6 French Verb Tenses You Must Know

Learning the French verb tenses can be one of the biggest challenges for students learning French. This is because there are a lot of tenses and it is difficult to decide which ones are most important.

In a nutshell, if you want to reach a decent level in spoken French, focus on learning the following six verb tenses. (Links are to pages covering these tenses in detail).

  1. Present tense (le présent)
  2. Compound past (passé composé)
  3. Imperfect (l’imparfait)
  4. Simple future (le futur simple)
  5. Conditional (le conditionnel présent)
  6. Present subjunctive (le présent du subjonctif)

My name is David Issokson. I’ve spent my whole life learning French and now I’m a full time online teacher. When I first faced French verbs in 1987 in junior high school I was baffled by the subject of verb tenses.

In this article I’d like to help you by explaining which verb tenses you should focus on in your studies.

If you look at a French verb conjugation website such as conjugation-fr.com you’ll find that are a ton of different tenses. Actually, 18 in total! While this looks very daunting at first it’s not so bad.

Actually, I suggest focusing on six tenses. If you get really comfortable with these six tenses and know how to use them inside and out then you’ll be perfectly well equiped to engage in fluent French conversation.

French verb tense for beginners and intermediates

Present Tense – le présent de l’indicatif

The first tense which you’ll need to focus on the present tense, formally called “the present indicative”. For this simple article we’ll use the verb, “parler” which is a regular ER verbs and means “to speak”. Here’s the conjugation:

Je parle I speak, am speaking
Tu parles You speak, are speaking (familiar)
Il/elle/on parle He, she, one speaks, is speaking
Nous parlons We speak
Vous parlez You speak (plural, formal)
Ils/elles parlent They speak

Simply put, in the first person singular form (je, meaning “I”) this tense indicates “I speak” or “I am speaking”. This is the verb tense that you’ll use most of the time when you’re speaking French.

One common mistake is for people to say “Je suis parle” when they want say “I am speaking”. The correct way to say this is simply: “Je parle” because the “I am + ing” bit is built into the verb.

However, if you just speak in the present tense you might make yourself understood. But, you won’t be able to express yourself very effectively. So, there are more tenses you’ll have to learn.

Compound past – le passé composé

The second tense which you’ll have to learn is called the passé composé. Simply put, this is the past tense. Let’s take a look at it using the verb “parler”:

J’ai parlé I spoke
Tu as parlé you spoke (familiar
Il/elle/on a parlé He, she, one spoke
Nous avons parlé We spoke
Vous avez parlé You spoke (plural, formal)
Ils/elles ont parlé They spoke

In the “je” form this would mean: “I spoke”. You use this verb tense to describe things that happened in the past at specific times.

For example, if you wanted to say, “I spoke to James at 6 o’clock” you’d use the past tense. “J’ai parlé à James à six heures”.

Imperfect tense – l’imparfait

With just the present tense and the passé composé you can talk about what you’re doing and what you did.

However, if you want to describe things that you used to do or things that took place over a period of time you need to use the imperfect tense or “l’imparfait“.

You also use this tense when you’re describing the background of a story.

Je parlais I used to speak, was speaking
Tu parlais You used to speak, were speaking
Il/elle/on parlait He, she one used to speak, was speaking
Nous parlions We used to speak, were speaking
Vous parliez You used to speak, were speaking
Ils/elles parlaient They used to speak, were speaking

So, here “Je parlais” means “I used to speak”. There’s no direct translation in French for “used to” because the French language requires the usage of the imperfect tense. To express actions which “used to” occur, you must conjugate the verb in the imperfect tense.

Future Tense – le futur simple

Just as the name implies you use this tense to talk about things you’ll do in the future. The futur simple is formed by combining the infinitive (to form) of the verb with the present tense ending of the verb avoir (to have).

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Je parlerai I will speak
Tu parleras You will speak (familiar)
Il/elle/on parlera He, she, one will speak
Nous parlerons We will speak
Vous parlerez You will speak (formal, plural)
Ils/elles parleront They will speak

In addition to the futur simple there’s another tense that you can use for describing things you’re doing to do. This is called the near future tense (le futur proche). It works like this:

The grammatical construction is aller (to go) in the present tense followed by the infinitive of the verb.

  • Je vais parler. I’m going to speak, will speak

You can use both the futur simple and the futur proche to express future actions. This page covers both of these French future tenses in detail.

Conditional – le conditionnel présent

After the future tense you will want to focus on the conditional tense. The conditional is used for expressing hypothetical actions. It is the “would” tense.

Je parlerais I would speak
Tu parlerais You would speak (familiar)
Il/elle/on parlerait He, she, one would speak
Nous parlerions We would speak
Vous parleriez You would speak (plural, formal)
Ils/elles parleraient They would speak

As you can see construction of the tense is very similar to the future. Take the infinitive then put on the appropriate endings. Actually, the conditional endings are the same as the imperfect endings (see above).

So, “Je parlerais” means “I would speak”.

  • Je parlerais français si j’avais un bon prof. I would speak French if I had a good teacher.

Present subjunctive – le subjonctif

The French subjunctive can be very challenging for students as this tense (really a ‘mood’ in French) doesn’t exist in English. Basically, the subjunctive is used to express wishes, emotions and doubts and often requires two subjects separated by que (that). Here’s how it looks:

que je parle that I speak
que tu parles that you speak (familiar)
qu’il/elle/on parle that he, she, one speaks
que nous parlions that we speak
que vous parliez that you speak (formal, plural)
qu’ils/elles parlent that they speak

The following is an example sentence using the French subjunctive. It is in the subjunctive because there are two subjects separated by que and there’s an element of wishing or wanting.

  • Je veux que tu parles francais. I want you to speak French.

Of all the verb tense on this page, learn the subjunctive last. It is more advanced and confusing. It’s a better idea to master the present, past and future first.


Imperative mood – l’imperatif

The imperative is the final tense which I suggest you learn as a beginner student. Actually, the imperative is technically called a “mood” and not a tense. It is used to express commands.

For example in English if you said, “Speak!” as in “Speak to me!”

Affirmative commands:

Parle! Speak! (tu, familiar)
Parlons! Let’s speak!
Parlez! Speak! (vous, formal and plural)

Negative commands:

Ne parle pas! Don’t speak!
Ne parlons pas! Let’s not speak!
Ne parlez pas! Don’t speak!

“Parle!” means “Speak!” in the tu form (to a peer or somebody younger than you). “Parlons!” means “Let’s speak” and “Parlez!” means “Speak!” to a group of people or somebody who you don’t know.

French verb tenses – conclusion

I sincerely hope this short article has helped to answer the question: “Which French verb tenses should I learn?”. There are many other more advanced tenses but for now try to focus on the six we’ve discussed on this page.

What do you think? Do you agree or agree with what I’ve written? What’s been your experience learning French verbs? Please let us know in the comments section below!

More on French verbs

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About David Issokson

David Issokson is a lifelong language enthusiast. His head is swimming with words and sounds as he speaks over six languages. Of all the languages he speaks, he's the most passionate about French! David has helped hundreds of students to improve their French in his private online lessons. When procrastinating working on his site, FrenchLearner.com, David enjoys his time skiing and hiking in Teton Valley, Idaho.

Comments

  1. Very helpful! Thank you. 🙂

  2. Helpful indeed, merci

  3. T Lannister says

    One remark, regarding conditionnel: “As you can see construction of the tense is very similar to the future”

    For me it is rather similar to the imparfait tense.

  4. T Lannister says

    I know what you mean now, sorry. What I meant was the ending, they are identical to those of imparfait (e.g. -aient in plural 3) adding the -er before (at least with this verb).

  5. Aarush Lal says

    Really nicely explained…. precise and to the point… better than my teacher at school!

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