The ultimate guide to the French conditional

The conditional is one of the most important French tenses and one you have probably already used without realizing.

A common example of French phrase using the conditional is Je voudrais un croissant s’il vous plait, I would like a croissant please.

Like “would” in English, the conditional has a few different tenses.

Let’s take a closer look!

What is the French conditional tense?

The wing of an airplane, flying in a partly cloudy sky at sunset or early morning.

The conditional is a tense – or, for strict grammarians, a mood – that implies a hypothetical or a wish. The word “would” has the same function in English, which makes the French conditional tense a lot easier to use than you might expect.

There are three conditional tenses in French. Here are the names they’re most commonly given, although you will come across other, similar names for them from time to time, as well:

The present conditional (le conditionnel présent)

Often simply called the conditional (le conditionnel), since this is the conditional tense we use the most often. This tense is the equivalent of “would” in English.

Ex: Si nous avions un peu d’argent, nous partirions en vacances. (If we had a little money, we’d go on vacation.)

The past conditional 1 (le conditionnel passé première forme)

Often just called the past conditional. This is the second most-used conditional tense. This tense is the equivalent of “would have” in English.

Ex: Si nous avions eu un peu d’argent, nous serions partis en vacances. (If we had had a little bit of money, we would have gone on vacation.)

The past conditional 2 (le conditionnel passé deuxième forme)

This is a rarely used conditional tense that is mostly found in very formal or older literature. It is not used in everyday speech and writing in contemporary French. Like the past conditional 1, this tense is also the equivalent of “would have” in English, but again, it’s very rarely used and is never used in everyday speech or informal writing.

Ex: Si nous avions eu un peu d’argent, nous fussions partis en vacances. (If we had had a little bit of money, we would have gone on vacation.)

We’ll look at the two past conditional tenses a bit further on, but first, let’s get into the present conditional.

How to conjugate the French present conditional tense

With the exception of irregular and stem-changing verbs (more on those in the next section), putting a verb into the conditional in French is really easy! You just add a short ending to the verb’s infinitive form – et voilà!

For instance, to put parler into the present conditional tense, you would just add the conditional ending that goes with the subject. Let’s say you want to say “I would speak”. That would be the infinitive, parler, plus the conditional ending for je, -ais: je parlerais.

Here’s some good news – the endings for the French present conditional are the same as the endings for the passé imparfait tense, so if you know those, you’ve already got the present conditional endings memorized, too!

Here are the French present conditional endings:

SubjectPresent Conditional Ending
je-ais
tu -ais
il/elle/on -ait
nous -ions
vous -iez
ils/elles -aient

For example, here is the regular -er verb penser conjugated in the present conditional tense:

je penserais
tu penserais
il/elle/on penserait
nous penserions
vous penseriez
ils/elles penseraient

As you can see, the verb is kept in its infinitive and the endings are added. The same rule goes for -ir verbs.

To put -re verbs into the conditional tense, you still follow the rule of keeping the verb in its infinitive. But in this case, you drop the “e”, so that this vowel and the vowel of the conditional ending aren’t smashed together.

For instance, here’s the regular -re verb attendre conjugated in the present conditional:

j’attendrais
tu attendrais
il/elle/on attendrait
nous attendrions
vous attendriez
ils/elles attendraient

Irregular and stem-changing verbs in the present conditional

A woman looks at clothes in a small shop with racks of shirts, dresses, and pants, and what looks like a makeshift dressing room constructed of a sort of tent of white cloth.
Elle achèterait toute la boutique si elle le pouvait !

As a rule, any verb whose stem changes when it’s in the future tense will also change when forming the conditional tense.

For instance, être (to be) becomes the root ser- in the future tense. For example: Il sera content. (He will be happy.) This stem is also used with conditional tenses:  Il serait content. (He would be happy.)

It’s hard to find a complete list of all French stem-changing verbs, but the most common ones include:

  • être — ser-
  • avoir — aur–
  • aller —  ir
  • faire — fer-
  • savoir — saur-
  • voir — verr-
  • devoir – devr-
  • envoyer- enverr-
  • appeler – apeller-
  • falloir – faudr
  • vouloir – voudr-
  • pouvoir – pourr
  • valoir – vaudr-
  • tenir – tiendr-

In addition to stem-changing verbs, there are some verbs whose stems are irregular.

For instance, the verb acheter’s stem has an accent grave: achèter-, so if we conjugate it in the present conditional for the third-person singular, it’s: Elle achèterait tout la boutique si elle le pouvait ! (She’d buy the whole shop if she could!)

This very helpful list list includes some additional irregular and stem-changing verbs and verb groups.

These stem-changing and irregular verbs may seem intimidating, but once you’re familiar with them (and maybe you are already, if you’ve studied the future tense), you’ll see that they’re also very easy to conjugate in the present conditional. As with regular verbs, just add the conditional ending to the stem.

Here are two examples:

être in the present conditional  
je serais
tu serais
il/elle/on serait
nous serions
vous seriez
ils/elles seraient
avoir in the present conditional
j’aurais
tu aurais
il/elle/on aurait
nous aurions
vous auriez
ils/elles auraient

If you’re wondering about reflexive verbs, they’re pretty straightforward, too. To conjugate a reflexive verb in the conditional, just add the reflexive pronoun. For example: On s’amuserait. (We would have fun.)

When to use the conditional tense

The waves of the ocean gently reach the beach. The sun is setting in the sky. In the distance we see the vague forms of a few people walking into the water.
Si j’habitais à la plage, je nagerais dans la mer tous les jours.

Now that you know how to conjugate the French present conditional tense, you may be wondering when exactly to use it.

Remember that the conditional tense is the equivalent of “would” in English. So in most cases, if you’d use “would” with a verb in English, it will also be in the conditional in French.

More specifically, as in English, you use the conditional tense in French:

● to talk about a hypothetical situation

Example:

À sa place, je serais ravie. (If I were him, I would be thrilled (about it.))

● to talk about a wish or dream

Example:

J’aimerais tellement le voir ! (I would so love to see it/him!)

● with an “if” clause, if the other verb is conjugated in the passé imparfait.

Examples:

J’irais si je le pouvais. (I would go if I could.)

Si c’était le cas, je te le dirais. (If that were the case, I would tell you.)

Si j’habitais à la plage, je nagerais dans la mer tous les jours. (If I lived by the beach, I’d go swimming in the ocean every day.)

● to describe something someone said.

Example:

Elle a dit qu’elle passerait nous voir aujourd’hui. (She said she would come by to see us today.)

● to be very polite

Some verbs can be used in the conditional to show politeness. The most common of these is vouloir. For this reason, you may already know how to conjugate vouloir in the conditional without realizing it, since you may have learned a few polite phrases in your French classes or lessons!

Examples:

Je voudrais la salade niçoise, s’il vous plait. (I’d like the salade niçoise, please.)

Il voudrait un billet aller-retour pour Strasbourg, et je voudrais un aller-simple. (He’d like a roundtrip ticket to Strasbourg and I’d like a one-way, please.)

Voudriez-vous autre chose, madame ?  (Would you like anything else, madame/ma’am?)

Again, as a general rule, remember that in most cases when you’d use “would” in English, you’d make that a conditional verb in French. One exception is when talking about habitual past actions – in this case, that would be the passé imparfait. For instance, “He would go to the pool every afternoon.” is: Il allait à la piscine tous les après-midis.

How to make the present conditional negative

We see the head and neck of a golden retriever in profile. His tongue is out and he looks upward, maybe lovingly at his human companion.
Il ne te trahirait jamais.

Now that you  know how to conjugate and use the present conditional, you may be wondering how to make it negative.

To make the present conditional negative, just place nepas or another negative phrase around the verb.

For example:

Il a dit qu’il ne viendrait pas. (He said he wouldn’t come.)

À ta place je ne l’achèterais pas. (If I were you, I wouldn’t buy it.)

Il ne te trahirait jamais. (He would never betray you.)

To make a reflexive verb negative in the present conditional, follow the rules for reflexive verbs in general and put the negative words before and after the reflexive pronoun and the verb.

For instance: Si nous gardions la fenêtre fermée, le chat ne se s’échapperait pas. (If we kept the window shut, the cat wouldn’t get out.)

How to form a question with the French present conditional tense

Woman's hand holds and old-fashoined looking white china teapot printed with flowers. Hot water pours from it into a white china teacup with a teabag in it. Everything is on a white lace tablecloth.

The two most common ways you can form a question with the present conditional tense are:

Inverting the verb and subject

For example:

Voudriez-vous du thé ? (Would you like some tea?)

You can also add a question word to this structure. For instance, here’s a very common conditional question you’ll come across:

Que feriez-vous ?  (What would you do?)

Here are some additional examples:

Pensait-t-elle qu’il viendrait ? (Did she think he would come?)

Auriez-vous un stylo ? (Would you happen to have a pen?)

Keep in mind that inversion is generally a fairly formal way to ask a question, and using it with the conditional tense, which is often used for politeness, makes it extra polite, so it may not be the best option in informal situations or with friends.

Using inflection or a question mark at the end of a conditional statement

If the previous method seems a little complicated, especially if you’re just learning the conditional and want to take some time to wrap your head around that, there’s good news: using inflection or adding a question mark is another, easier way to make a conditional statement a question.

In other words, raise your voice at the end of a statement to make it a question. Or, if it’s in writing, add a question mark to it.

For example, instead of Voudriez-vous du thé ?, you could say (or write) Vous voudriez du thé ?  

Keep in mind that vouloir in the conditional tense is still fairly formal and polite, so this may be the one case where it’s a little better to use inversion, but still, inflection or adding a question mark would get the job done.

You could compare the difference in these two methods as “Would you care for some tea?” being the equivalent of inversion and “Would you like some tea?” being the equivalent of inflection.

But in pretty much any other case, inflection is just a slightly less formal way to use the conditional.

For instance,

Elle pensait qu’il vendrait ? (She thought he would come?)

Vous auriez un stylo ? (Do you have a pen?)

Feel free to check out our article on forming questions in French to learn more about these and other structures.

How to say “should” in French

The French conditional is the equivalent of “would” in English. But what happens when “would” is paired with a verb like “must”? That’s why in the conditional, the verb devoir translates to “should”.

For instance:

Je devrais l’appeler. (I should call him.)

Nous ne devrions pas rester trop tard. (We shouldn’t stay too late.)

To learn more about the verb devoir and its meanings in different tenses, feel free to check our article on the subject.  

How to say “could” in French

Just as the verb devoir translates to “should” in its conditional form, the verb pouvoir translates to “could:.

Of course, this “could” isn’t the same as talking about an ability in the past (that would be the translation of pouvoir in past tenses), but rather a possibility or hypothetical situation.

For instance:

Si j’étais riche, je pourrais acheter un jet privé pour mon chat. (If I were rich I could buy a private jet for my cat.)

Feel free to check out our article to learn more about the verb pouvoir and its meanings in different tenses.

 How to use the French past conditional 1

As I explained earlier in this article, there are two other conditional tenses in French, the past conditional 1 (le conditionnel passé première forme) and the past conditional 2 (le conditionnel passé deuxième forme).

We use the past conditional 2 so rarely that you’ll often see the past conditional 1 simply called “the past conditional”.

Like the present conditional, the past conditional 1 has a direct translation in English. While the present conditional is the equivalent of “would” in English, the past conditional 1 is the equivalent of “would have”.

How to form the past conditional 1

Closeup of a white dress on a hanger. the top part is white lace with a red lining around the chest. The skirt is white tulle.
Si la robe avait été moins chère, je l’aurais achetée.

To form the past conditional 1:

1. Conjugate the auxiliary verb (either être or avoir) in the present conditional that goes with the subject. (If you want to practice or review conjugating être and avoir in the present conditional, you can go back to the conjugation tables included earlier in this article.)

2. Add the participle of the verb. (Note that if the verb is conjugated with être, this participle will have to agree in gender and number with the subject.)

For instance, here’s an example of the regular avoir verb parler in the past conditional 1:

parler in the past conditional 1
j’aurais parlé
tu aurais parlé
il/elle/on aurait parlé
nous aurions parlé
vous auriez parlé
ils/elles auraient parlé

And here’s the regular verb entrer, which is conjugated with être, in the past conditional 1. Remember that when a verb has être as its auxiliary, its participle will have to agree in gender and number with the subject.

entrer in the past conditional 1
je serais entré(e)
tu serais entré(e)
il/elle/on serait  entré(e)
nous serions entré(e)s
vous seriez entré(e)(s)
ils/elles seraient entré(e)s

Here are some sentences with verbs in the past conditional 1.

As you’ll notice, like the present conditional, the past conditional 1 is often used with “if” clauses. In this case, it’s paired with the pluperfect (avoir or être in the passé imparfait plus the past participle):

Si la robe avait été moins chère, je l’aurais achetée. (If the dress had been less expensive, I would have bought it.)

Ils seraient venus s’ils avaient été invités. (They would have come if they’d been invited.)

As you can see, one good thing about the past conditional 1 is that you don’t have to worry about changing and irregular conditional verb stems – except for être and avoir – since you only need the participle.

To conjugate a reflexive verb in the past conditional 1, just add the reflexive pronoun. Since reflexive verbs are conjugated with the auxiliary être, remember to make the participle agree with the subject in gender and number. For example: Nous nous serions amusés. (We would have had fun.)

How to make the past conditional 1 negative

To make the past conditional 1 negative, place the negative words (ne…pas; ne…personne; ne…jamais, etc.) around the conjugated auxiliary verb.

For example:

Même si la robe avait été moins chère, je ne l’aurais pas achetée. (Even if the dress had been less expensive, I wouldn’t have bought it.)

S’ils avaient été invités, ils ne seraient pas venus. (If they had been invited, they wouldn’t have come.)

When making a reflexive verb in the past conditional 1 negative, follow the rules for reflexive verbs in general: Put the negative words between the reflexive pronoun and the auxiliary.

For instance: Si nous avions gardé la fenêtre fermée, le chat ne se serait pas échappé. (If we had kept the window closed, the cat wouldn’t have gotten out.)

How to form questions with the past conditional 1

Silhouettes of people dancing in a club or basement party
Seraient-ils venus s’ils avaient été invités ?

As with the present conditional, two typical ways to form questions with the past conditional 1 are inversion and inflection/adding a question mark.

For instance:

Seraient-ils venus s’ils avaient été invités ?

 Ils seraient venus s’ils avaient été invités ?

(Would they have come if they’d been invited?)

How to say “should have” in French

One of the most common ways you’ll see the past conditional 1 used is to express the equivalent of “should have” (or, in its negative form, shouldn’t have) in French.

In French, “should have” is formed by using the verb devoir (must)  in the past conditional 1 tense: avoir + dû. Then, the verb that describes the action in question is added in its infinitive.

For example:

J’aurais dû acheter la robe. (I should have bought the dress.)

Ils auraient dû venir. (They should have come.)

Tu n’aurais pas dû dire ça. (You shouldn’t have said that.)

Nous n’aurions pas dû amener nos lunettes de soleil. (We shouldn’t have brought our sunglasses.)

How to say “could have” in French

Some verbs, like devoir, change their meaning a bit when they’re in the past conditional. Pouvoir is another common one. In in its past conditional 1, conjugation, avoir + pu, the verb pouvoir becomes “could have”.

For example:

Elle n’aurait pas pu venir plus tôt. (She couldn’t have come sooner.)

What is the past conditional  2?

The aisles of a bookstore

The past conditional  2 (le conditionnel passé deuxième forme) has exactly the same meaning as the past conditional 1;  it’s an equivalent of the English “would have”.

So, why are there two past conditional tenses that mean the same thing but are different?

Like a few other verb tenses in French, the past conditional 2 is a literary tense. This means that you’ll come across it in literature – especially older works or highly formal, academic writing – and extremely formal documents and the like, but you won’t use it in everyday spoken or written French. And many modern French literary works won’t include it, either, for that matter.

With this in mind, when it comes to the past conditional 2, it’s good to be able to recognize it, but you probably won’t have to use it.

How to form and use the French past conditional 2

The past conditional 2 follows the same basic conjugation formula as the past conditional 1:the auxiliary avoir or être conjugated in a past tense, followed by the past participle of the verb. But in the case of the past conditional 2, avoir or être is conjugated in the pluperfect subjunctive form.

For this reason, even many French native speakers have trouble recognizing the past conditional 2, confusing it with one of the subjunctive tenses.

If this has left your head spinning, don’t worry about it! Remember, you only have to recognize the past conditional  2. Even if you can’t precisely identify it, your knowledge of other verb tenses, like the conditional, as well as the context of what you’re reading, will probably make it easy to understand. Trust me.

here’s an example of the regular avoir verb parler in the past conditional 2:

parler in the past conditional 2
j’eusse parlé
tu eusses parlé
il/elle/on eût parlé
nous eussions parlé
vous eussiez parlé
ils/elles eussent parlé

And here’s the regular verb entrer, which is conjugated with être, in the past conditional 2. Remember that when verbs have être as an auxiliary, their participle will have to agree in gender and number with the subject.

entrer in the past conditional 2
je fusse entré(e)
tu fusses entré(e)
il/elle/on fût  entré(e)
nous fussions entré(e)s
vous fussiez entré(e)(s)
ils/elles fussent entré(e)s

To make the past conditional 2 negative, put the negative words around the auxiliary verb (avoir or être). For instance: Je n’eusse pas parlé (I would not have spoken) and Je ne fusse pas entré (I would not have entered/gone in).

Again, this rule also applies to other negative word pairs. For instance: Je ne fusse jamais entré (I would never have entered/gone in).

Since conditional tenses are often used in “if” clauses, you may be wondering which tense the past conditional 2 is paired with.

Interestingly, while the past conditional 2 is a bit complex in terms of its influences and formation, it’s simply paired with a verb conjugated in the the pluperfect (avoir or être in the passe imparfait + the past participle), just like verbs in the past conditional 1.

So, these two sentences mean the same thing:

S’il avait été là, j’eusse aimé lui parler.

S’il avait été là, j’aurais aimé lui parler.

Translation: If he had been there, I would have liked to talk to him.

The difference is that the first sentence, with one of its verbs in the past conditional 2,  is something you’d come across in extremely formal, literary writing, while the second sentence, with one of its verbs in the past conditional 1, is something you’d come across in most contemporary French writing and pretty much all spoken French today.

So, know how to recognize that first sentence, but know how to use the second one!

Do you have to know how to use the French conditional tense?

A group of people, seen from behind or in blurred focus, sit talking at a table with drinks and what looks like either finished plates or plates about to be filled

With the exception of the past conditional 2, which you only have to recognize, you do have to know how to use the French present conditional and past conditional 1.

After all, it would be hard to fluently express yourself and understand things in English if you couldn’t use “would” and “would have”, right?

The good news is that the present conditional and past conditional 1 really are similar in usage to “would” and “would have” in English, so it will be easier to integrate them into your French than some other tenses.

How can I practice the French conditional?

The more you read and listen to French, the more you’ll be exposed to the present conditional, since it’s used fairly often.

If you want to practice using the French conditional tenses, you can do an online search for terms like “French conditional exercises”. A course like French Together will also offer exercises that feature the conditional.

And if you’re feeling playful, type the phrase “Que feriez-vous si” (What would you do if) into your search engine of choice. The autoresponses that come up will give you questions you can answer in the conditional. You can check your answers by looking up the correct conditional conjugation for the verb(s) you used in your answer.


I hope that now you feel more comfortable using the French conditional tenses. After all, what “would” we do without them?

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.