Verbs are probably the most daunting thing for French learners. This bad reputation is partly due to the fact that there is more than 20 verb tenses in French. It may seem overly complex, but luckily, we only use about 8 tenses in normal life, so let's break it down with some examples.
The everyday French verbs' landscape is made of the following tenses: le présent, l’imparfait, le passé composé, le futur simple, le conditionnel présent, le conditionnel passé, le subjonctif and l’impératif.
First of all, let's not worry about plus-que-parfait, passé antérieur, and passé simple. They are not trendy anymore. You will meet passé simple only in books (and, chances are, will hate it for that!) Secondly, keep in mind that most French verb tenses don't have an exact matching counterpart in English, so try to see them anew, with no prejudice.
Let's start with the easiest one, le présent. It's used mainly for 3 situations:
1) To describe an action happening right now.
J'écris un article.
I write / I'm writing an article.
Unlike in English, there is only verb tense for the present. (To get the "I'm writing" effect, we built our sentences like this:
Subject + "to be" in the présent tense + "en train de" + the verb wanted in the infinitive form.
Je suis en train d'écrire un article.
I'm in the process of writing an article.
2) To tell a general fact / universal truth.
Ex: Les chats aiment dormir.
Cats like to sleep.
Ex: Il fait beau en été.
The weather is nice in summer.
3) To state a current habit
Ex: Je lis les nouvelles sur internet tous les jours.
I read news online every day
Now, let's move on to the past. In French, it's declined in 2 verb tenses: le passé composé and l'imparfait. Choosing which one to use is not so easy, but hopefully, it will be less of a nightmare in a minute.
Le passé composé
is made of 2 parts (that's what its name implies): the first bit is the verb "to be" or "to have" in the présent tense and the second bit is the actual verb you want to conjugate, in its participe passé form (rest assured, that sounds more complicated that it is). Of the 2 verb tenses for the past, it's the one we use the most, so in doubt, my advice is pick passé composé. It's useful for:
1) isolated facts
It's great for stating something and then moving on to a different topic of conversation. When a story is told in passé composé, there is no suspense. The reader knows immediately everything is now fine or back to normal.
Ex: Il a plu hier.
It was raining yesterday.
2) something finished
The length of the action is not important in itself, as long as it's finished.
Ex: J'ai étudié à l'université Laval pendant 4 ans.
I studied at University Laval for 4 years.
is considered easier to conjugate but is harder to apply correctly. Unlike passé composé, it's more dramatic. When I tell a story that way, the reader doesn't know if the ending will be good or bad. Here are 5 cases where imparfait is used:
1) to mention lost habits - "I used to"
Ex: J'avais l'habitude de prendre le bus.
I used to take the bus.
Ex: Quand j'étais jeune…
When I was young…
2) to tell a story, to explain something.
However, in a normal conversation, a sentence with only one verb in imparfait doesn't work if it's not followed with more sentences. Since there is a drama unfolding, the other person will want to know "and then what?" If you don't wish to add anything, use passé composé.
Ex: Il pleuvait hier alors je suis restée à la maison.
It was raining yesterday so I stayed at home.
3) to express a conditional action.
This type of sentence often starts with the word "if".
Beware: the resulting action (the second part of that kind of sentences) will not be in imparfait (more about that below).
Ex: Si je partais maintenant, je pourrais aller au restaurant.
If I was leaving now, I could go to the restaurant.
4) to talk about an action that didn't happen or is likely to not happen after all.
"I was going to/I was supposed to" covers it best. It's often used with verbs like vouloir (to want), devoir (to must do something) and aller (to go).
Ex: Je devais finir mes devoirs.
I was supposed to finish my homework.
It may seem weird, but French speakers can talk about the past of a future that will never happen. To explain this, let's look at a detail of the picture in this article: we see a man walking toward a mountain, but having met someone, he may or may not follow his original plan. So, when the woman asks, "Where are you going?", he may describe his former plan in imparfait. That will let her know he would be open to other suggestions. Hence why the word "imparfait" is pinned in an area where future should be. Consider it a potential dead end.
I was going to the mountain.
5) to portray a fact fixed in time for dramatic poetic or historic effect. This is like looking at a photo: something is described frozen in mid-air. It's used in novels and documentaries.
Ex: Un enfant parlait à sa mère. Un autre jouait en silence.
A kid was talking to his mother. Another one was playing in silence.
Now a tricky bit: If 2 actions happen at the same time, we will use imparfait and passé composé together. One action (the longest time duration, or the one that happened first) will be in imparfait, and the other (the shortest time duration) will be in passé composé.
In the picture, "walking" was both done first and lasted quite some time, whereas the action of "meeting" lasts only a second (before it transforms into another action).
A man was walking when he met a woman.
Le futur is very much like the future tense in English, except that we don't simply tag a translation of the word "will" in front of everything, we actually conjugate the whole verb.
Ex: L'homme parlera à la femme.
The man will talk to the woman.
You might have heard of "near future". It's not an actual verb tense as such, more like a popular habit because it's easy and it involves no R to pronounce. It also mimics the English "I will …" style: Conjugate the verb aller in the présent tense and tack an infinitive verb afterwards.
Ex: L'homme va parler à la femme.
The man will talk to the woman.
We've now explored half of the verb tenses I was set to explain today. Well done! It's seems like a lot to take in in one go. Feel free to take a break and come back a bit later for the second half. (Tea, anyone?)
If you are ready for more, let's continue.
L'impératif is used to give "orders". It's an easy verb tense. It's the only verb tense where we don't use subjects (like je, tu, il, etc.) and it's only declined in 3 form. For example, a verb like marcher (to walk) would be:
- Marche ! Walk! - this is talking casually to one person.
- Marchons ! This is said to a group and the action will be performed by the leader, too.
- Marchez ! This is said to a singular person in the polite form; it's the royal 'we'. The leader won't perform the action with the group.
Come with me!
Le conditionnel comes in 2 verb tenses: présent and passé. They are both conditionnal, but one is about past things and the other is about future things.
Le conditonnel présent
is used in 2 situations:
1) for an action that could happen
(real potential situation - could / should)
Ex: Je pourrais escalader une montage.
I could climb a mountain.
2) to express a wish
(uncertain future - would)
Ex: L'homme aimerait escalader la montagne.
The man would like to climb the mountain.
Now another tricky bit: Remember when I said the first part of a sentence starting with "if" would be in imparfait? Well, the second part, the resulting action, will be in conditionnel présent.
In the picture, to continue walking is the conditional action but it's expressed in imparfait. Only the resulting action, climbing the mountain, should be in conditionnel présent. Make sence?
If he continued, he could climb the mountain.
Le conditionnel passé
is about things that could have happened but didn't. Unlike conditionnel présent, this time, it's too late to make it happen. Think of it as the past of a parallel life. In English, there is a good expression for it: "crying over spilled milk".
Ex: L'homme aurait pu explorer la forêt.
The man could have explored the forest.
This brings me neatly to our pièce de résistance, the nightmare inducing subjonctif. As it doesn't exist in English, it will require some training at first, but it's not as bad as you think. First of all, you need to know it always has the word que (that) tacked in front of it (or qu' if it's used with il or elle). Now let's see 3 cases where you'd use it:
1) When stating an action needs to be done
Usually, this kind of sentence starts with il faut que… (It's necessary to ... / XYZ need to …)
Ex: Il faut que j'ailles en ville.
I need to go to town.
2) When expressing a feeling or a wish about a future action, the future action is in subjonctif.
With verbs such as aimer, préférer, souhaiter, espérer and vouloir, what follows is often in subjonctif.
Ex: J'aimerais que tu viennes avec moi
I would like you to come with me.
3) When expressing a feeling about someone else's action, that action is in subjonctif.
With a state of mind such as Je suis triste que.. (I'm sad that…), Je suis surpris que… (I'm surprised that…) what follows is often in subjonctif. This can be useful when gossiping!
Ex: Je suis content que tu puisses venir.
I'm glad you can come.
As subjonctif seems to spring from feelings, obligations and wishes, I've pinned it on the guy's heart, but I could have pinned it on his head too. On a timeline, it's neither in the past nor in the future in itself, even though it may regard things in the present or in the future.
I'm glad you are here.
Let's recapitulate quickly
In short, this is what a French timeline would look like:
|an action happening right now||présent|
|a general truth||présent|
|a habit (still ongoing)||présent|
|a lost habit||imparfait|
|an action that is likely to not happen after all||imparfait|
|an action from the past, something isolated and finished||passé composé|
|an action that lasted for a long while but in now over||passé composé|
|an action that happened at the same time as something else||imparfait + passé composé|
|an action that will happen in the future||futur|
|an action that could, should or would happen||conditionnel passé|
|a wish||conditionnel présent|
|an action that could have happened but didn't||conditionnel présent|
|a strong suggestion, an order||impératif|
|an action preceded by “I need to...” (il faut que), or “I would like you to...”||subjonctif|
I hope you find it both useful and not too hard to digest! Please feel free to "like" it (the button is the little thumb up icon on top of the page) and have a look at my other articles! There is one on general grammar and pronunciation tips (Getting the Hang of 7 French Quirks), one on difficult words to translate (Empty Words and Can-of-worms words: translating "Do" and "About"), one on False Friends (False Friends: Watch out for these Words ) one on Genders (Gender Obsession in French, Chivalry or Burden?) and finally one On the Danger of Using Online Translators.
All images illustrated by the author