How do you say in French “Could Have, Should Have, Would Have”? Or how to express in French moral obligation, regrets or reproaches in the past.
Let’s start by studying the French past conditional construction.
1. Past Conditional – General Construction & Use
A . Past Conditional In English
The past conditional is formed with the auxiliary “would have” + the participle of the main verb.
If it had been possible, I would have moved to Paris.
In conversation, “would have” is often shortened as “would’ve”.
In English, the past conditional could also be “could have”, “should have”, “might have”.
B. Past Conditional In French
The past conditional is a compound tense, and follows the exact same agreement rules as passé composé.
The past conditional in French is made up of the auxiliary “avoir” or “the auxiliary être” conjugated in the conditional present + the past participle of the main verb:
- Si ça avait été possible, j’aurais déménagé à Paris.
If it had been possible, I would have moved to Paris.
- Sophie serait allée à la plage s’il avait fait beau.
Sophie would have gone to the beach if the weather had been nice.
At this point of your studies, you should be familiar with all the rules of passé composé, know which auxiliary verb you should use (être or avoir), know by heart all your irregular past participles and be an expert at figuring out where the direct object is so you can apply the proper agreement when you are using “avoir” as an auxiliary etc… Right?
If this is not the case, I strongly suggest you first review the rules of passé composé before you continue (passé composé is explained clearly and gradually in my upper intermediate French learning method À Moi Paris Level 5).
As you can see, using the past conditional is very common when you are making a hypothesis in French about the past: wishing things had been different, although now you cannot change anything since the action already took place!
This construction is often used when expressing regret or remorse.
- Si j’avais su que tu serais là, je ne serais pas venue !
If I had known you’d be here, I wouldn’t have come!
- Si seulement tu avais étudié plus, tu aurais eu une bonne note.
If only you had studied more, you would have had a good grade.
- Si Sophie s’était couchée plus tôt, elle n’aurait pas été si fatiguée.
If Sophie had gone to bed earlier, she wouldn’t have been so tired .
In the case of an hypothesis on the past, the typical construction is:
If + plus-que-parfait , conditionnel passé
S’il avait fait beau, je serais allée à la plage .
C . Au Cas Où
Since the conditional is used after “au cas où”, the past conditional is also going to be used when the action is in the past.
Au cas où tu aurais échoué à ton examen, tu pourrais le repasser l’année suivante. In case you failed your exam, you’d be able to take it again the following year.
Note however that in many cases, you can replace “au cas où” by “si”, and the tenses will be much simpler.
Si tu échoues à ton examen, tu pourras le repasser l’année suivante.
If you fail your exam, you’ll be able to take it again the following year.
2. Le Conditionnel Passé Deuxième Forme
How should I break it to you?
There are actually two possible conjugations for the past conditional…
1. Conditionnel Passé première forme (first form)
I’ve already explained how to conjugate the first form of the French Past Conditional: auxiliary in conditional, main verb in past participle.
J’aurais aimé – I would have liked
Je serais allé(e) – I would have gone
2. Conditionnel Passé deuxième forme (second form)
For French past Conditional second form, conjugate the auxiliary in the past subjonctif and the main verb in past participle.
So, avoir in the past subjunctive:
J’eusse, tu eusses, il eût, nous eussions, vous eussiez, Ils eussent + verb in past participle
Or être in the past subjunctive
je fusse, tu fusses, il fût, nous fussions, vous fussiez, Ils fussent + verb in past participle
Je fusse allé(e)
And just now, most French people hearing this would go whaaaaaaaaat?
This second form is extremely formal, old-fashioned, and used only in fancy literature, or even more so poetry.
1. Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais (Baudelaire “À une Passante” – Les Fleurs du Mal) = que j’aurais aimée
Oh you who I would have loved, oh you who knew it.
2. Le nez de Cléopâtre, s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre en eût été changée. (Blaise Pascal) = Le nez de Cléopâtre, s’il avait été plus court, toute la face de la terre en aurait été changée.
Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed.
If you want to know more about it, I suggest you check out the “études littéraires” forum (in French).
20 Questions to REALLY test your modern French comprehension. All audio-based with full explanations. Completely free, no signup required.
4. Gossips & Unconfirmed Statements
The past conditional is used in French to make statements that have not been confirmed.
This is very common in the news or in newspapers to report something that has not been confirmed by the authorities.
It’s also used when gossiping…
English doesn’t use conditional here, so it’s a big difference, and you won’t be able to translate word by word. So you have to carry on the intent.
In the news, you’d find words like “reportedly” or “allegedly”… In everyday speech, you’d use “may” or “might”, or “it’s possible, I’ve heard…”
- Le tremblement de terre aurait fait plusieurs centaines de victimes.
The earthquake reportedly killed hundreds of people.
- Les feux de forêt pourraient avoir été déclenchés criminellement.
The wildfires might have been criminally (intentionally) triggered.
- J’ai entendu dire que sa femme l’aurait trompé avec son meilleur ami.
I’ve heard that his wife could have possibly cheated on him with his best friend.
In my next article, we’ll talk about something much more common: as the saying goes “Could have, should have, would have”, but in French!
The modal verbs “devoir” (must, have to) “pouvoir” (can, be able to) and “falloir” (as in the impersonal expression “il faut” – to be necessary) are used in French in the past conditional to express moral obligation, regrets or reproaches in the past.
5 – “Could Have, Should Have, Would Have” in French
Here is how we would translate “could have, should have” in French:
- Devoir > tu aurais dû – you should have/ ought to have
- Pouvoir > tu aurais pu – you could have
- Il faut > il aurait fallu – one should have
Examples will make things clearer:
- Tu aurais dû venir plus tôt.
You should have come earlier.
- Ils auraient pu faire plus attention.
They could have been more careful.
- Il aurait fallu le lui dire : il aurait pu peut-être nous aider.
Someone should have told him: he might have helped us.
6 – Expressing Regrets or Reproaches/Blames in the Past in French
However, many other verbs are also used to express the notion of “could have, should have, would have”: regrets or reproaches… Here are a few examples.
- J’aurais préféré que tu me le dises.
I would have preferred you to tell me about it.
- Elle aurait aimé vivre à Paris.
She would have liked to live in Paris.
- On aurait apprécié un coup de téléphone.
We’d have enjoyed a phone call. (A phone call would have been nice)
- Ça m’aurait fait plaisir de le voir.
It would have been nice to see him.
- Nous aurions bien voulu faire un grand voyage. We would have enjoyed taking a big trip.
- Si j’avais été riche, j’aurais fait le tour de la terre.
Had I been rich, I would have traveled around the globe.
- J’aurais voulu l’épouser.
I wished I would have married him/her.
The various French moods are explained in depth with exercises and audio, and illustrated within the story part of my advanced level French learning method.