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This is an overview of French Tenses. You may not be using all of them (Passé Simple, for example, which is used in literature) but at least you will have them. Many students don't note the difference in English that help identify the tense.
LES TEMPS -- FRENCH TENSES
Where form is concerned, French has three types of tenses: les temps simples (the simple tenses), les temps composés (the compound tenses), les temps surcomposés (the double compound tenses).
The simple tenses are those which do not rely on an auxiliary, consisting of only a conjugated verb, which points to a mood, a moment in time, a person and a number. The simple tenses are always in the active voice. However, although the passive voice is generally a compound tense, there is a simple tense in the passive voice which consists of only a past participle (without the auxiliary).
The compound tenses, called in French "les temps composés", are composed of two verbs: an auxiliary (être/avoir), which may be in the present, imperfect, future, or conditional, in both the indicative or subjunctive, and a past participle, which may or may not be subject to agreement.
The double compound tenses are always in the past and do not really have an English equivalent; they may be translated as a compound tense. They are composed of an auxiliary (most often "avoir", rarely "être") and two past participles.
Let us look at all the French tenses in the indicative mood, beginning with the present tense and working our way through the various past tenses and then through the future tenses:
Présent -- Present
In a strict sense, the French present indicates that something is occurring as we speak. This is an instantaneous present:
J'écris en ce moment. I am writing at this moment.
In a larger sense and in a figurative sense, the present indicates:
1) something done on a regular basis and which, for living creatures, points to a psychological trait:
Ce chien mord. This dog bites.
2) a fact which happens to be true at any moment in time; it is referred to as "un présent intemporel" (a timeless present) and is used to express general truths, proverbs and maxims, facts based on experience, theorems, etc.
L'avarice perd tout en voulant tout gagner. Greed loses all in wanting to gain all.
Cinq et quatre font neuf. Five plus four equals nine.
Qui se ressemble s'assemble. Birds of a feather flock together.
3) a fact which relates to a recent past or near future:
Il vient dans une heure. He is coming in an hour.
J'arrive tout juste. I am just arriving (perhaps two hours ago)/
4) a future occurrence presented as a direct result of another:
Bouge d'un pas et tu meurs. Make a move and you die.
Crie encore une fois et je te giffle. Scream one more time and I'll slap you.
NOTE: Notice the use of the future in English, in the second example.
5) something which occurred in a distant past but which is presented as if it were occurring as it is being recounted. It is referred to as a historical present (présent historique) and is used by native speakers when recounting events in a book just read, for instance. It is the preferred tense when writing a critique, essay or book report on a literary work. In this respect French differs from English, which tends to recount in the past. In writing, French will often use a historical present to recount the main events or essential facts, reserving the past tense to speak about non-essential facts or supplementary information. Here is a paragraph discussing a scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, to illustrate how the historical present is used:
Le personnage principal, Randall Murphy, amène ses amis en bateau car il veut
leur faire goûter pendant quelques heures la liberté. Tout le monde s'est bien amusé
ce jour-là. Une fois revenus à l'institut, c'est la révolte.
The main character, Randaall Murphy, takes his friends out on a boat because he
wants them to get a taste of freedom for a few hours. Everyone had a lot of fun on
that day. Once they were back at the institute, a revolt ensued.
NOTE: In English, the last verb "ensued" is in the past, whereas in French, the verb (c'est) is in the present tense.
6) a future occurrence after a conditional IF clause in the present tense:
Si tu te dépêches, tu seras à l'heure. If you hurry, you will be on time.
NOTE: There is also what is called un "présent pittoresque" (picturesque present), which is similar to the historical present; it is used in relative clauses dependent upon a main clause in the past tense:
Jean est apparu dans la brume, maîtrisant son cheval qui s'effare.
John appeared in the fog, controlling his horse who is frightened.
Imparfait -- Imperfect
formation: The "nous" form of the Present Tense is the "root" for the Imperfect.
The imperfect refers to a continuous, repeated or habitual occurrence in the past, which, at the time of recounting, has not yet been completed. That is why it is called "imperfect", as opposed to the present perfect (passé composé), which refers to an action which occurred and was completed in the past, albeit at an indefinite moment in the past (more on that later). The imperfect shows an occurrence in the past; its initial phase is apparent, but its final phase is not.
The most important thing to retain about the imperfect is that there is no indication of a completed action in the past. Here are a few instances of the imperfect used in various circumstances:
1) un imparfait narratif, historique ou pittoresque, also called un imparfait de rupture ou de clôture (a narrative, historical or picturesque imperfect, also called an imperfect of rupture or closure), similar to the présent historique or présent pittoresque mentioned above. Here, the imperfect is used to show a "specific" moment in time; its use serves to liven the recounting and gives the illusion of description.
2) un imparfait d'atténuation ou de discrétion (an imperfect of attenuation or discretion), which is very similar to the conditional used in polite phrases. Instead of using a present tense, which considered too brutal, the imperfect is used:
Je voulais vous demander... I came / was coming to ask you...
Je venais voir si vous aviez fini... I came / was coming to see if you were finished...
3) un imparfait de conséquence infaillible (an imperfect of infallible consequence), used instead of the futur du passé, otherwise known as the present conditional (future in the past or present conditional):
Un pas de plus et elle était dans la rue. One more step and she was out on the road.
4) Si + imparfait hypothétique (a hypothetical imperfect in a conditional IF clause, followed by a present conditional in the main clause):
Si j'avais de l'argent, je payerais. If I had money, I would pay.
There are some grammarians who differentiate 9 different imperfects, but we will merely gloss over those, first of all, because not all grammarians agree with this breakdown, and also because, except for one or two instances, this breakdown is not really of any value to the student of French. The breakdown goes like this, with a few examples thrown in:
1) un imparfait d'habitude ou de répétition (an imperfect of habit or repetition):
Il se levait tous les jours. He got up (would get up) everyday at 7.
2) un imparfait de durée (an imperfect of duration):
Les citoyens romains regardaient le commerce et les arts comme des occupations d'esclaves.
The Roman citizens viewed commerce and the arts as occupations fit for slaves.
3) un imparfait de fausse simultanéité (an imperfect of false simultaneity), indicating a near future relative to a specific moment in the past:
Mes craintes se calmèrent car le secours arrivait.
My fears were allayed because help was arriving.
4) un imparfait de description (an imperfect of description), describing a state of mind or health, a state of things (weather), a physical mental description, etc.
Il neigeait. It was snowing.
Elles étaient tristes. They were sad.
J'avais mal à la tête. I had a headache.
Les nuages étaient lourds. The clouds were heavy.
Je ne pouvais plus parler. I could no longer speak.
5) un imparfait de progression (an imperfect of progression), constructed with "allait + present participle":
Le coût allait croissant. The cost kept rising.
6) un imparfait d'explication (an imperfect of explanation), elaborating upon an idea presented in the preceding clause or sentence:
Ils aperçurent enfin une lueur; c'était l'aube. They noticed at last a glow; it was dawn.
7) un imparfait du style indirect (an imperfect of indirect style), used after verbs like "dire", "promettre", etc.:
Jean est venu sonner à la porte; il partait pour six mois.
John came ringing at the door; he was leaving for six months.
8) un imparfait de cause (an imperfect of cause).
9) un imparfait de tentative (an imperfect of trial).
See also: The Imperfect vs. The Passé Composé.
Passé simple -- Simple Past or Preterite
formation: generally, drop infinitive verb endings (ER, IR, OIR, RE) and add appropriate passé simple endings:
endings for ER verbs: ai, as, a, âmes, âtes, èrent
(Remember: in front of a, o and u: c ---> ç, g ---> ge):
manger: je mangeai, tu mangeas, il mangea, nous mangeâmes, vous mangeâtes, ils mangèrent
placer: je plaçai, tu plaças, il plaça, nous plaçâmes, vous plaçâtes, ils placèrent
appeler: j'appelai, tu appelas, il appela, nous appelâmes, vous appelâtes, ils appelèrent
aller: j'allai, tu allas, il alla, nous allâmes, vous allâtes, ils allèrent
endings for most IR & RE verbs and a few OIR verbs: is, is, it, îmes, îtes, irent
exception: mourir (which takes the endings: us, us, ut, ûmes, ûtes, urent)
finir: je finis, tu finis, il finit, nous finîmes, vous finîtes, ils finirent
partir: je partis, tu partis, il partit, nous partîmes, vous partîtes, ils partirent
offrir: j'offris, tu offris, il offrit, nous offrîmes, vous offrîtes, ils offrirent
cueillir: je cueillis, tu cueillis, il cueillit, nous cueillîmes, vous cueillîtes, ils cueillirent
voir: je vis, tu vis, il vit, nous vîmes, vous vîtes, ils virent
asseoir: j'assis, tu assis, il assit, nous assîmes, vous assîtes, ils assirent
mourir: je mourus, tu mourus, il mourut, nous mourûmes, vous mourûtes, ils moururent
écrire: j'écris, tu écris, il écrit, nous écrîmes, vous écrîtes, ils écrirent
perdre: je perdis, tu perdis, il perdit, nous perdîmes, vous perdîtes, ils perdirent
Some verbs take the past participle (rather than the infinitive) as a root, most of which will have the following endings: us, us, ut, ûmes, ûtes, urent
exception: prendre (which takes the endings: is, is, it, îmes, îtes, irent):
prendre: je pris, tu pris, il prit, nous prîmes, vous prîtes, ils prirent
lire: je lus, tu lus, il lut, nous lûmes, vous lûtes, ils lurent
plaire: je plus, tu plus, il plut, nous plûmes, vous plûtes, ils plurent
croire: je crus, tu crus, il crut, nous crûmes, vous crûtes, ils crurent
vivre: je vécus, tu vécus, il vécut, nous vécûmes, vous vécûtes, ils vécurent
courir: je courus, tu courus, il courut, nous courûmes, vous courûtes, ils coururent
avoir: j'eus, tu eus, il eut, nous eûmes, vous eûtes, ils eurent
pouvoir: je pus, tu pus, il put, nous pûmes, vous pûtes, ils purent
vouloir: je voulus, tu voulus, il voulut, nous voulûmes, vous voulûtes, ils voulurent
The following verbs are exceptional in their formation:
être: je fus, tu fus, il fut, nous fûmes, vous fûtes, ils furent
faire: je fis, tu fis, il fit, nous fîmes, vous fîtes, ils firent
naître: je naquis, tu naquis, il naquit, nous naquîmes, vous naquîtes, ils naquirent
The following verbs are exceptional in their formation, as well as in their endings: :
venir: je vins, tu vins, il vint, nous vînmes, vous vîntes, ils vinrent
tenir: je tins, tu tins, il tint, nous tînmes, vous tîntes, ils tinrent
The passé simple, also called passé défini, historique ou littéraire (simple past, preterite or historical / literary past), denotes that something has occurred and been totally completed in the past, with no consideration whatsoever of the implications the occurrence may have with the present. This is where it differs from the passé composé or passé indéfini (present perfect or indefinite past), which denotes an action which has occurred and been completed in the past but which is still relevant to the present.
The passé simple does not in any way imply continuity or simultaneity relative to a past occurrence. It simply denotes an occurrence and its completion in the past. It refers to an action and the moment at which it occurred -- nothing more:
Elle alla à Paris et y vécut pendant six mois.
She went to Paris and lived there for six months.
That is all we know; we know nothing about her present-day circumstances and there is no implied knowledge of her present-day whereabouts.
Passé composé ou indéfini -- Present Perfect or Past Indefinite
formation: auxiliary être or avoir in the present tense + Past Participles.
The passé composé ou indéfini (present perfect or indefinite past) indicates something which took place in the past and was completed in the past, at a specific or non-specific moment in time, but which is somehow relevant to the present. That is why the English name for this tense, the present perfect, is indeed appropriate:
Il a quitté Montréal le 12 mai et reviendra bientôt.
He left Montreal on May 12 and will soon return.
Elle a passé 6 ans en France, puis elle est allée en Espagne, où elle habite toujours.
She spent 6 years in France, then she went to Spain, where she still resides.
NOTE: Notice how the action in each example is tied to the present.
The passé composé is sometimes used in the same way as the passé simple, that is, it has the same value, especially since the passé simple ou défini, has become almost obsolete, even in written French (see comments below on passé antérieur).
The passé composé is also used in place of the futur antérieur (future perfect or anterior) in a conditional IF clause, since an IF clause can NEVER be in the future or conditional:
Si tu as fini avant 2 heures, tu m'en avertiras.
If you have finished before 2 hours' time, give me notice.
Passé antérieur -- Past Anterior (does not exist in English)
formation: the auxiliary être or avoir in the passé simple (see above) + Past Participles.
tenir (to hold) venir (to come)
j'eus tenu( je fus venu(e)
tu eus tenu tu fus venu(e)
il eut tenu il fut venu
elle eut tenu elle fut venue
on eut tenu on fut venu(e)(s)
nous eûmes tenu nous fûmes venu(e)s
vous eûtes tenu vous eûtes venu(e)(s)
ils eurent tenu ils eurent venus
elles eurent tenu elles eurent venues
The passé antérieur (past anterior) refers to an isolated occurrence which immediately precedes or precedes at a specific moment in time another past occurrence. It is a past within a past most often used after expressions of time which denote a succession of events, for instance: quand (when, as soon as), dès que ou aussitôt que (as soon as), après que (after), etc.:
Dès que j'eus protesté, is se tut. As soon as I had protested, he kept quiet.
Après que Jacques fut reparti, je suis rentré. After James had left, I went back in.
More often than not, the passé antérieur is used after a main clause which is in the passé simple, although it may be used after other past tenses, such as the imparfait, passé composé and plus-que-parfait. Since there is no English equivalent, it is translated by a pluperfect or past perfect.
The passé antérieur is also used in main clauses to denote an occurrence which takes place quickly and is completed in the past. It is often used in conjunction with one of the following expressions of time: bientôt (soon), vite (fast, quickly), à peine (barely), en un instant (in an instant), enfin (at last), etc.
NOTE: The passé antérieur is on its way out and is destined to be replaced by a past tense double compound, which has no English equivalent. In fact, the passé antérieur is to the passé simple what the passé surcomposés is to the passé composé. Just as the passé simple is being replaced by the passé composé, so too the passé antérieur is being replaced by the passé surcomposé.
Plus-que-parfait -- Pluperfect
formation: auxiliary être or avoir in the imperfect + Past Participles
courir (to run) tomber (to fall)
j'avais couru j'étais tombé(e)
tu avais couru tu étais tombé(e)
il avait couru il était tombé
elle avait couru elle était tombée
on avait couru on était tombé(e)(s)
nous avions couru nous étions tombé(e)s
vous aviez couru vous étiez tombé(e)(s)
ils avaient couru ils étaient tombés
elles avaient couru elles étaient tombées
The French pluperfect, like the French passé antérieur (past anterior), refers to an occurrence which takes place in the past before another past occurrence. However, unlike the passé antérieur, the plus-que-parfait refers to an indeterminate moment in time and may express not only an isolated occurrence, but also a repeated or habitual occurrence (just like the imperfect).
Quand je suis rentré, il avait déjà fait le ménage.
When I came in, he had already done the housework.
Il s'était passé quelque chose de grave. Elle était bouleversée.
Something serious had happened. She was upset.
Il m'a dit qu'il avait fini. He told me that he had finished.
Here is a timeline for the pluperfect:
plus-que-parfait passé composé présent
(il avait fini) (a dit)
The pluperfect is also used in a conditional IF clause whose main clause is in the past conditional:
Si tu avais conduit, nous n'aurions pas eu cet accident.
If you had driven, we would not have had this accident.
Futur simple -- Simple Future
The simple future indicates an action which has not yet occurred relative to the present:
Je mangerai. I will eat.
The future is sometimes used in exclamatory phrases to express an indignation or an irony, whose impact is viewed as being prolonged in the future. The future may also be used in place of the imperative, to soften the command.
Futur Simple Impératif
Vous mettrez deux heures à faire ce travail. Mettez deux heures à faire ce travail.
You will spend two hours on that task. Spend two hours on that task.
NOTE: the futur proche ou immédiat (near or immediate future), which is very closely tied to the present tense, is constructed in the following way: aller (present tense) + infinitive. It has the same construction in English ("to go" in the present tense + infinitive):
Je vais partir demain. I am going to leave tomorrow.
Futur antérieur (passé du futur) -- Future Perfect or Anterior (Future Past)
The future anterior, which in its formation uses the auxiliary être or avoir in the futur simple, is a past within a future, un passé du futur. It refers to an action which has not yet occurred but which is viewed as already completed relative to another future action. It indicates that something will happen BEFORE another future action has occurred. That is why it is called a past within a future:
Il dit qu'à midi demain il sera déjà parti.
He says that by noon tomorrow he will have already left.
On a timeline, the future perfect and the above sentence would look like this:
présent futur antérieur futur
(Il dit) (il sera déjà parti) (midi demain)
Futur du passé (conditionnel présent) -- Past Future (Present Conditional)
formation ----> The Present Conditional.
The futur du passé is the opposite of passé du futur, which we have just examined. It refers to an action which takes place in the past AFTER another action in the past.
Hier, il m'a dit qu'il viendrait à 15h aujourd'hui; il est maintenant 16h.
Yesterday, he told me that he would come at 3 o'clock today; it is now 4.
On a timeline it would look like this:
past tense past futur present
(Hier, il m'a dit) (il viendrait) (16h)
NOTE: the passé du futur is identical in form to the conditionnel présent (present conditional), but that is where the similarities end. The conditional expresses a hypothetical, an action which MAY occur, but which is not for the moment a part of reality:
Si tu venais il serait heureux. If you came he would be happy.
Futur antérieur du passé (conditionnel passé) -- Past Future Perfect (Past Conditional)
formation -----> The Past or Perfect Conditional (Pluperfect Subjunctive)
The past conditional, which is formed with the auxiliary avoir or être and the past participle, is similar to the present conditional in that it has two distinct uses -- a past future and a hypothetical:
The futur antérieur du passé, like the futur du passé, is a future which takes place within the past. It is a future relative to a past but a past relative to another future. If the future perfect is a future past, then the past future perfect is a past future past. On a timeline it would look like this:
Quand je l'ai vu lundi dernier, Marc savait qu'il n'aurait pas fini à 14h mercredi.
When I saw him last Monday, Mark knew that he would not have finished by 2 PM today.
past tense past future past past future present
(Marc savait) (il n'aurait pas fini) (14h mercredi) (speaker's time)
depending on your point of view, this could also be a future past (futur antérieur), since Mark considered that he would have been
finished by Wednesday (a future). In his mind, that future act was
already completed and Wednesday 2 PM already past.
The past future anterior is identical in form to the past conditional (conditionnel passé), but does not have the same value. The past conditional is a pure hypothetical and not a part of reality:
Si tu avais conduit, nous n'aurions pas eu cet accident.
If you had driven, we would not have had this accident. = pure hypothesis
All of the above tenses belong to the indicative mood. The subjunctive mood has only the present, the present perfect (subjonctif passé), the imperfect (almost obsolete) and the pluperfect (a literary past conditional). All other moods (conditional, imperative, infinitive, participle) have only a present and a past), although the infinitive does have a future, which is quite rare. All of these are treated separately and can be viewed by clicking on the following:
See also: Past Participles