How do French tenses work?

Lets get serious for second. If you are a learner of French, you will need to understand tenses and how verbs react to them. There are two skills involved: knowing when to use tenses and knowing how the verbs change aspect once we use them.

To explain this in slow motion, a verb tells people through sound and aspect when the action happens. The verb “eat” turns into “I ate” to say that it happened in the past. The visual aspect changed and the sound changed.

French verbs do the same. This blog article will focus on when to use them, meaning the practical choices we make between the different tenses.

1. The Present tense

The easy definition of the present tense is that it’s used for actions happening “now”. This is only partly true, but true none the less.

When we say “My guitar is blue” it means that it is blue at the moment we speak but also “as a general rule”. A similar example is “I like chicken”. I like it today, tomorrow and I even liked it yesterday.

French will use the Present in the same cases: Ma guitare est bleue / J’aime le poulet.

For an action happening “right now”, French will use the same present tense:

She is eating a salad = Elle mange une salade.” (There is no use of “Je suis manger” – We just say “Je mange”)

Next, the present tense is also used for Future and Conditional situations. The Conditional in English is mainly used with “would” but there is also a case of the conditional in which we express plausible actions which are close to reality. Let’s look at an example:

If you fall in the water this afternoon, you will be cold.

In this example, we are going to the beach and we are warning that later in the day if you fall into the water you will be cold. We are using the present tense for an action that might happen 5 hours from now. The reason we are using the present tense is to show that is it “likely” to happen. It is not just a far-removed reality such as ”If you fell into the water you would be cold”.

In French: “Si tu tombes dans l’eau cet après-midi, tu auras froid”

Lastly, we can use the present tense for Future scenarios such as reservations, appointments or for things of which we have decided that they will happen in any case.

Example: Next weekend, my parents are coming to see us.
In French: Le week-end prochain, mes parents viennent nous voir.

French does the same exact thing, and uses the present tense for things that we have decided will happen and which we can control.

2. The Past tenses

The past tenses are officially used to speak of anything that happened “before” or generally “in the past” but here also we have a few subtleties to take into account. Practically we are talking of 3 main tenses: the imparfait, passé composé and plus-que-parfait.

Contrary to English, users of French will not be able to “cheat” – each tense serves a definite purpose and one tense cannot replace the other. There is close to no flexibility in French.

At a beginner’s level, you will need the “passé composé” as a priority. We use it as an equivalent to “I made/I have made”

I made soup this morning = J’ai fait une soupe ce matin.

This tense is used with “AVOIR” in the present tense to which we add the main action we are doing. (In this case “making”) There are also 17 verbs that use “ETRE” instead of AVOIR.

This passé composé tense is necessary when we want to tell someone about the existence of one action we did at sometime in the past. Example: “Yesterday I walked the dog / I watched a film / We redecorated the kitchen”

Second, as a complement to the passé composé we have the Plus-que-parfait. This tense’s role is to make clear that one past event happened before the other.

Example: We all watched the film that I had seen with Nick.

Without any clue such as “before” or “earlier”, the mere use of “had seen” makes us understand that it happened earlier than the action of watching the film all together. First I watched it with Nick at some time in the past then later we watched the same film all together.

In French: On a tous regardé le fim que j’avais vu avec Nick.

A lesser-known function of the plus-que-parfait is to signal that a certain action happened long ago. We do not do the same in English with its equivalent tense the Past Perfect but in French this sort of thing is very usual and grammatically correct.

Example: Do you remember? We had been to that little restaurant. (Incorrect in English)
In French: Tu te souviens? Nous étions allés à ce restaurant.

As a third past tense there is the imparfait which has two functions. The first is to refer to actions that I used to do as a habit and the second is to set a sort of background in which the main action can happen.

Example: When I was young I collected photos.
In French: Quand j’étais jeune je collectionnais des photos.

Both the fact of being young and of collecting can he seen as repetitive actions, or habits. We weren’t just young for a brief moment – which is why the passé composé can’t be used here.

Example: I was reading my book when I saw you pass by.
In French: Je lisais mon livre quand je t’ai vu passer.

The act of reading the book is a background to the main action of seeing the person pass by. Just as in English It can be useful to give a context and make clear that 2 things were happening at once.

Still on the Imparfait tense, it serves also to express wishes that could happen in the present or the future.

Example: If I had a bicycle (now) it would be wonderful.
In French: Si j’avais un vélo ce serait formidable.

Example: If he arrived in 10 minutes time it would suit me.
In French: Si il arrivait dans 10 minutes ca m’arrangerait.

3. The Future tenses

The official future tenses in French is the one that takes endings such as “rai / ras / ra…” which is the equivalent of WILL in English. As such, “I will speak” is said “Je parlerai”.

The use of the “future simple” is for promises, consequences or predictions. To complete these 3 functions there is also the “future intention” which is a bit “softer” and is rather used for future projects.

When we say “I am going to buy a shirt” we are speaking of our intention of performing a future action. It is neither a promise, a consequence or a prediction which is why we are not saying “I will buy a shirt”.

The same logic applies to French:

J’achèterai une chemise. (promise) VS Je vais acheter une chemise. (intention)

We can also make a promise with “Je vais + verb” but the opposite doesn’t work. The future simple doesn’t work to express intentions.

If we suddenly wish for an ice cream we can share this intention by saying “I’m going to buy an ice cream” – It would indeed be odd to say “I will buy an ice cream”

The same thing applies to French “Je vais acheter une glace” as opposed to “J’achèterai une glace” which would be understood as a promise.

The next two cases are for consequences and predictions, which can either be expressed with the “proper” future tense or with “je vais + verb”

1. If you don’t wear a coat you will be cold.
1. If you don’t wear a coat you are going to be cold.

2. There will be a lot of people in town tonight.
2. There are going to be a lot of people in town tonight.

In French:

1. Si tu ne portes pas de manteau tu auras froid.
1. Si tu ne portes pas de manteau tu vas avoir froid.

2. Il y aura beaucoup de monde en ville ce soir
2. Il va y avoir beaucoup de monde en ville ce soir.

To conclude the future tense, the main difference between English and French is the use of the future for “immediate actions”. In French we cannot use the future for actions we do in the next second such as giving our phone number to someone.

English: I will give you my phone number (now)

in French, we must use the present tense: Je te donne mon numéro. (maintenant)

4. Conditional tenses

As the name implies, we are expressing a present or future that is dependent on a certain condition.

Example: If I had a horse, I would be happy.
In French: Si j’avais un cheval, je serais content.

“Je serais” is the conditional. I first need a horse in order to be happy. That is the condition.

To ask for things politely, we say “I would like” in English. In French, we say “I would want” : Je voudrais.

Example: I would like some water = Je voudrais de l’eau.

The other main difference is the ability for French verbs to all have a complete conjugation regardless of the tense. A verb such as MUST doesn’t have an official conjugation in English and has to go through a “detour” to express it:

We say “I should” instead of “I would must”. But in French we can easily do this: “Je devrais”

This last remark is valid for the other French modals as well : Devoir, pouvoir, vouloir. These all have a complete conjugation and do not constitute a separate group as in English.

5. The Imperative tense

Just as in English, this tense is used to give orders or make suggestions. Except for 4 verbs, the imperative in French looks just like the Present tense.

Example: Tidy your room! = Range ta chambre!
Example : Let’s watch a film. = Regardons un film.

In French, we can also tell people to “want” and to “know”. The frequent “Veuillez” on signs in public places is the equivalent of “please”.

Example: Please respect the silence = Veuillez respecter le silence.

If we wish to “step up” the severity of the orders we can resort to the present tense. This effect will make the order seem that more severe!

Example: You are tidying your room now.
In French: Tu ranges ta chambre maintenant.

6. The Subjunctive tense

The Subjunctive tense almost requires a blog post all on its own due to its complexity. In terms of “doing something” it is not a tense that has an active function but rather belongs to the rules of the “proper way” of speaking French.

Far from a luxury, it is used very frequently in French but not so much in English because of a lack of noticeable change in English verbs and because of a difference in sentence construction that would lead up to a subjunctive.

In a sense, the subjunctive is the tense of the “wish” or of the “ideal reality” and “undesirable reality“. To properly understand, let’s break up the tenses into 3 groups:

1. We can consider that the present, past and future speak of reality on the timeline.
2. The conditional speaks of possible realities that depend on the fulfillment of a condition (either in the past present or future)
3. The subjunctive is (mostly) the tense that does not refer to reality.

An example of an “ideal reality” might be “Je voudrais que tu viennes à ma fête” – I would like you to come to my party.” In an ideal reality, you will be at my party.

An undesirable reality might be “It would be a shame if it rains.” – “Ce serait dommage qu’il pleuve.”

We can also formulate such wishes as “May they be on time – Qu’ils soient à l’heure” in which we refer to being on time in an ideal scenario either now or in the future.

There are cases in which the subjunctive is used for actual reality such as “I am happy that you are here” – “Je suis content que vous soyez là” Even though the people really are actually there, we are still using the subjunctive instead of saying “Je suis content que vous êtes là”, as we probably should be.

We see in this example how the sentences leading up to a subjunctive differ in English. We would say in a more natural way: “I am happy to see you all here” .

In French however there are many sentence constructions which start with “I am happy that…” “I am pleased that…” “It is a shame that” which are then linked to a “full statement” such as “The shops are closed”.

1. I am happy that the shops be open.
2. It’s a shame that the film finish so quick.
3. I am pleased that the car have a nice colour.
4. It is important that she know the truth.

7. The Passive

Not a tense as such, the Passive is a shift in perspective which places the emphasis on the person or thing that has an action happen to them. We do this either to hide who does the action or because we don’t know or even because the sentence sounds better in the passive.

For example “My car was stolen during the night.”

In this example, we don’t know who did the action of stealing. The car is placed as subject of the sentence even though it isn’t “doing” anything. It would load the sentence unnecessarily to say “Some thieves stole my car during the night”.

The big difference between English and French is in the higher possibilities of “passivisation” in English. Some French verbs can’t be used in the passive and require a dummy subject “On” (we) to fill the void.

Example: I was given a prize.
In French: On m’a donné un prix.

By no means can we say “J’ai été donné un prix”.

To conclude

In this short blog post, we saw a condensed explanation of the use of each of the main French tenses. Speaking a language well requires an understanding of the use of the various tenses as well as knowing how the verb actually changes when we use them.

For example, knowing that “Je vais” (I go) becomes “J’irai” in the future. (I will go) while also understanding why we would choose “J’irai” over “Je vais aller” (I am going to go)

To recap, we have 7 main tenses:

1. The present: for actions that are happening “right now” or for long-term “truths”.
2. The Passé Composé: To describe singular actions in the past.
3. The imparfait: To speak of repeated past actions or to give a background to the main past action.
4. The plus-que-parfait: To mark a difference on the timeline between 2 past actions.
5. The conditional: To express what “would” happen if a certain condition was met.
6. The subjunctive: To speak of ideal, or undesirable realities.
7. The imperative: To give orders or to make suggestions.

In our French classes at OuiCommunicate, our students get full practice of these tenses as well as ample exercises for each. The more tenses you know, the more precisely you can express yout thoughts !

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