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French Tenses Made Simple

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Do you get tense when looking at French conjugation tables? Handling verbs in French can seem quite overwhelming at first: There are distinct endings for each pronoun, six different moods, and soooo many tenses!

But of course, there’s a trick. Once you take a closer look, it’s not nearly as complicated as you might think. These verb endings follow rules, only a fraction of French tenses are used in real life, and even fewer are useful in spoken French.

In this article, you’ll find a quick overview of the general rules concerning French verb conjugation. Then, we’ll dive right into the list of French tenses: present, past, and future. Oh, and there will be lots of cats involved because they generally make grammar more interesting.

A Woman Kissing a Gray Kitten

Elle embrasse un chaton. (“She’s kissing a kitten.”)

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in French Table of Contents
  1. French Conjugation in a Nutshell
  2. Present Tenses
  3. Future Tenses
  4. Common Past Tenses
  5. Literary Past Tenses
  6. Le mot de la fin

1. French Conjugation in a Nutshell

Before we get too far into the details, here’s some basic information about French tenses and conjugations you should know.

How Many Tenses Do You Really Need to Speak French?

Did you know that French has 17 tenses, 6 moods, and 2 voices? Wait, don’t run away!

You only need a fraction of that list to get by on a daily basis, and you’d be surprised how far you can get with only two tenses:

  • Présent (Present)
  • Passé composé (Compound past)

With the présent, you can describe anything happening right now as well as things that happen regularly—you can even use it to describe future events!

J’apprends le français.“I’m learning French.”
J’apprends le français tous les jours.“I learn French every day.”
J’apprends le français à partir de demain.“I will learn French, starting tomorrow.”
J’apprends le français l’année prochaine.“I will learn French next year.”

And with the passé composé, you can refer to any past event, unless you have a really complex chain of events to describe.

J’ai appris le français à l’université.“I have learned French at university.”
J’ai appris le français l’année dernière.“I learned French last year.”

As you get more comfortable with the language, you’ll slowly add more tenses to the mix. However, for daily conversations, we rarely use more than five or six tenses. Many of the others are not used anymore, not even in literature. So, you can relax!

How to Set the Mood

When we talk about le mode (the mood) in French conjugation, it refers to the attitude of the speaker toward the action of the verb. Are they stating a fact? Is it hypothetical? Are they giving orders?

  • L’indicatif (Indicative) is used to express facts and truth. This is the most common mood.
  • Le subjonctif (Subjunctive) describes something possible or uncertain.
  • Le conditionnel (Conditional) is used for conditions or possibilities.
  • L’impératif (Imperative) is the tense we use for giving orders or instructions.

Simple Tenses vs. Compound Tenses

Most French tenses are “simple tenses.” This means the verb is conjugated according to the person, mood, and tense and its ending changes accordingly.

For example, the verb parler (to speak; to talk) could be conjugated as follows:

  • Nous parlons (We speak)
  • Je parlerai (I will talk)
  • Ils parlaient (They were speaking)

Compound tenses, on the other hand, are formed using an auxiliary verb. It can be either être (to be) or avoir (to have). In the case of a compound tense, you need to conjugate the auxiliary:

  • Nous avons parlé (“We have talked”)
  • Je suis tombé / tombée (“I have fallen”) [Masculine / Feminine]
A Man Having a Panic Attack

Relax, you don’t need more than two tenses to get started!

2. Present Tenses

The most important French tenses for beginners to learn are those that deal with the present. Here are the four present tenses you need to know:

[Indicatif] Présent (Present)

Le présent is the equivalent of the English present tense. In French, it can be used to talk about recurring actions, events in progress, and even the future in some cases. 

Here are a few examples of its various forms:

Je caresse un chat.“I’m petting a cat.”
Je caresse des chats tous les jours.“I pet cats every day.”
Je t’appelle dans quelques jours.“I’ll call you in a few days.”
Je finis mon verre.“I’m finishing my drink.”

[Subjonctif] Présent (Present Subjunctive)

Le subjonctif présent is used to express something that’s possible or uncertain in the present.

Il est important que je caresse un chat.“It’s important that I pet a cat.”
It’s important for me to do that, but it’s not a fact that I’ve actually done so. It’s something possible that might happen.

Elle veut que je finisse mon verre.“She wants me to finish my drink.”
Similarly here, we’re not stating that we have finished our drink or that we’re going to. We have only stated that this is what she wants. Is it going to happen? At this point, we don’t know.

[Impératif] Présent (Present Imperative)

L’impératif présent is used to give orders, advice, or instructions that are effective immediately.

This is by far the most common tense for the imperative mood.

Caresse ce chat !“Pet this cat.”
Finis ton verre !“Finish your drink.”

[Conditionnel] Présent (Present Conditional)

Le conditionnel présent refers to a condition or a possibility set in the present.

Si je pouvais, je caresserais un chat.“If I could, I would pet a cat.”
Si j’avais le temps, je finirais mon verre.“If I had time, I would finish my drink.”

    → Do you need some practice with the present tenses? You’ll find 50 common verbs in this free vocabulary list, with recorded pronunciation examples.
A Woman Petting Her Dog in a Grassy Field

Elle caresse son chien. (“She’s petting her dog.”)

3. Future Tenses

Need to talk about your future plans or coordinate a schedule with a native French speaker? No worries! Next on our French tenses list is the future tense and its different moods. 

[Indicatif] Futur Simple (Future)

Le futur simple is the French equivalent of the classic “will”-based future in English. We use it to make predictions and talk about what will happen later.

Je caresserai un chat.“I will pet a cat.”
Je finirai mon verre.“I will finish my drink.”

[Indicatif] Futur Proche (Near Future)

Le futur proche is used for something set in the near future. We’re about to do it, it’s coming soon. It’s very close to the English [“going to” + verb] and even has a similar structure.

Just like in English, we use the conjugated verb aller (to go) + infinitive.

Je vais caresser un chat.“I’m going to pet a cat.”
Je vais finir mon verre.“I’m going to finish my drink.”

[Indicatif] Futur Antérieur (Anterior Future)

Le futur antérieur is used to talk about two different moments in the past, one after the other. The first one, chronologically, will be in the futur antérieur.

It’s built around the auxiliary être or avoir, followed by the past participle of the verb. The participle agrees in gender and number, as you’ll see in these examples:

Je serai parti avant la fin de la semaine.I will be gone before the end of the week.” [Masc]
D’ici la fin de la semaine, je serai partie.“By the end of the week, I will be gone.” [Fem]

You should keep in mind that what matters is not the order of the events in the sentence, but their order in time.

  • What happens first? My departure.
  • What happens next? The end of the week.

If there is another verb describing the second event, it will be in futur simple.

Quand tu rentreras, j’aurai caressé un chat.When you come back, I will have petted a cat.”
J’aurai fini mon verre quand tu arriveras.I will have finished my drink when you arrive.”
Five Glasses of Champagne being Clinked Together

Je vais finir mon verre. (“I will finish my drink.”)

4. Common Past Tenses

There are numerous past tenses in French, but luckily, very few of them are actually useful on a daily basis. In fact, many of them are either for literature or are downright outdated.

Let’s start with the most useful French past tenses:

[Indicatif] Passé Composé (Compound Past)

Le passé composé is the most common past tense in French. It’s the equivalent of the English simple past and it’s used to talk about a past event with a limited duration, that is now over.

J’ai caressé un chat.“I have petted a cat.”
J’ai fini mon verre.“I have finished my drink.”

[Indicatif] Imparfait (Imperfect)

L’imparfait is similar to the English past progressive. We use it to describe facts and actions from the past while focusing on their duration or repetition. 

This is what you’d use to talk about an action that was taking place (for a certain duration, or regularly) at some point in the past.

Je caressais un chat.“I was petting a cat.”
Je finissais mon verre.“I was finishing my drink.”

You can combine this tense with le passé composé when describing an action that was taking place in the past until another brief action happened (also in the past).

Je caressais mon chat tous les jours.“I was petting my cat every day.”
Je finissais mon verre quand elle est arrivée.“I was finishing my drink when she arrived.”

[Indicatif] Plus-que-parfait (Pluperfect)

This equivalent of the English past perfect is used to describe actions that were taking place before a certain moment in the past.

J’avais caressé un chat.“I had petted a cat.”
J’avais fini mon verre quand elle est arrivée.“I had finished my drink when she arrived.”

[Subjonctif] Passé (Past Subjunctive)

Le subjonctif passé is used to express something possible or uncertain in the past.

Il est important que j’aie caressé un chat avant demain.“It’s important that I have petted a cat before tomorrow.”
Elle veut que j’aie fini mon verre.“She wants me to have my drink finished.”

It sounds pretty awkward once translated, because, in English, we would normally use the present in cases like that:

  • “It’s important that I pet a cat before tomorrow.”

And the same goes for French. In most cases, and in any conversation, you would say: 

  • Il est important que je caresse un chat avant demain. (Present subjunctive)

[Conditionnel] Passé (Past Conditional)

Le conditionnel passé refers to a condition or a possibility set in the past.

J’aurais caressé un chat.“I would have petted a cat.”
J’aurais fini mon verre.“I would have finished my drink.”

    → Make sure to put all that knowledge into practice! FrenchPod101 has plenty of lessons on future, past, and present tense comparisons.
A Gray Tabby Kitten in a Grassy Field

Je caressais un chaton. (“I was petting a kitten.”)

5. Literary Past Tenses

Now, let’s have a look at these marginal or literary tenses. You’re not likely to hear them in many conversations, but if you’re at an advanced level of French, it might be a good time to learn about them.

Otherwise, feel free to skip this section. You can always revisit it later at your leisure.

[Indicatif] Passé Simple (Past Simple)

Le passé simple describes actions set in the past, but unlike l’imparfait, these are one-time, completed, unrepeated actions. 

While the passé composé is mostly a spoken tense, the passé simple is its literary equivalent and is almost never used orally.

Elle ouvrit la porte et caressa le chat.“She opened the door and petted the cat.”
Je finis mon verre et en commandai un autre.“I finished my drink and ordered another one.”

[Indicatif] Passé Antérieur (Anterior Past)

This is a purely written tense that is used to express what happened right before another event in the past.

Quand elle eut ouvert la porte, elle caressa le chat.“When she had opened the door, she petted the cat.”
Quand j’eus fini mon verre, j’en commandai un autre.“When I had finished my drink, I ordered another one.”

[Subjonctif] Imparfait (Imperfect Subjunctive)

This tense started disappearing in the middle of the nineteenth century and is almost completely gone from today’s French. You can still find it in classic literature if you dig deep enough.

It’s used pretty much like the present subjunctive, but follows some of the most complicated past tenses. It expresses something possible or uncertain. Nowadays, we could simply replace it with subjonctif présent.

Il avait été important que je caressasse un chat.“It had been important that I had petted a cat.”
Elle voulait que je finisse mon verre.“She wanted me to finish my drink.”

[Subjonctif] Plus-que-parfait (Pluperfect Subjunctive)

A couple of centuries ago, the subjonctif plus-que-parfait would replace the subjonctif passé in a subordinate clause, when the main clause was conjugated in the past and the action of the subordinate clause was set before the action of the main clause.

Nowadays, nobody’s using it, even in writing.

Il était important que j’eusse caressé un chat avant demain.“It was important that I had petted a cat before tomorrow.”
Elle voulait que j’eusse fini mon verre.“She wanted that I would have finished my drink.”

[Impératif] Passé (Past Imperative)

This is a weird tense that has almost disappeared. Take the imperative (Pet this cat. / Finish your drink.) and put it in the past. 

You’re instructed to have done something in the past, which is a bit difficult to translate. It would be the equivalent of: “Make sure you have done that at this point in the future.”

Aie caressé un chat avant demain !“Make sure you have petted a cat before tomorrow.”
Aie fini ton verre quand elle arrivera !“Make sure you’ve finished your drink when she arrives.”
A Woman Drinking a Large Mug of Beer

Elle finit son verre. (“She’s finishing her drink.”)


Le mot de la fin

In this guide, you’ve learned everything about French verb tenses: past, present, and future…simple vs. conditional…even the six different moods! Do you feel ready to impress your friends with your flawless pluperfect conditional?

If you’re a beginner, I really suggest that you first focus on the présent and passé composé. You’ll be amazed by how far they can take you! And if you have more good tricks to quickly learn tenses, make sure to share them in the comments below.

FrenchPod101 also has tons of vocabulary lists with audio recordings as well as free resources to boost your studies and keep your French learning fresh and entertaining!

Remember that you can also use our Premium PLUS service, MyTeacher, to get personal 1-on-1 coaching. Your private teacher can help you with tenses, conjugation, and more. In addition to giving you assignments, providing you with personalized exercises, and recording audio samples just for you, your teacher will review your work and help improve your pronunciation. 

Happy learning on FrenchPod101!

About the Author: Born and bred in the rainy north of France, Cyril Danon has been bouncing off various jobs before he left everything behind to wander around the wonders of the World. Now, after quenching his wanderlust for the last few years, he’s eager to share his passion for languages.

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