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Understanding the usage of different French tenses

understanding the usage of french tenses

A slight modification in the verb makes all the difference in our conversation. This is why the concept of tenses is an inevitable subject to convey the required information with precise meaning and clarity.

Align your words and actions to express an idea or determine the time with the help of the following guide on the usage of different French tenses.

express using different tenses

A brief introduction to verb moods

The complexity of tenses rises as we progress with each level. Exposing yourself to all the tenses at a time is too much to handle.

Therefore, it’s time to simplify this complex list into a concise format by categorizing each tense with its respective verb moods.

A verb mood is a grammatical concept that is used to distinguish tenses. It describes the attitude of the speaker. Each mood is conjugated into many tenses to describe the occurrence of an event.

There are four personal verb moods in French:

  • Indicative
  • Subjunctive
  • Conditional
  • Imperative

The indicative mood is used to express opinions, facts, and questions. There are 10 different tenses in the indicative mood to determine if the action has taken place in the past, present, or future.

The French present tense consists of only one verb form:

  • Présent

The French past tense consists of six verb forms:

  • Passé composé
  • Imparfait
  • Passé simple
  • Plus-que-parfait
  • Passé antérieur
  • Passé recent

The French future tense comes in three forms:

  • Futur simple
  • Future proche
  • Futur antérieur

The subjunctive mood is used to talk about uncertainty, feelings, possibilities, doubts, and imaginary situations. It can be used in 4 different tenses.

  • Subjonctif présent
  • Subjonctif passé
  • Subjonctif imparfait
  • Subjonctif plus-que-parfait

The conditional can be used as a tense and as a mood. As a tense, it expresses the future seen from a past point of view. As a mood, it allows us to talk about a hypothetical or imagined reality. It can be used in 2 different tenses.

  • Conditionnel présent
  • Conditionnel passé

The imperative mood is only used in the present tense to make commands and orders.

Understanding the most common French tenses

After analyzing the above list, it’s evident that the topic of tenses is rather an exhaustive list. However, we encourage you to start with the basics and slowly build your way up.

Before we learn to conjugate verbs in different tenses, we must understand the usage of these tenses to make use of the right tense in the right place.

The indicative verb tenses are the most basic and commonly used form of tenses in French followed by the subjunctive present, conditional present, and Imperative tense.

Let’s take a closer look at these verbs one by one.

1. Le présent

The present tense is one of the simplest forms of a verb. It is used to talk about something happening in the current moment. Unlike English, the present continuous verb form does not exist in French.

However, the phrase “en train de” is used occasionally with the infinitive form of the verb to describe an ongoing action.

Nous jouons au tennis tous les matins – We play tennis every morning

Je suis en train de travailler – I am working

2. Le passé composé

The passé composé is used to talk about completed actions in the past. In other words, it emphasizes an action that started and ended in the past. It is formed using the auxiliary verbs (être and avoir) along with the past participle of the verb.

J’ai mangé du chocolat hier soir – I had chocolate last night

Nous sommes sortis hier – We went out yesterday

3. L’imparfait

The imperfect tense expresses an action that is continued in the past over an indefinite and undetermined period. It is a verb tense that is often accompanied by the passé composé to talk about a series of past events.

It is also used to describe physical conditions, feelings, attitudes, time, weather, ongoing events, and habits in the past.

Ce matin, il pleuvait à verse- This morning, it was raining heavily

Je regardais la télé quand il a sonné à la porte – I was watching TV when he rang the doorbell

4. Le passé simple

The passé simple is rarely used in spoken French. It serves the same purpose as the Passé composé. However, its usage is limited to literary, historical, and formal writings that express a completed past action, event, or situation.

So you don’t have to worry about this tense unless you are reading a book or writing a script in a professional tone.

Le Roi perdit tout dans la Bataille – The king lost everything in the Battle

Ils gardèrent la bibliothèque ouverte à un moment précis – They kept the library open at a specific time

5. Le plus-que-parfait

The plus‐que‐parfait corresponds to the past perfect tense in English. It describes a completed action in the past before another past action takes place. It is formed using the imperfect tense of the auxiliary verbs (avoir or être) and the past participle.

j‘étais sorti de bonne heure pour retenir une place au restaurant – I was out early to hold a seat at the restaurant

J’avais parlé brièvement pendant la présentation- I had spoken briefly during the presentation

6. Le passé antérieur

The usage of passé antérieur is also limited to literary texts. It is the literary equivalent of the plus-que-parfait and is used after conjunctions like aussitôt que, dès que, quand, lorsque, and après que to indicate that an action occurred before another action in the past.

Dès qu’il eut fini son travail, il sortit – As soon as he finished his work, he went out

Quand il eut reçu sa lettre de nomination, il la présenta à sa famille – When he received his appointment letter, he presented it to his family.

7. Le passé récent

Le passé récent is used to talk about completed actions that happened shortly before the moment of speaking. You can explain what happened in the recent past with help of the verb “venir”.

Je viens de boire un verre d’eau – I just had a glass of water

Tu viens de parler à lui – You just spoke to him

8. Le futur simple

The futur simple is used to describe events in the distant future. It indicates that the speaker is less certain of the future event coming to pass. The futur simple is used in more formal contexts.

J’irai à la banque lundi – I’ll go to the bank on Monday

Je lirai le reste chez moi – I’ll read the rest at home

9. Le futur proche

The futur proche is used to describe events in the near or immediate future. You can explain futur proche with help of the verb “aller“.

Unlike Futur simple, the speaker is certain of the future event. It is used in informal contexts. Thus, it is primarily used in conversations and less frequently in writings.

Je vais sortir avec mes amis – I am going out with my friends

Nous allons discuter des résultats – We are going to discuss the results

10. Le futur antérieur

The futur antérieur is used to express a future action or event that precedes another future action. This tense also expresses predictions or suppositions about what may have happened in the past.

Lorsque vous aurez décidé de partager les détails, nous ferons un pas de plus – Once you have decided to share the details, we will take another step

Il aurait aimé venir – He would have liked to come along

11. Le subjonctif present

The subjunctive is one of the most important tenses in French. When it comes to frequency of usage, it is more widely used in French than in English. It is used to express varied states of unreality or uncertainty like some kind of judgment, wish, possibility, opinion, doubt, or emotion.

Faites-moi savoir si vous voulez que je fasse des changements  – Let me know if you want me to make any changes

Il faut que chacun accepte ce projet – It is necessary that everyone agrees to the plan

12. L’impératif 

As discussed earlier, the imperative is probably the most straightforward verb mood because it is only used in the present tense. It is used to give orders or advice. The imperative only exists in the second person singular (Tu), the first person plural (nous), and the second person plural (Vous).

Parlons- nous – Let’s talk

Assieds-toi – Sit down

13. Le conditionnel present

The conditional present is often translated with would or could in English. It is used to express a polite request or a hypothesis in the present. It is mainly used in if-clauses to describe an event that is not guaranteed.

S’il faisait beau, j’irais sortir – If the weather was nice, I’d go out

Si j’avais le temps, je t’aiderais – If i had time, I would help you

Learn to choose the right tense

I hope this article has helped you to analyze and contemplate the different verb tenses in French. It might seem like a lot to learn, but the above list of tenses will get you pretty far in a conversation.

Learn to choose the right tense in correlation with their mood to present complex ideas and add structure to the language.

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