Let’s face it – French verb tenses can be a little confusing. But, with a little bit of study, you can master them. In this guide, we’ll be looking at all of the French verb tenses, what they mean, and when to use them (if at all).
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing less on French verb conjugation and more on what all the tenses are and how they fit together.
But before we dive in, let’s start with the basics, to make sure we’re all on the same page.
What is a verb tense?
A verb tense is what we use to express where a verb sits in time, typically sorted into past, present, and future tenses. For example, “I ate,” “I eat,” and “I will eat” all use the same verb, but in different tenses.
Of course, there’s often more than one way to speak about something within the same time period, which is why we have more than just 3 tenses in each language. Think “I sit” versus “I am sitting” in the present tense, or “I jumped” versus “I was jumping” or “I had jumped” in the past.
How do tenses work in French?
In French, to conjugate a verb into another tense, you need the stem of the word, formed by taking the infinitive of the verb and removing its ending (-er, -ir, or -re).
Those infinitive endings are then replaced with the appropriate new ending based on the tense and the subject. (As you may well know by now, in French, verb endings change not just with the tense but also based on the subject performing the action of the verb, as in nous mangeons – from manger, or vous restez – from rester.)
Some tenses are simple, meaning the conjugated verb is the only verb required and the ending is the only thing that changes. Others are compound tenses, where a second verb is added (and conjugated) to create the new tense.
We use different tenses, just like in English, to more precisely describe events, feelings, and possibilities in the past, present, and future.
What are verb moods in French?
In French, as in many other languages, we have tenses, but we also have something called verb moods (sometimes referred to as “modes”). This is how we classify what the different verb tenses are used for.
The French verb moods are: indicative (indicatif) subjunctive (subjonctif) conditional (conditionnel) imperative (imperatif) impersonal, which is broken down into infinitive (infinitif) and participles (participes).
Here’s a quick breakdown of how each French verb mood is used:
Indicative – for facts and questions Subjunctive – for emotions and things that are possible but not certain Conditional* – for phrases with “would” (like “I would like a dog” or “we would have left”) Imperative – for commands Infinitive – the most neutral version of a verb, “to (verb)” (like “to eat” or “to run”) Participle – the equivalent of the verb + -ing (present participle) or -ed (past participle)
*Some people consider the conditional a tense rather than a mood; you can decide what you feel it is in your heart.
How many French verb tenses are there?
There are 21 verb forms in French, but some are much more useful than others. To make this easier, we’ve created this handy French verb tense chart with all the tenses, their moods, what they each mean, and how useful they are, using the verb laver (to wash) as an example.
As you’ll see in the chart, there are 4 tenses that are really only used in heightened, formal speech and literature – passé simple, passé antérieur, subjonctif imparfait, subjonctif plus-que-parfait, and conditionnel passé II – and one that is very rarely used simply because it’s not all that useful – l’impératif passé. These can be your lowest priority if you’re just setting out learning French verb tenses, but are worth learning eventually, especially if you’re interested in reading older French writings.
The 21 French Verb Tenses
|Présent||Present||Indicative||I wash||Je lave||Most Common|
|Imparfait||Past||Indicative||I was washing||Je lavais||Common|
|Passé Simple||Past||Indicative||I washed (formal)||Je lavai||Literary|
|Passé Composé||Past||Indicative||I washed, I have washed||J’ai lavé||Most Common|
|Futur Simple||Future||Indicative||I will wash||Je laverai||Most Common|
|Plus-Que-Parfait||Past||Indicative||I had washed||J’avais lavé||Common|
|Passé Antérieur||Past||Indicative||I had washed (formal)||J’eus lavé||Literary|
|Futur Antérieur||Future||Indicative||I will have washed||J’aurai lavé||Uncommon|
|Subjonctif Présent||Present||Subjunctive||That I wash||Que je lave||Common|
|Subjonctif Passé||Past||That I had washed||Que j’aie lavé||Common|
|Subjonctif Imparfait||Past||Subjunctive||That I washed||Que je lavasse||Literary|
|Subjonctif Plus-Que-Parfait||Past||Subjunctive||That I had washed||Que j’eusse lavé||Literary|
|Conditionnel Présent||Present||Conditional||I would wash||Je laverais||Common|
|Conditionnel Passé||Past||Conditional||I would have washed||J’aurais lavé||Common|
|Conditionnel Passé II (Formal)||Past||Conditional||I would have washed (formal)||J’eusse lavé||Literary|
|L’impératif présent||Present||Imperative||(You) wash!||(Tu) lave!||Common|
|L’impératif passé||Past||Aie lavé!||Have washed!||Imperative||Extremely uncommon|
|L’infinitif présent||Present||Infinitive / Impersonal||To wash||laver||Most Common|
|L’infinitif passé||Past||Infinitive / Impersonal||To have washed||Avoir lavé||Uncommon|
|Le participe présent||Present||Impersonal||Washing||Lavant||Common|
|Le participe passé||Past||Impersonal||Washed||Lavé||Most Common|
Feeling too tense?
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A closer look at French verb tenses
Présent Use: Most Common
This is the most basic present tense French has to offer. The equivalent of “I wash,” “you eat,” “they run.”
Present tense can also be used to say someone is currently doing something or that someone does something on a regular basis. It’s an essential tense for all French learners and should be familiar before you worry about any other tenses.
Just to review, let’s look at the conjugation of a regular verb ending in -er in the present tense.
Infinitive: Sauter (to jump, leap, or skip)
je - saute
tu - sautes
il/elle - saute
nous - sautons
vous - sautez
ils/elles - sautent
When we talk about other more complex tenses, we’ll frequently be taking just the stem, in this case saut-, and combining it with new endings or using its past participle to create compound verbs.
The imparfait, or imperfect, tense in French is also known as the past continuous. It refers to actions that were ongoing at the moment being described, like “I was singing” or “I was writing.” And it’s indicative, meaning it talks about certainties in the past (and can be used for questions).
The imparfait can also be used to describe habitual actions in the past, like “I was ordering from that bakery every day until it closed.”
Je commandais à cette boulangerie tous les jours jusqu'à sa fermeture.
The good news is, the French imperfect is actually easy to master. You simply take the root of the verb and add the appropriate ending from this list:
The passé simple is a rarely used past tense largely reserved for literature. It means the same thing as the much more commonly used passé composé, it’s just a more formal or heightened way of saying the same thing. It’s not exactly the equivalent of Shakespearean language, but you’d be about as likely to use it in day-to-day speech.
Examples of the passé simple:
Je lavai le tapi.
I washed the rug.
Nous parlâmes avec les dames.
We spoke with the ladies.
Use: Most Common
If you’re just getting started with the past tense in French, the passé composé is the most useful tense, and it’s easy enough to learn.
Also sometimes confusingly called the “present perfect”, passé composé can be used to mean someone did something or has done something and is formed by combining either être or avoir with the past participle (participe passé) of the verb in question.
A few examples:
Il a entendu.
Vous êtes allé.
You (all) went.
Use: Most Common
The future tense in French is delightfully less complicated than talking about the past. There are only 3 ways to talk about the future in French.
The first way is not, in fact, considered a tense at all. It is simply to combine the verb aller (conjugated) and a verb’s infinitive to create the sentence structure “...will (do something)”. For example, tu vais laver (you will wash) or nous allons dancer (we will dance).
The second way to talk about the future in French is with the futur simple tense. Futur simple is really the French future tense, so it definitely comes in handy. It also translates to “will (verb)”, but is formed instead by taking a verb’s infinitive and adding the following endings:
For example, je laverai, tu mangeras, elles chanteront.
There’s also technically one more future tense in French, futur antérieur, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Another indicative past tense in French that’s commonly used is the plus-que-parfait. The plus-que-parfait, or “pluperfect,” is used to say that someone had done something.
That is, the verb being put into the plus-que-parfait describes an action that was finished at the time of the past action being described.
This is in contrast to the imparfait, where someone is being described performing a continuous action in the past, or the passé composé, where something is occurring at the moment in the past being described.
Je jouais de la trompette.
I was playing the trumpet.
Il a entendu la trompette que je jouais.
He heard the trumpet I was playing.
Il avait entendu la trompette la semaine précédente.
He had heard the trumpet the week before.
The plus-que-parfait is formed by combining either être or avoir, conjugated to their imperfect forms (for example, j’avais, tu étais) and combined with the past participle. Thus, you’re combining the imperfect (imparfait) and present perfect (passé composé), to create the plus-que-parfait – more than perfect.
Passé antérieur is one of the purely literary tenses. It means the same thing as the plus-que-parfait, just made to sound a little more rarefied. It combines some very funky conjugations of avoir and être with the past participle. While you probably don’t need to memorize this one tomorrow, it’s good to be able to recognize it when it comes up.
Example of the passé antérieur in action:
Tu eus découvert un mystère.
You had discovered a mystery.
The futur antérieur, on the other hand (told you we’d get to the final future tense eventually), is a little more useful than its passé equivalent. Sometimes called the “past future”, it refers to things that will be done in the future.
J'aurai fini mes devoirs quand tu reviendras.
“I will have finished my homework by the time you get back.”
You’re talking about the future, but things that will be in the past by the time that future comes. Make sense?
To put it together, you take the futur simple version of either être or avoir (as appropriate to the verb in question!) and add the past participle.
Let’s take a look at a couple more examples.
Au prochain match, j'aurai lavé mon short.
Next game, I will have washed my shorts.
D'ici 2025, elle aura publié son deuxième roman.
By 2025, she will have published her second novel.
All verbed out?
On Busuu, you can review grammar and vocabulary words that have tripped you up in the past, get help from native French speakers, and help other language learners to learn your language.
Congratulations, you made it through all of the indicative tenses! The good news is, from here on, there’s much less to wrap your head around.
In fact, we’re going to do all 4 subjunctive tenses at once!
As a reminder, all the subjunctive tenses are used for emotions and things that are possible but not certain. They’re used exclusively in sentences that have two clauses, and are always preceded by either qui or que, as in “that (someone) (will do or did something).”
The ones you actually need to learn are the present subjunctive and past subjunctive.
The imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive, on the other hand, are only in use in literary and historical contexts, but it’s still worth looking them in the eye, just in case they show up on your radar.
Formation: Que + conjugated verb stem
A simple tense, the present subjunctive typically uses the infinitive stem combined with the following verb endings:
-er and -re
There are 11 exception verbs, but the most important ones are avoir and être:
Il faut que je goûte le dîner du roi.
It’s necessary that I taste the king’s dinner.
Formation: Que + subjunctive present avoir or être + past participle
This is an easy one to learn once you have the subjunctive present under control. Take a look at it in action:
Je suis heureux que tu aies mentionné cela.
I'm glad that you brought this up.
Formation: Que + stem from the il form of the passé simple + unique imperfect subjunctive endings(!)
Honestly, this is rare and complicated enough that we’re not going to get into the nitty-gritty now, but here’s a peek at the imperfect subjunctive:
Il était urgent qu'il changeât ses pneus.
It was urgent that he change his tires.
Formation: Que + imperfect subjunctive avoir or être + past participle
Il ne pensait pas que vous eussiez lu sa lettre.
He did not think that you had read his letter.
Like with the subjunctive, for the French conditional tenses, it’s worth looking at them altogether, now that you’re on a roll.
The conditional tense is all about “would” – someone would do or would have done something.
The conditionnel présent and conditionnel passé (I) are both useful, but there is a second conditionnel passé (II) that’s in literary use only.
Let’s take a look.
The conditionnel présent works just like the futur simple, where we take the infinitive of the verb and add to it, but with new endings.
I would rent - je louerais
You would rent - tu louerais
He/she would rent - il/elle louerait
We would rent - nous louerions
You (all) would rent - vous loueriez
They would rent - ils/elles loueraient
For when someone would do something in the present (but hasn’t done it).
Conditionnel passé (I)
For when someone would have done something in the past, but didn’t.
Conditional present conjugation of avoir or être + past participle
Ils auraient tenu.
They would have held.
Tu serais sorti.
You would have gone out.
As you may have guessed by now, avoir and être are both irregular verbs in a wide variety of ways, so when push comes to shove, you’ll probably just need to spend some time memorizing all their various forms if you want to become a grammatical mastermind en français.
Conditionnel passé (II)
Again, this means the same thing as conditionnel passé (I), but is simply less in use in modern speech and writing.
Imperfect subjunctive conjugation of avoir or être + past participle
Nous eussions parlé.
We would have talked.
As you can see, many of the more formal, literary tenses interact with each other. While they may look complicated (and no judgment if your mind is boggled, this isn’t an easy subject!), the good news is, the more you learn, the more of a leg up you’ll have when it comes to learn the next thing.
Good news! This is actually an easy one! Well, sort of.
Imperatives are commands, like “speak,” “sit,” or “propose to me tonight.”
Imperatives are only conjugated with tu, nous, and vous (because they have to be addressed to someone directly).
The present imperative, which is by far the more common imperative tense, is formed by simply saying the present tense conjugation of the verb (conjugated to the corresponding subject). Except the tu form drops the -s, because nothing is easy.
|Pronoun||Verb (impératif présent)||Meaning|
|vous||demandez en mariage!||(you all) propose!|
Use: Extremely Uncommon
The past imperative, on the other hand, is a little more complicated, but the good news is you’ll almost never see it.
That’s because it’s much easier and less awkward to say:
Lave les mains avant mon retour. (Present imperative)
Wash your hands before I get back.
Aie lavé les mains avant mon retour. (Past imperative)
Have washed your hands before I get back.
The past imperative is formed by combining the subjunctive present of avoir or être and the past participle. That’s aie, ayons, ayez, sois, soyons, and soyez. Just so you know. In case you ever have to answer three questions from a French grammar troll or something.
Last but certainly not least, we come to the impersonal tenses – infinitives and participles. These are verb forms that don’t change with the subject (unlike all those other, less cool tenses).
Use: Most Common
Probably one of the most recognizable verb forms, the present infinitive is essentially a verb’s most neutral form, meaning “to (verb).” Think laver, manger, tenir, avoir. To wash, to eat, to hold, to have. You know, the classics
The past infinitive, on the other hand, is kind of a funky fresh thing. You’re less likely to see this floating around, but it’s not totally obscure. This is, as the name suggests, the infinitive form for past tense verbs.
That may sound more confusing than it is, so let’s take a look at some examples.
Avoir aimé et perdu vaut mieux que ne jamais avoir aimé du tout.
To have loved and lost is better than never to have loved at all.
J'étais content d'avoir vu ce bateau.
I was glad to have seen that ship.
Le participe présent
To form the present participle, we take our verb stem and simply add -ant. It’s essentially the French equivalent of -ing, and has the same effect.
So laver (to wash) because lavant (washing) and courir (to run) becomes courant (running), as in, “L'enfant arriva en courant” (The child came running). It’s more common to simply use the présent conjugation to discuss current activities, but this is certainly a handy bit of knowledge to have in your pocket.
Le participe passé
Use: Most Common
Here we are, at the end of the French verb tenses road, talking at last about a tense that’s in use throughout many of the other tenses.
The participe passé is the neutral (impersonal) past tense verb that functions sort of like a verb with an -ed slapped onto the end of it in regular English verbs.
In general, regular French verbs are transformed from infinitive to past participle like this:
French infinitives to past participles
|Old ending||New ending||Example|
|-er||-é||parler → parlé|
|-ir||-i||finir → fini|
|-re||-u||entendre → entendu|
However, there are many notable exceptions. As you’ve seen, knowing the participe passé for a verb definitely comes in handy, so it’s worth taking time to learn the irregular and regular past participles if you want to make yourself understood when talking about the past in French.
Now you know about the French verb tenses
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