Forms & Uses of the Conditional
Table of Contents
I. Formation of the Conditional
A. Present Conditional
The conditional present is formed like the future, that is, using the infinitive as the stem, just as the future does, but with different endings from those of the future.
|Infinitive Stem||Future endings 1||Conditional Endings 2|
|e.g., donner||-ai [e]||-ais [ɛ]|
|-as [a]||-ais [ɛ]|
|-a [a]||-ait [ɛ]|
|-ons [õ]||-ions [jõ]|
|-ez [e]||-iez [je]|
|-ont [õ]||-aient [ɛ]|
Compare the results for the future and conditional:
|donner + ai > donnerai||donner + ais > donnerais|
|donner + as > donneras||donner + ais > donnerais|
|donner + a > donnera||donner + ait > donnerait|
|donner + ons > donnerons||donner + ions > donnerions|
|donner + ez > donnerez||donner + iez > donneriez|
|donner + ont > donneront||donner + aient > donneraient|
Pronunciation & Spelling
1. In pronunciation of either tense, the close [e] of the –er infinitive ending changes to an e caduc [ə] (which when possible will not be pronounced at all). Listen to the audio files in Tex’s French Grammar Simple Future and Conditional.
2. As with the future, when an infinitive ends in an -re, the e will be dropped, such that the sign of either future or future or conditional is the presence of the r of the infinitive ending immediately before the personal ending.
Conditional, -re Verbs: -re > r’ + imperfect ending
- rendre > rendr’ + ais > rendrais
- boire > boir’ + ais > boirais
3. Also as with the future, the infinitive used as the stem will occasionally be slightly altered–
- avoir > aur-
- vouloir > voudr-
- faire > fer-
- essayer > essaier-
or, in two cases, replaced–
- être > ser-
- aller > ir-
–but in all cases it will end in an r.
B. Past Conditional
The past conditional is a compound tense made up of the auxiliary verb (avoir or être) in the present conditional, plus the past participle of the meaning-verb.
|Ordinary Verb||Verb of the House o’ Being||Pronominal Verb|
|j’aurais donné||je serais tombé(e)||je me serais couché(e)|
|tu aurais donné||tu serais tombé(e)||tu te serais couché(e)|
|il/elle/on aurait donné||elle serait tombée||elle se serait couchée|
|nous aurions donné||nous serions tombé(e)s||nous nous serions couché(e)s|
|vous auriez donné||vous seriez tombé(e)(s)||vous vous seriez couché(e)(s)|
|ils/elles auront donné||elles seraient tombées||elles se seraient couchées|
II. Uses of the Conditional
A. Future in the Past
This was undoubtedly the original use of the conditional, since the French conditional is in fact a future with imperfect endings. It occurs in “secondary (OR historical) sequence,” as in the following cases.
- Je viendrai demain. (I will come tomorrow.)
- (primary sequence): « Qu’est-ce qu’il dit? —Il dit qu’il viendra demain. » (“What is he saying?” “He says that he will come tomorrow.”)
- (secondary sequence): « Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit? —Il a dit qu’il viendrait demain. » (“What did he say?” “He said that he would come tomorrow.”)
- Viendra-t-il avec nous? (Will he come with us?)
- (primary sequence:) Je veux savoir s’il viendra avec nous. (I want to know if he will come with us.)
- (secondary sequence:) Je voulais savoir s’il viendrait avec nous. (I wanted to know if he would come with us.)
Note that, in the example above, si means “if” in the sense of “whether.” It is the “si/if” that introduces an indirect question, not the “si/if” that introduces a condition.
B. Conditional Sentences
There are three basic kinds of conditional sentences. The conditional tenses are used in only two of them (contrary-to-fact present and past), and only in the “consequence,” that is the main clause, of the sentence.
1. Simple Hypothesis
Construction: Si (= If) + present / Alors (= then) + future
- S’il est là, (alors) je parlerai avec lui.
(If he is there, [then] I will speak with him.)
2. Present Contrary-To-Fact 3
Construction: Si (= If) + imperfect / Alors (= then) + conditional present
- S’il était là, (alors) je parlerais avec lui.
(If he were [If he should be] there, [then] I would speak with him.)
3. Past Contrary-to-Fact
Construction: Si (= If) + pluperfect / Alors (= then) + conditional past
- S’il avait été là, (alors) j’aurais parlé avec lui.
(If he had been there, [then] I would have spoken with him.)
For more examples, see Examples of Conditional Sentences.
C. The Polite Expression of Desires
- Je voudrais une tasse de thé. (I would like a cup of tea.)
- Pourriez-vous m’aider? (Could you help me?)
D. To Report What Somebody Else Has Said
In the above three uses of the conditional, English and French differ very little. But the fourth use in French has no equivalent in English. It serves to disassociate the speaker from what is being said. In English we express the same thing with an adverbial phrase (such as “allegedly, supposedly, according to what people say”).
- Monsieur X serait l’homme le plus riche de la ville. (Mr X / is supposedly / is said to be / the richest man in the city.)
- Les pirates auraient caché leur butin dans cette île. (The pirates supposedly hid their booty on this island.)
A related use of the conditional is to increase the dubitative or mirative element in a question.
- Estelle n’est pas encore ici. Pourtant, elle savait bien que nous avions rendez-vous. Où serait-elle? (Estelle isn’t here yet. And yet she knew that we were to meet. Where could she possibly be?)
The Professor’s Rule for Translating Ne saurait
Just as devoir in the conditional (see the files on devoir) has a special meaning, so does savoir. Please learn and apply the Professor’s Rule for Translating Ne saurait!—
Translate ne saurait as “could never” or “couldn’t possibly”
This usage is connected to one of the basic possible meanings of savoir when followed by an infinitive, namely, “to be able to” in the sense of “to know how to.”
- Nos alliés ne sauraient commettre une telle injustice. (Our allies / could never / couldn’t possibly / commit such an injustice. (= Our allies would not know [ever in a million years] how to…)
Note in the above the absence of the negative particle pas. See the file Ne Without PAS.
III. A Use Too Far: the Concessive Conditional
You may not want to learn yet about the somewhat strange concessive conditional, all the more so because it goes against the rule I give you above in II.B.2 (the Second Kind of Conditional Sentence). However, I am confident that ultimately you will realize you do not want to be without it. When you feel ready, do the following:
See the French Language File French Concessions Part V. Concessive Même Si and Quand (Bien) (Même).
- These endings come from the present of the verb avoir: ai, as, a, avons, avez, ont.↩
- These endings come from the imperfect of the verb avoir: avais, avais, avait, avions, aviez, avaient.↩
- Or Future Less Vivid. This type of conditional sentence in French can refer to either an unreal present or an unlikely future (that is, a future less likely than in a Type I conditional sentence). In these two uses, it corresponds to the Latin Present Contrary-to-Fact and Future Less Vivid. English, like French, tends not to distinguish these two uses clearly.↩
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