How Many Verb Tenses Are There in France? A Master Guide
Ah, grammar. The system of language gets a bad rap among language learners. If you’re learning French, and it’s 21 different verb forms, you’ve probably struggled over a few verbs charts or stumbled through telling a story in the future tense. We’ve been there, and we feel you, which is why we wanted to put together this master guide to help you along with your grammar-learning journey. Language learning is more of a roller coaster than a walk in the park, so we’re here to keep the fear to a minimum and the fun to a maximum.
French grammar is on the more complicated side as grammar systems go. You have languages like Indonesian with no verb tenses, which makes French’s 21 different verb forms seem pretty complex. In general, grammar experts believe there are three main tenses: past, present, and future. But you also have the subjunctive mood, which can’t technically belong in the simple past or simple present and requires its own present and past tenses because actions in the subjunctive mood are considered subjective and uncertain.
For example, in French, the subjunctive mood is used with verbs like “believe.” If you say, “I believe Sarah likes chocolate,” you aren’t sure she likes chocolate. Therefore, the verb “like” would be in the subjunctive mood because it isn’t a sure fact. The rules for the subjunctive tense aren’t always straightforward. Still, for the most part, it’s used to talk about situations, emotions, or feelings that aren’t considered inevitable or the present reality. But don’t stress too much about the moods, we’ll get more into those later. For now here is a list of all 21 of the French verb forms:
- Passé simple
- Passé composé
- Futur simple
- Passé anterior
- Futur antérieur
- Subjonctif présent
- Subjonctif passé
- Subjonctif imparfait
- Subjonctif plus-que-parfait
- Conditionnel présent
- Conditionnel passé
- Conditionnel passé II
- L’impératif présent
- L’impératif passé
- L’infinitif présent
- L’infinitif passé
- Le participe présent
- Le participe passé
Verb Tense vs. Verb Mood vs. Verb Voice
Before we really get started, I want to clear up a few grammar definitions because these French explanations aren’t going to be helpful if you don’t understand what the English vocabulary even means. A verb tense shows the time period of the verb. We talked a little bit about verb tenses earlier, so you’ll probably remember that they come in three main tenses: past, present, and future. But there are a lot of variations on these three main tenses. For example, you have the simple present like “I eat,” but you also have simple continuous like “I am eating.” In both situations, the subject is eating in the present, but the meanings are slightly different.
Verb moods or modes are what we were talking about with the subjunctive tense. Verb moods can be used across different time periods, so you can have subjunctive in both the past and the present. In general, we speak in the indicative mood, which is used to talk about facts, opinions, or ask questions. But you also have verb moods like imperative, which is used in commands. In English, we don’t notice moods like subjunctive as much as we do in French, so it can be tricky to understand. So don’t worry if it takes you a few read-throughs to get these.
Finally, you have the verb voice. The verb voice isn’t dependent on the situation, but rather where the subject is in comparison to the verb. If the subject is doing the verb like, “Jenaye broke her glasses,” the verb is in an active voice. If the subject is being acted upon by the verb, like “The glasses were broken by Jenaye,” then the verb is in the passive voice.
In order to break these 21 verb forms down as well as possible, we’re going to get started by splitting all of the French verbs into their different moods.
French Verb Moods
1. L’indicatif (indicative)
In French, just like in English, l’indicatif is the most commonly used mood. This mood is used to discuss facts and to ask questions. This is your most basic mood, so if you’re going to focus on mastering anything today it should be this one. There are 8 different verb tenses in the indicative mood: présent (present), imparfait (imperfect), passé simple (simple past), futur simple (simple future), passé composé (perfect), plus-que-parfait (pluperfect), passé antérieur (past anterior), and futur antérieur (future anterior).
2. Le subjonctif (subjunctive)
Le subjonctif is used to talk about uncertainty or unreality. It’s often used to talk about feelings and possibilities. The subjunctive can be used in four different tenses, but it is rare to see the subjunctive mood used in all four. The mood is most commonly seen in the subjonctif présent (subjunctive present) and the subjonctif passé (subjunctive perfect). But, it’s also used in subjonctif imparfait (subjunctive imperfect) and subjonctif plus-que-parfait (subjunctive pluperfect). The subjunctive mood is never used in the future.
3. L’impératif (imperative)
The imperative is probably the most straightforward verb mood because it is only used in two different verb forms: present and past. Though it is uncommon to see the imperative used in the past, so I would only worry about the present form. The imperative is used to make commands like, “Stop!”
4. Le conditionnel (conditional)
Le conditionnel is a little confusing because *technically* it can be defined as both a mood and a tense, but we’re just going to think about it as a mood to keep things simple. The conditional mood is used to talk about things that may or may not happen. In English, we use the conditional mood when we use the word “would.” It’s commonly used in si (if) clauses, just like it is in English.
For example, “If I had a dog, I would name her Honey.” It’s also used to talk about desires more politely because you’re not assuming you’re going to get your way when you use the conditional tense. Instead of saying, “I want a dog named Honey,” you would say, “I would like a dog named Honey.” The same goes for in French. There are three different conditional tenses: conditionnel présent (conditional present), conditionnel passé (conditional past), and conditionnel passé II (conditional past II).
5. L’infinitif (infinitive)
When a verb is in its infinitive form, it’s in its most basic form. In English, infinitives look like “to eat,” “to sleep,” and “to dance.” In French, infinitive verbs end in –er, like parler (to talk), –ir, like finir (to finish), and –re, like prendre (to take). If you’re wondering if the infinitive form is really a mood, you’d be onto something. Technically, yes, the infinitive form is considered a mood, but it is thought of as an impersonal mood, and not a personal mood like moods 1-4. It’s deemed an impersonal mood because it doesn’t change with the subject. Thus, there is only one infinitive form. The infinitive form can also be used in the past.
6. Le participe présent (present participle) / Le participe passé (past participle)
Just like the infinitive mood, le participe présent is considered an impersonal mood. There is only one form of le participe présent, but it can be used in different ways. The English version of a present participle is a verb ending in “-ing.” In French, the form ends in “-ant.” The present participle can be used to modify a noun like, “Ayant faim, elle a mangé deux hamburgers,” or “Being hungry, she ate two hamburgers.” When “en” is added before the present participle, it becomes a gerund (le gérondif), which can be used to describe an action that co-occurs with another, to explain how something happens, or to replace a relative clause.
Le participe passé also exists. It is used in temps composé, which are verb forms that use two verbs like the passé composé and the plus-que-parfait. Le participe passé is the word that comes after auxiliary verbs like avoir or être. Earlier, we used the phrase, “Ayant faim, elle a mangé deux hamburgers.” Here “mangé” is the le participe passé. You’ll also see le participe passé used as an adjective.
So if we add up the eight tenses in the indicative, the four tenses in the subjunctive, and the three tenses in the conditional, we have 15 tenses to dive into. We’re going to skip over the imperative form, the infinitive form, and the present participle because there’s not much more to dive into for those ones. Let’s get started!
French Indicative Verb Tenses
1. Présent (present)
The present tense in the indicative form is used to talk about something happening in the current moment.
Je danse avec mes amis. = “I dance with my friends.” or “I am dancing with my friends.”
Nous mangeons du chocolat. = “We eat chocolate.” or “We are eating chocolate.”
Vous adorez faire du shopping. = “You all love going shopping.” or “You all are loving going shopping.”
The French don’t have a separate present continuous verb form like we do in English, so “I dance” and “I am dancing” are both represented by the same verb, je danse. But, if you want to say you are in the middle of dancing, you can say, je suis en train de danser. The phrase “en train de” is used to describe an action that is in the process of happening.
2. Imparfait (imperfect)
The imparfait is known as the imperfect or the past continuous in English. For example, “I was reading a book.” In French, the imparfait is used to describe what was going on around you, as in, “At the party, Peter was dancing, Cindi was playing music, and everyone else was eating.” It is also used to describe ongoing events and habits in the past, as in, “I was going to the gym every day until I got pregnant.” The imparfait is also commonly used to describe an action that happened simultaneously as something else.
Le téléphone sonnait quand il est rentré. = The phone was ringing when he came back.
Quand j’habitais en Californie, je buvais un smoothie chaque matin. = When I lived in California, I used to drink a smoothie every morning.
The imparfait is also used to talk about physical conditions, feelings, attitudes, time, weather, and the date.
3. Passé simple (simple past)
The passé simple is another form of the past tense, but it is rarely used in everyday speech. But, if you want to pick up and read a French book, you should definitely learn the passé simple, as you’ll see it everywhere in professional French writing. The meaning that passé simple conveys is no different than passé composé. You can think of passé simple as passé composé with a haughty attitude and a tailored suit.
Il parla au roi. = He talked to the king.
Nous mangeâmes du fois gras chaque soir. = We ate fois gras every night.
4. Passé composé (past perfect)
The passé composé is used to talk about past events that started and finished at a particular time in the past. This form is used to talk about the main storyline, while the imparfait is used to talk about background information. You’ll also use the passé composé to talk about a series of events.
Ce matin j’ai mangé le petit-déjeuner et après j’ai regardé la télé. = This morning I ate breakfast and afterwards I watched TV.
Hier j’ai travaillé de 8h à 20h. = Yesterday, I worked from 8:00am to 8:00pm.
5. Futur simple (future simple)
The futur simple is used to talk about future events. This verb form is crafted by taking the verb’s infinitive form and adding the ending –ai, –as, –a, –ons, –ez, –ont. If this seems complicated, you’re in luck because there are actually two ways to talk about future events in French. On days where you’re feeling like you have la flemme, you can just conjugate aller (to go) before whatever verb you want to talk about in the future. For example, je vais m’amuser demain, or “I’m going to have fun tomorrow.”
Tu demanderas à la fleuriste demain. = You’ll ask the florist tomorrow.
Nous donnerons à Thomas son cadeau jeudi. = We’ll give Thomas his present on Thursday.
*OR* you can use aller! Just know that when you’re using aller, it’s not technically considered a future tense. It’s simply viewed as an alternate way to talk about future events.
Tu vas demander à la fleuriste demain. = You are going to ask the florist tomorrow.
Nous allons donner à Thomas son cadeau jeudi. = We’re going to give Thomas his present on Thursday.
6. Plus-que-parfait (pluperfect)
This is the verb tense that took me the longest to employ in everyday language. In English, the plus-que-parfait is referred to as the pluperfect or the present perfect and is crafted with the word “had.” For example, “I had already finished dessert by the time my husband came home.” It’s used to talk about events that happened before another event in the past.
J’avais beaucoup pratiqué avant de pouvoir parler français parfaitement. = I had practiced a lot before I could speak French perfectly.
Elle avait acheté une flûte avant d’acheter des cours de flûte. = She had bought a flute before she bought flute lessons.
7. Passé antérieur (past anterior)
Passé antérieur is another one of these verb forms that is rarely used. It is only used in literary texts and really formal speech. You know how the passé simple is like the passé composé, but for formal text and speech? Well, the passé antérieur is like the plus-que-parfait, but for formal text and speech. Anyone who masters this verb tense deserves a gold medal.
Lorsqu’il eut reçu son premier salaire, Thomas courut acheter une maison. = As soon as he had received his first pay, Thomas could buy a house.
Des que nous eûmes fini de manger le dîner, nous mangeâmes le dessert. = As soon as we had eaten dinner, we ate dessert.
8. Futur antérieur (future anterior)
First off, congratulations on making it through all of the indicative French verb tenses! This tense is used to talk about future events in the past. It’s like saying you will have worked out 20 times by the end of the month. By the time you get to the end of the month, all of the times you’ve worked out will be in the past, so you need to talk about them in the past. But right now the end of the month is in the future, so you need to talk about them in the future as well.
D’ici à la fin de ma fête d’anniversaire, j’aurai mangé trois parts de gâteau. = By the end of my birthday party, I will have eaten three slices of cake.
Nous serons déjà partis quand vous arriverez. = We will have already left when you arrive.
French Subjunctive Verb Tenses
As you know, the subjunctive mood is used to talk about uncertain actions, hopes, dreams, etc. In French, there are many phrases that must be followed by the subjunctive mood, so I wanted to share a few of those here first.
Il faut que = It’s necessary that
Il est impossible que = It’s impossible that
Il est possible que = It’s possible that
Il est important que = It’s important that
Il n’est pas évident que = It’s not obvious that
Pour que = for
Afin que = for
Avant que = before
Bien que = so that
À moins que = unless
This is definitely not an exhaustive list, so feel free to look up a more extended list if you’d like to memorize them all. The French are typically more forgiving with mistakes involving the subjunctive because they know it’s not easy. If this feels like a lot, just focus on the indicative tenses for now.
1. Subjonctif présent (present subjunctive)
Luckily the subjunctive present has almost the same conjugation as indicative verbs in the present. This means that even if you forget one of those phrases like “Il faut que,” you might be in the clear. With regular verbs like manger, the subjunctive present is precisely the same as the indicative present except for in its nous and vous forms. It’s only when you encounter irregular verbs like faire that it’ll be different with every subject. We’ll use irregular verbs in the examples to show you what we mean.
Avant que tu fasses tes devoirs de français, fais tes devoirs d’anglais. = Before you do your French homework, do your English homework.
Il est possible qu’elle soit toujours végétarienne. = It’s possible that she’s still a vegetarian.
2. Subjonctif passé (past subjunctive)
The subjunctive past is the subjunctive version of the passé composé. With the passé composé you conjugate either être or avoir and then place it in front of a past participle. WIth the subjonctif passé you simply conjugate être or avoir in the subjunctive tense and then tack on the past participle.
Il est important qu’il ait fait du sport. = It’s important that he worked out.
Il n’est pas évident que tu aies commis le crime. = It’s not obvious that you committed the crime.
3. Subjonctif imparfait (imperfect subjunctive)
Since you just learned that the subjonctif passé is the subjunctive version of the passé composé, you can probably guess that the subjonctif imparfait is the subjunctive version of the imparfait. This form is not as common as the subjonctif passé, so if you want to learn one of the two, I would stick to the subjonctif passé.
Il était important qu’il ne sût pas. = It was important that he didn’t know.
Il est possible que vous aimassiez les frites. = It’s possible that you all liked french fries.
4. Subjonctif plus-que-parfait (pluperfect subjunctive)
The good ol’ plus-que-parfait is back, and this time, it’s here in the subjunctive form to test your French skills again. Like the subjonctif imparfait, the subjonctif plus-que-parfait is uncommon in everyday speech. It’s probably the rarest form out of the four different forms, but we’ll go over it just in case you happen to come across it.
Je ne pensais pas qu’il m’eût appelé hier soir. = I didn’t think he had called me last night.
Je doutais qu’ils eussent fini leur devoirs avant minuit. = I doubted they could have finished their homework before midnight.
French Conditional Verb Tenses
1. Conditionnel présent (conditional present)
The conditional tense, along with the futur simple, is one of the most uncomplicated French tenses to get the hang of (besides the imperative). The conjugation is constructed with the verb’s infinitive form with –ais, –ais, –ait, –ions, –iez, –aient. There are a few irregular conditional verb stems, but you’ll be pretty safe with this verb tense in general. You use the conditional tense in si (if) clauses. As a mood, it can be used to talk about hypothetical or dream realities.
J’aimerais habiter à la plage. = I would like to live at the beach.
Si je suis embauché, je voudrais acheter un vélo. = If I’m hired, I would want to buy a bike.
2. Conditionnel passé (conditional past) and conditionnel passé II (conditional past II)
The rules for when to employ the conditionnel passé and the conditionnel passé II are precisely the same as the conditionnel présent. The conditionnel passé and the conditionnel passé II are just used to talk about hopes, dreams, and if-clauses in the past. The difference between the conditionnel passé and the conditionnel passé II is that the conditionnel passé II is used in very formal written French. They both have the same translation in English, but the conditionnel passé is used more much commonly.
Si tu m’avais donné la robe, je te l’aurais redonnée. = If you had given me the dress, I would have given it back.
Si tu m’avais donné la robe, je te l’eusse redonnée. = If you had given me the dress, I would have given it back. (conditionnel passé II)
Nous aurions aimé habiter en Europe quand j’étais plus jeune. = We would’ve liked to live in Europe when I was younger.
Nous eussions aimé habiter en Europe quand j’étais plus jeune. = We would’ve liked to live in Europe when I was younger.
You did it!! You made it through all of the French verb tenses like a champ. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the grammar, don’t sweat it. Once you have the imperative mood down you’ll be able to communicate and be understood. Language-learners are far from perfect, but we like it that way because it means our language-learning journey is never over!