obey the law (literally: it must be that we obey the law)
  • Il faut que le fromage fonde pour faire une fondue – The cheese must melt to make a fondue (literally: it must be that cheese melts before making a fondue)

Irregular verbs in French

One of the hardest things about the French language is learning the irregular verbs. It’s best to learn each of the most common irregular verbs and their different forms by heart, as there are no rules to follow and few patterns to learn.

The most common ones are être (to be), avoir (to have), aller (to go), faire (to do/make), pouvoir (can), devoir (must), vouloir (to want), voir (to see) and prendre (to take). If you’re ready to tackle irregular verbs, then that would be a mighty fine place to start.

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