Life is full of uncertainties! This is precisely why you can be sure of one thing: you will often use le conditionnel in French.
Usually translated to English using would, could, and should, the conditional is a French mood with both a present and a past tense. The primary use of le conditionnel is to talk about hypothetical events and uncertain information, whereas it’s also used to make polite requests, to report speech, and to give recommendations.
In this post, we’ll focus on present conditional French. We’ll start by explaining exactly how and when to use it, we’ll spend some time looking at ways of translating the conditional into English, and we’ll finish up with a section on how to conjugate le présent conditionnel.
To leave no room for doubt, let’s get going with our post on le conditionnel in French!
When to use Le Conditionnel
The French conditional mood has two major usages: to talk about actions that could happen, and by doing so, to ask politely for something. In any case, this is how it’s used the most.
But you’ll also encounter it in other contexts that we’ll explain here. Let’s take a look at each one.
To talk about hypothetical events
As its name suggests, le conditionnel is first used to talk about conditional actions, meaning an action that can happen if one or more conditions or circumstances are being met. In other words, hypothetical actions.
- Il aimerait voyager au Japon l’année prochaine. – He would like to travel to Japan next year.
- Avec une plus grande maison, vous auriez de la place pour héberger vos amis. – With a bigger house you would have space to host your friends.
Le conditionnel is often used with a “si” clause to make reference to a hypothetical situation in the present, equivalent to an “if” clause in English.
- J’irais lui rendre visite si seulement j’avais le temps. – I would go visit him if only I had the time.
- Si tu révisais un peu, tu pourrais réussir ton examen haut la main. – If you studied a bit, you could pass your exam hands down.
To make polite requests
Besides talking about hypothetical events, le conditionnel is frequently used to express wishes and make polite requests. In that context, it is often used with the verbs vouloir (to want), pouvoir (can), and devoir (must). Those verbs conjugated with the French conditional lessen the strength of a command, making the request more polite than the use of the imperative mood.
If you’re not yet familiar with l’impératif, check out our post on the French command form.
- Nous voudrions passer commande. – We would like to order.
- Tu pourrais m’aider à faire mes devoirs ? – Could you help me with my homework assignments?
- Aurais-tu un manteau à me prêter, par hasard ? – Would you, by chance, have a jacket to lend me?
To talk about uncertain facts and reported speech
In French, it is common to hear journalists using le conditionnel. This is because the conditional mood is appropriate when talking about something that we’re uncertain of. When reporting the news, journalists may thus use the French conditional to emphasize the fact that this piece of information has not been fully verified as fact.
- Les auteurs des faits seraient âgés d’une vingtaine d’années seulement. – The perpetrators are believed to be in their early twenties.
- L’accident n’aurait fait aucune victime. – The accident reportedly caused no casualties.
Likewise, in everyday conversations, the French also use le conditionnel to report other people’s speech in some context. Here, the French conditional tense is used to express the assumed outcome of an action that took place in the past. In other words, the conditional is used to talk about something that had not happened yet when the person said it.
- Il a dit qu’il rentrerait tard ce soir. – He said he would come back late tonight.
- Ma femme m’a dit qu’elle irait chercher les enfants aujourd’hui. – My wife said she would go pick up the kids tonight.
To give recommendations
We can also use the French conditional tense to give advice and recommendations. Similarly to making polite requests, le conditionnel softens the statement and makes the recommendation less direct than the imperative, thus more polite. It is frequently used with the verb devoir (must).
- Tu ne devrais pas lui faire autant confiance. – You should not trust him that much.
- Nous devrions prévoir des vêtements chauds pour ce week-end. – We should prepare warm clothes for this weekend.
The French conditional in English
In our previous sections on how and when to use le conditionnel in French, we saw a handful of possible translations in English. Depending on the context and which French verb is conjugated in conditional, the translations often feature would, could, and should. Let’s see each of these in more detail.
As le conditionnel describes a hypothetical event, most of the time it’s translated in English by using the modal would along with the English verb:
- Il préférerait que je vienne demain. – He would prefer that I come tomorrow.
- Que diraient tes parents de notre relation ? – What would your parents say about our relationship?
When the French conditional is used with the verb pouvoir (can), it can be translated with the conditional form of the English verb, could. This is usually the case when the person speaking wants to ask for permission to do something:
- Je pourrais t’emprunter ton livre un instant ? – Could I borrow your book for a moment?
- Pourrions-nous nous asseoir ici ? – Could we sit here?
Likewise, when the verb devoir (to have to) is used in le conditionnel, it translates with its English conditional counterpart, should:
- Tu devrais mettre de la crème solaire avant de sortir. – You should put on sunscreen before going out.
- Vous devriez rentrer avant qu’il ne soit trop tard. – You should head home before it’s too late.
Finally, when talking about a wish using verbs of desire, the French conditional can be translated to would like:
- Nous aimerions nous joindre à vous demain. – We would like to join you tomorrow.
- Tu voudrais te reposer maintenant ? – You would like to rest now?
- J’aimerais partir en vacances en mai. – I would like to go on holiday in May.
How to conjugate present conditional French
French present conditional conjugation is relatively easy, as far as French tenses go, since the endings are all the same. Regardless of whether it’s an -er, -ir, -re, or irregular verb, these are the conditionnel présent endings:
|Subject||Conditionnel présent ending|
Do you recognize these endings? They’re identical to the endings for l’imparfait! Where the two tenses differ is in their stems.
These endings are appended to the conditionnel verb stem, which for regular verbs is also quite easy. For ‑er and ‑ir verbs, the stem is the infinitive, while for -re verbs we get the stem by dropping the final ‑e from the infinitive. Thus, the endings are always added to an ‑r‑ at the end of the stem. Even for verbs with irregular conditional stems, this ‑r‑ is always a defining feature of the French present conditional conjugation.
If you’re familiar with other common tenses in French, you may recognize that these rules for getting the stem are the same as le futur simple. That’s right! Even for irregular verbs, the stem for the conditionnel présent is identical to the stem for the futur simple.
Now let’s see some sample conjugations for regular verbs in each group. We’ll use manger (to eat), finir (to finish), and croire (to believe) as our sample verbs:
|Infinitive||-er: manger||-ir: finir||-re: croire|
Do you notice that the je and tu conditionnel conjugations are always the same?
And that, when pronounced, the je conjugations in conditionnel sound identical to the futur simple conjugations (je mangerai, je finirai, je croirai)? Don’t worry, even native French speakers frequently get these confused when writing them!
If you want a broader overview of French verb conjugation, including how to get the stem and regular conjugation rules for all the tenses, check out our big post on French conjugation.
Le conditionnel: Irregular verb conjugation
As we saw above, the only component of irregular conditional conjugations which needs to be memorized outright is the stem, since the endings are always the same, even for irregular verbs. And if you’ve already learned an irregular verb’s stem in the futur simple tense, then you know the conditionnel stem since they’re the same too. And even for irregular verbs, we can recognize the conditional conjugation because there’s always the -r- just before the endings.
Here are some of the most common French verbs with irregular conditionnel (and futur simple) stems, along with their conjugations in first-person singular and plural:
|Infinitive verb||Conditional stem||Conditional singular first-person||Conditional plural first-person|
|Être||ser-||Je serais||Nous serions|
|Savoir||saur-||Je saurais||Nous saurions|
|Faire||fer-||Je ferais||Nous ferions|
|Devoir||devr-||Je devrais||Nous devrions|
|Vouloir||voud-||Je voudrais||Nous voudrions|
|Pouvoir||pourr-||Je pourrais||Nous pourrions|
|Voir||verr-||Je verrais||Nous verrions|
Past conditional French: Le conditionnel passé
The French conditional mood also has a past tense, le conditionnel passé. It is a compound tense formed with the auxiliary verbs être or avoir conjugated in le conditionnel présent, followed by the verb’s participe passé.
While the focus of today’s post is le conditionnel présent, we’ll at least mention its past-tense counterpart here so you’re aware of it. Le conditionnel passé is mostly used to talk about actions that could have happened, but didn’t.
In English, it’s usually translated using would have or should have, followed by the verb’s past participle.
- J’aurais aimé que tu prennes plus soin d’elle. – I would have liked you to take better care of her.
- Vous auriez dû me dire que vous partiez si tôt. – You should have told me you were leaving so early.
Just as would, should, and could are used regularly in English, le conditionnel is a pretty useful French mood that’s used on a regular basis. Today we learned how and when to use conditional French, and we saw the conjugation rules for le conditionnel présent.
As we’re never sure of anything (whether uncertain facts or reporting what somebody else said), but still have wishes for things to happen (that still remain hypothetical events or situations), the French conditional mood is perfect for referring to these circumstances. It’s also very convenient for making polite requests, in the hope that some of these hypothetical wishes would take place!
Et maintenant, nous aimerions que vous utilisiez le conditionnel quand vous parlez français ! – And now, we would love for you to use the conditional when you speak French!