Tenses are forms of verbs that allow you to know when certain actions are taking place, whether these actions occur in the past, present, or future. For a sentence to be complete, we need a verb, no matter how short the sentence is. “J’aime les bananes”, “Nous avons acheté des fruits”, “Serez-vous au restaurant?” and “Regarde !” are all examples of complete sentences. The main thing to remember is that a French verb needs to be conjugated according to the subject of action. (In the above sentences these are: je, nous, vous, and tu respectively.)

The three broad categories of tense in French are past, present, and future. Within the past, present, and future tense categories, there are subcategories that allow us to further place action within a chronology. This can give a very clear idea of when actions take place, even without using phrases such as “yesterday”, “the day before”, “when I finish”, “first ... then” etc. etc., although these are nice to add for style. It can also contrast ongoing action with action that has a specific duration of time, as with the passé composé and imparfait. These nuances specify when things take place without needing to provide too much context. In French you need to select a conjugated form of a verb in order to give it agency. Tense is thus built into the use of verbs as words that convey an action or occurrence within a sentence.

Simple and Compount Tenses

Before I get to the various French tenses, I would like to place them within two broad categories, which are simple and compound tenses. Simple tenses involve forming a radical from a French verb, according to what tense and / or mode is being expressed, and adding endings that correspond to the subject of action. There is only one part to simple tenses and modes. Remember that simple can be translated as “single” in French or as its English cognate.

Compound tenses consist of two parts: an auxiliary verb and a past participle – yes, this is another form of the French verb that needs to be memorized, along with which auxiliary verb to use. Auxiliary verbs follow the same principles of radical formation to which different endings are added to show the subject of action. Luckily, there are just two auxiliary verbs that you will need to use for these compound tenses, avoir and être.

The past participle, which is the second component of these compound tenses, remains the same throughout all conjugations: “Il a fait”, “Nous avons fait”, “Elles ont fait”, etc... The French past participle corresponds to the fourth principal part in Latin. Compare scitus, -a, -um, the masculine, feminine, and neuter perfect passive participle of scire (“to know”) with su or sue, masculine and feminine forms of the past participle of “savoir”.

Here is a table of the various French tenses, beginning with groups of verbs in the indicative mode and then continuing with other personal modes of verbs that we can contrast with the indicative before moving on to the impersonal modes of verbs.

temps simplestemps composés
modes personnelsindicatifsprésentpassé composé
imparfaitplus-que-parfait
passé simplepassé antérieur
futur simplefutur antérieur
conditionnelconditionnel passé
subjonctifsubjonctif passé
imparfait du subjonctifplus-que-parfait du subjonctif
impératifimpératif passé
modes impersonnelsinfinitifinfinitif passé
participeparticipe passé
gérondifgérondif passé

Out of eight indicative modes, six are used regularly and two are not used that often, except in a literary context. The tenses we use for past narration are something to focus on, since we often narrate things that have already happened to us or listen to people talking about things that have happened, as in the news.

Out of the remaining personal modes, five are used often, two are used in very literary contexts, and one is rarely used. We will distinguish between the present and past of the modes of the conditional and subjunctive modes, as they are used on a regular basis.

Past Tenses

The various past tenses allow for a sequencing of events in past narration. On a timeline, the plus-que-parfait precedes the passé composé and the imparfait. In the sentence, “Nous savions que la réalisatrice avait tourné le film à Paris, alors nous sommes allés le voir”, the shooting of the film in Paris occurs before people knowing about the film and deciding to see it. Notice the two parts of the verb in the plus-que-parfait, with the auxiliary verb avoir and the past participle of the verb tourner. Similarly, the passé composé has an auxiliary verb, this time être, and a masculine plural form of the past participle of aller. This stands in contrast with the simple imparfait tense, which consists of a radical sav- and the first person plural ending -ions. These are the French tenses that you would want to focus on, as they place events in order and give a relationship to the designated actions.

The contrast between the passé composé and the imparfait seems to confound learners who do not distinguish between these two types of past action in their native languages. While there are guidelines about when to use which, the best way to get a sense of them is by speaking and listening to French often. That being said, let us go over the main characteristics of each of these French tenses.

The passé composé is used for past actions with a specified duration of time. This occurs when we give time frames to these actions, such as “pendant deux heures”. This is also suggested by events in past narrative that make the plot develop. Think of a whodunit mystery novel and the series of events leading up to and following the crime that was committed. Actions for which the passé composé is used respond to the question “Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé?”

The imparfait is used for past actions that have a much less specified duration of time, that occur on a regular basis, or are continual. It is sometimes signaled by words such as “D’habitude”, or “le samedi”. In contrast to the passé composé, the imparfait is used for the mise en scène, a description of the setting of a scene. Think of phrases for a whodunit such as “It was a dark and stormy night”, “The wind blew fiercely”, “Ominous clouds were gathering in the sky”. (Yes, I did just use a past progressive in that last sentence. French does not have an equivalent, so we would use an imparfait to translate all of those sentences.)

Future Tenses
We use both the futur simple and the futur antérieur to refer to actions and occurrences that are posterior to the present. Used together, they place events within a chronology: “Je serai contente quand j’aurai fini ce projet”, “Nous quitterons la ville quand nous nous serons préparés”. With the conjunctions quand, lorsque, aussitôt que, and dès que, we must use the futur simple if we are speaking about a future event. In sentences with two clauses, both are in the future tense: “Dès qu’on arrivera au musée, on ira voir la nouvelle exposition”. The futur antérieur is often used with the conjunctions quand, lorsque, aussitôt que and dès que : “Aussitôt qu’il entrera dans la salle, on criera ‘Joyeux anniversaire !’”. (This is different from English, for which you would use the present tense for the first clause.)

There is another future form, which is called the futur proche. It is formed with aller as a semi-auxiliary verb, a French verb that is used along with an infinitive to influence meaning, tense, mood, or aspect. The futur proche can be used to express an intention, as opposed to something that is situated more objectively in the future. It is often used in spoken language to speak of a change or something in the immediate future, e.g., “Nous allons regarder le film après le dîner”. It is generally interchangeable with the futur simple, although the latter tends to be used more in formal writing.

Conditional

One mode that works similarly in French and in English is the conditional mode. As in English, the present conditional in French is often used as a form of politeness, so it is very important to know this one, e.g., “Je voudrais un café, s’il vous plaît”. That is much more appealing to a serveur than “Je veux un café”, which does not sound elegant at all.

Otherwise, we use the conditional for hypothetical phrases, such as “Elle voyagerait tout le temps”, “Ils traverserait le désert Gobi à cheval”, “On prendrait bien un risque”. To place hypotheses in the past, we use the past conditional, as in “Elle aurait voyagé”. These past hypothetical phrases often refer to events that did not end up happening.

Hypothetical phrases often appear in “si” clauses, showing conditions for these hypothetical actions: “S’ils avaient le temps, ils traverseraient le désert Gobi à cheval”. Compare this statement, which is a possibility, to the corresponding statement using anterior forms of the verbs: “S’ils avaient eu le temps, ils auraient traversé le désert Gobi”. The second sentence implies that the group did not have enough time and therefore did not cross the Gobi Desert.

Subjunctive

It is important to know the subjunctive because it is used quite a bit in French in expressions of emotion, judgment, will or desire, and necessity. Sometimes you will hear an indicative used when a subjunctive really should have been used, but a subjunctive is correct, elegant, and shows a good command of French. The present subjunctive is used the most, with the past subjunctive used for events that have already happened, e.g. “Il regrette qu’elle ne soit pas venue à la soirée”. The imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives are used in literary contexts in specific grammatical constructions and should be recognized, even if you wouldn’t use them in your everyday speech. In formal, literary language, they are introduced by clauses containing past tense verbs, but in everyday speech, we may use a present subjunctive after such clauses.

Imperative

The imperative mode is obviously important for giving commands or directions. There are only three conjugations for it: second person singular and plural and first person plural. These are logically people you could address in order to give commands. The first person plural is often used as a suggestion: “Regardons le film”, “Allons à la fête”.

There is a past imperative, which is rarely used, and expresses the anteriority of a command, relative to an action that hasn’t yet occurred “Aie sorti le gâteau du four avant l’arrivée des invitées”.

Impersonal Modes

Participles, gerundives and infinitives are not conjugated and have one part in their present tense forms and two in their past tense forms. The two parts of their past tenses consist of an auxiliary verb in its participle, gerundive, or infinitive form and the past participle of the French verb that is being used to convey action.

compare:

réfléchissantayant réfléchi
en réfléchissanten ayant réfléchi
réfléchiravoir réfléchi

Participles are often used to modify subjects, gerundives show cause and effect as well as simultaneous action, and infinitives allow events within one sentence to be placed in a chronology. These can be used in either past or present tense forms.

“Elle regardait par la fenêtre, réfléchissant sur les événements de la journée. Ayant fini ce dont elle avait besoin de faire, elle pouvait enfin se reposer.”

“C’est en réfléchissant sur le problème qu’il arrive à trouver une solution. En s’étant posé plusieurs questions, il réussit à trouver un compromis.”

“Ils seront bien contents d’avoir réfléchi sur la situation avant de prendre une décision.”

These sentences allow the focus to fall upon the main action within a sentence, while also showing other contributing factors to the situation that is being described, such as the means by which something is accomplished, or the source of a resulting action.

Learning tenses in French may seem like a large endeavor, so it is a good idea to approach them categorically. And while they might seem complex, they are part of a system, so learning the overarching logic to each tense and their relationships to one another will help when learning all the details.


Knowing and mastering French tenses can be challenging. However, the more you use them, the clearer you'll be. Glossika shows you how verbs are conjugated in different French tenses in real-life conversations. Instead of trying to memorize all the conjugated verbs, get used to seeing them and recognize them in full-sentences. Our spaced repetition training builds up your understanding of French grammar by familiarizing you little by little with various sentence structures and patterns.

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