Understanding The French Conditional

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Let’s see how verbs are conjugated in the conditional present in French (le conditionnel présent), and when we use the conditional in French versus English.

Just like these 2 bulldogs in the picture (a French bulldog and an English bulldog), there are differences between the use of conditional in French and in English.

There are times when we use the conditional mood in French when English doesn’t, and vice versa.

First let’s see how we conjugate verbs in the conditional (called “le conditionnel” in French), then when we use the conditional in French versus English.

What is the Conditional Tense?

The conditional tense doesn’t exist! However many people make this mistake and call the conditional a tense.

The conditional is a mood. A mood is a fancy grammatical term which describes the mind set of the subject.

In the conditional, the subject describes a condition, or the possibility of something: could, should, would I do something?

The conditional mood then has tenses to describe when the action takes place:

  • the present conditional: if the sun shined now, I would go to the beach (but it’s raining…).
  • the past conditional: if it had rained yesterday, I would have gone to a museum.

Below, we will concentrate on understanding the present conditional – I will explain the French past conditional in another article.

So now, let’s compare the present conditional in English to the present conditional in French.

What is The Conditional In English?

In English, you’d use the auxiliary “would” or “could” or “should” to express the conditional.

If I could, I would move to Paris tomorrow.

What is The Conditional In French?

In French, we don’t use any auxiliary. It’s the ending of the verb that will express the conditional.

You will add the endings of the imparfait: ais, ais, ait, ions, iez, aient to the future indicative verb stem.

For regular verbs, the stem of the conditional (and the stem of the future) is the infinitive of the verb (so parler, finir) + the imparfait endings.

  • je parlerais
  • tu parlerais
  • il, elle, on parlerait
  • nous parlerions
  • vous parleriez
  • ils, elles parleraient.

Unfortunately, many verbs have an irregular future stem, which carries over to the conditional stem, and needs to be learned by heart.

  • j’irais
  • tu irais
  • il, elle, on irait
  • nous irions
  • vous iriez
  • ils, elles iraient

In this article, I’m not going to cover all the possible verb conjugations. There are many sites which specialise in that. Would you like to check all the French verb conjugations? Bookmark that page! https://leconjugueur.lefigaro.fr/uklistedeverbe.php

However, if you’re looking for a clear explanation of the French tenses and moods, you are in the right spot!

Now there is much to say about the pronunciation of the French conditional.

How to Pronounce the French Conditional?

Remember that the future stem always has a strong R sound. Therefore the conditional in French will also feature this strong R sound.

The je, tu, il (elle, on) and ils (elles) plural forms are pronounced the same way but spelled slightly differently. If you are learning French to speak, make sure you focus on how to pronounce the verbs in the conditional. That’s why even French verb conjugations should be learnt with audio!

The modern pronunciation of the present conditional is also very important: all your endings will start with an R sound.

If there is an E before the R, the E will be silent in modern glided French:

Je parlerais sounds like “je parlrais”.

However, if this pronunciation is true for Parisian French, it is not true for all the regions of France: in the South of France for example, the “e” pronunciation remains.

Je parlerais

The conditional is explained in depth with verb conjugations, exercises and audio recordings, and then illustrated within the story of my advanced French learning method.

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“Je” form – Conditional Pronunciation Versus Futur Simple Pronunciation

Let me warn you, this is a bit of a rat’s nest… And even the French don’t agree.

Traditional Conditional French Pronunciation

Traditionally, the “je” form of the future should end in a “ré” sound and the conditional a “rè” sound, and also the “e” before the R should be well enunciated.

1. Je mangerai – erai future – eré sound in enunciated proper French
2. Je mangerais – erais conditional – erè sound in enunciated proper French

That’s how you should pronounce those words if you where reading French poetry for example.

Modern French Pronunciation of the Conditional “Je” Form

In today’s modern French, the “je” form of a verb sounds exactly the same in the futur simple and the present conditional: rè.

And the “e” before the R is going to be glided.

1. Je mangerai – erai future – rè sound in modern spoken French
2. Je mangerais – erais conditional – rè sound in modern spoken French

This is the pronunciation I personally use. And I checked, my family and almost all my friends do as well.

But depending on the region of France, the education of the speaker and how well he or she enunciates, you may very well hear “ré” as well. A French “è” sound requires an open mouth, so a bit of an enunciation effort… If you keep your mouth closed, and mumble, the “è” is going
to sound like “é”….

So the pronunciation of “ré” or “rè” is not always clear-cut, and therefore the pronunciation of the “je” form in the conditional or future ends up being quite difficult to differentiate.

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Future or Conditional in French? A Pronunciation Trick

Since many people pronounce the “je” form in the future and conditional the same way, how do you know whether you should write an S at the end of your verb or not?

Well, first solution: you are a grammar genius and the difference between future and conditional is so obvious to you that you wouldn’t dream of making that sort of mistake. Good for you.

For the rest of us, well… You’re going to like my first suggestion: translate it into English – for once , doing so will be useful… The future uses “will”, the conditional “would”.

As for the French – who don’t necessarily speak English, nor know exactly the rules for using the future or the conditional – our trick is to change the person in our head!

So, in modern spoken French, “Je” sounds the same in the future and the present conditional (je mangerai ≠ je mangerais); but not “tu”: tu mangeras ≠ tu mangerais!

Therefore we quickly switch the verb to the “tu” form in our head, and we instinctively know which verb form sounds better in that sentence (because we’ve heard it so much, we can actually call upon our French ear to help us choose the correct verb form).

We therefore detect whether the verb is in the future or the conditional, and know how spell the verb in the “je” form…

This may sound complicated, but we do that really fast and it’s very common, and used in various situations to figure out how to correctly write in French!

Still, many French people make that mistake in writing: using the conditional is so much more common than using the simple future, that writing “mangerais” – with an S – when “mangerai” – without the S – is needed, is a extremely widespread typo… I often fall in that trap myself! Ahhh, the joys of writing French!

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More About the Conditional Modern Pronunciation

It’s not easy to set rules for modern French pronunciation. Why? Because they don’t exist! French is an evolving language. Modern French is evolving as we speak, and the new way French is pronounced often comes from lazy mouth rules: people not enunciating enough, or even mistakes being so common that they become the norm.

Like it or hate it, it’s the reality of many languages today.

However, if some modern glidings are very common for everyday tenses like the present or even the future indicative, it’s a bit different for the conditional mood.

I don’t quite know how to say it but the conditional mood is “pretty”. It’s a rather fancy mood. A mood used for politeness, hypothetical constructions etc… So, the pronunciation tends – I say tends – to be a bit more traditional, a bit less glided . . .

I would for example venture to say that it’s very common in French nowadays to glide over the “e” of the future tense of the verb “être” and pronounce the je form “serai” as “sray”, and even extend this gliding to the other persons, pronouncing “vous serez” as “vous sré”, “ils seront” as “ils sron”.

However, in the conditional, it’s hard for me to be that certain… I would probably say “je serais / je sray” and do the gliding. But I would be more inclined to say “ils – plural – seraient / seray”… Again, I can’t explain why.

And another French person may not agree with me… It’s very much a question of how I personally feel the language at this point. In any case, be ready to hear both pronunciations!

Now in order to understand when to use the conditional, let’s compare the uses of the conditional in French and in English.

When we use the Conditional in French and English

Politely Expressing A Wish with the Conditional

First and foremost, the conditional is the mood used to politely ask for permission, or say what you would like to do.

  1. S’il vous plaît, est-ce que je pourrais téléphoner ?
    Please, could (may) I make a phone call?
  2. Demain, j’aimerais aller au restaurant.
    Tomorrow, I would like to go (I would fancy going) to the restaurant.

Softening a Question with the Conditional

We often use the conditional to soften a question. We could even make the question negative. It’s quite formal (I don’t know that a teen would say this), but it’s still quite frequent in French.

  • Tu n’aurais pas une veste de smoking à me prêter ?
    You wouldn’t have a tuxedo jacket to lend me, now would you?
  • Il ne voudrait pas m’aider à préparer le dîner par hasard ?
    He wouldn’t want to help me to make dinner by any chance?

Note: remember that in French, we never use tag questions: no “would you?”, “does she?”, “isn’t he?” at the end of a question in French to reinforce the question (as illustrated in my first example). You may be able to use “n’est-ce pas”… for example to translate “you would say yes, wouldn’t you”, it’s not French to say “tu dirais oui, ne dirais-tu pas ?” but you may hear: “tu dirais oui, n’est-ce pas ?”.

Making Suggestions with the Conditional

We also use the conditional mood to make suggestions:

– Qu’est-ce que tu veux faire cet après-midi ?
What would you like to do this afternoon?
– Je ne sais pas… On pourrait peut-être aller au cinéma ?

I don’t know… Maybe we could go to the movies?

Giving Advice with the Conditional

In the same idea, the conditional is used to give advice, using “should” (“devoir” in the conditional in French):

  1. Il fait froid dehors: tu devrais mettre un manteau. It’s cold outside: you should put on a coat .
  2. Vous ne devriez pas lui faire confiance. You shouldn’t trust him.

Expressing Probability with the Conditional

Still with “should”, the conditional expresses probability:

  1. Nous devrions arriver vers 20 heures.
    We should get there around 8PM.
  2. Elle m’a dit qu’elle ne devrait pas tarder à avoir une réponse.
    She told me it shouldn’t be long before she has an answer.

Hypothesis with the Conditional

The present conditional is also frequently used with “if”, when we make an hypothesis on the present.
In other words, when we say what we would do if things were not the way they are. This will be easier with an example:

  1. Maintenant, malheureusement, il pleut. S’il faisait beau, nous irions nous promener.
    Now, unfortunately, it’s raining. If it was nice out, we would go for a walk.
  2. Je l’achèterais si ce n’était pas si cher.
    I would buy it if it wasn’t so expensive.

Follow this link for the explanations of the different “if” clauses (hypothesis in French).

Si Hypothesis French

Indirect Speech with the Conditional

The conditional is essential when we are using “indirect/reported speech”. In other words, when we relate a story, not quoting people as in a dialogue, but telling what happened.

When you relate a story that occurred in the past, the conditional is then “the future of the past”: meaning that it is used to say something that had not yet happened at the time that the story was taking place (but now the whole thing is in the past since you are actually telling the story.) Let’s clarify this with an example.

First a dialogue. This conversation is happening now, and is live on the phone.
– Nous sommes en train de partir et nous vous téléphonerons dès que nous arriverons à l’hôtel. – We are about to leave and we’ll call you as soon as we’ll arrive at the hotel.

A couple of hours later, Anne has not received any phone call and she is worried. She is talking to a friend and says:
Il y a deux heures, Pierre m’a téléphoné. Il m’a dit que Sylvie et lui étaient en train de partir et qu’ils me téléphoneraient dès qu’ils arriveraient à l’hôtel. Mais je n’ai toujours pas de nouvelles !

Two hours ago, Pierre called me. He told me that Sylvie and he were about to leave and that they would call me as soon as they got (would get) to the hotel. But I still haven’t heard from them!

Look at the translation and the use of “would” to replace “will”.

This way to relate a story is called “indirect speech” and it’s a little complicated : not only do you have to use the right tenses, but you also have to modify the verbs and the pronouns to relate not only the main message of the story, but also the circumstance, the tone etc…

The different French moods and indirect speech are explained in depth and then illustrated within the ongoing novel in my advanced French learning method.

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When we use the Conditional in French BUT NOT in English

French Conditional: Uncertain Information & Rumors

In French, journalists and reporters often use the conditional to announce unconfirmed news:

Après l’arrivée de l’ouragan, il y aurait des centaines de maisons sans éléctricité.
After the arrival of the hurricane, it looks like hundreds of houses are without power.

In the same way, gossip also uses the conditional in French…

J’ai entendu dire qu’ils auraient des problèmes d’argent…
I’ve heard they’re having money trouble…

Au Cas où – French Conditional

In French, the conditional is used after “au cas où” (strong liaison, sound like “au cazoo”), meaning “in case”, when English uses the present indicative tense.

  1. Je vais rester à côté de lui au cas où il se réveillerait.
    I’ll stay next to him in case he wakes up.
  2. Au cas où vous rentreriez assez tôt, passez à la boulangerie acheter du pain.
    In case you come back early enough, go by the bakery to buy bread.

When the Conditional is Used in English BUT NOT in French

“Would” Used as in “Used to”

It is “fancy” English to use “would” to show habits or describe what people used to do. It is something mostly found through English literature, not so much in spoken English.

In the summer, she would live in Paris, and in the winter, she would move to her house in Cannes.


In the summer, she used to live in Paris, and in the winter, she used to move to her house in Cannes.

When describing habits from the past, French doesn’t use the conditional mood. It uses l’imparfait de l’indicatif.

En été, elle habitait à Paris, et en hiver, elle emménageait dans sa maison de Cannes.

This is particularly tricky to learn for English speakers. You don’t notice the problem when someone is speaking French : you are accustomed to hearing l’imparfait in this situation, so it’s not going to sound weird.

However, you have to be careful to use the correct tense and mood when you are speaking – or writing – yourself!

Another big thing is the use of the subjunctive in French. A mood little used in English, but quite common in French. In the novel part of my advanced French learning method, I often used “would” to translate the subjunctive…

“Would” Used as “to be Willing to do Something”

In English, you use the auxiliaries “will” and “would” to say “to be willing to do something”, “to agree to do something”.

Yesterday, she agreed to leave with me, but this morning, at the last minute, she wouldn’t.


Yesterday, she was willing to leave with me, but this morning, at the last minute, she wasn’t.

In French, we’d use the verb “to want: vouloir” to say to be willing to. We may even soften it in the affirmative and use the expression “vouloir bien”.

But in any case, it won’t be the conditional: it’ll be the imparfait or passé composé.

Hier, elle voulait bien partir avec moi, mais ce matin, à la dernière minute, elle n’a pas voulu.
(I could also have said “elle ne voulait pas”, or even “elle ne voulait plus” (she was no longer willing to do
it)… But I am digressing.

“Could” Used as “Was not Able to”

In English, “could” may be used as a conditional, but it may also be the auxiliary “can” in the past… So the French translation may be tricky!

C’est un bon cheval, et il pourrait gagner la course. Malheureusement, hier, il n’a pas pu gagner parce que les autres chevaux étaient plus forts que lui.

He’s a good horse, and he could/would be able to win the race. Unfortunately, yesterday, he couldn’t/wasn’t able to win because the other horses were better than him.

This article is long enough, don’t you think! But there is more to French conditional: the French past conditional, used for many things but in particular to express regrets or blames in French: should have, could have, would have…

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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