Back in the day, when I started my french training, I struggled with the five main verb tenses as many new students do. While the present tense is always considered the easiest, I confess that I always found it a bit abrupt. For example, “je mange” which translates simply as “I eat”. It isn’t the normal “voice” we would use in English, at least not most of the time. We CAN use it, in context, such as where someone might be talking about avoiding unhealthy snacks, and they might say, “If I get hungry during the day, I eat an apple instead.” However, in general, we would more likely say, “I’ll eat an apple”, or, out of that context, simply “I am eating an apple” to describe it in the present. A slightly more passive voice which describes the action rather than takes the action.
With passé composé vs. imparfait, I struggled not necessarily with the rules but with the actual usage – I tend to speak in a passive voice in English, and in my view, that requires the imparfait for the past. I am “describing” what happened in the past, and the imparfait always seems more natural to me, even when a situation clearly calls for passé composé.
The future tense is relatively straightforward, although I have tended in normal spoken usage to pre-empt the future tense with aller in front of it. Not awesome, but functional.
The fifth tense, the conditional, always “seemed” rather simple to me, apparently because for 20 years, I haven’t been using it correctly. To me, the conditional was a great way to lessen the certainty of the future action. For example, if I was going to eat an apple, I would use the future tense – je mangerai une pomme. If I was thinking/planning to eat an apple, but I might not, I would use the conditional – je mangerais une pomme.
Since the sound is almost identical verbally, I never really thought about it that much for oral and in written, it is obvious. Until I went to do the practice this week for the written test that I have coming up in eight days. While I got most of them right, I missed 3 or 4 questions where I thought the conditional was a better tense than the future, or vica versa. In each case, depending on the context and the degree of certainty, I bopped between choosing the conditional or the future tense. I knew the right “time”, just not the right tense, so to speak.
In discussing the errors / corrections with my teacher, I realized that the reason I’m confused is that I have completely misunderstood the use of conditional. With passé composé, present and future, there is no need for any other indication in the phrase to “concord” with the verb tense – j’ai mange une pomme, je mange une pomme, je mangerais une pomme. Imparfait is a bit more contextual in nature, and while it can stand on its own, it often has other phrases which require the imparfait, like “A ce moment-la, je mangais une pomme”.
By contrast, apparently, conditional requires the context (almost) EVERY TIME, usually with the word “si” (if) to indicate what the condition is that will trigger whether it becomes real. So, in the examples above, “If I get hungry during the day, I can eat an apple” becomes conditional because “if I get hungry” specifies the condition. Seems simple enough, and I’ve always known that “si” required the conditional.
What I didn’t know was that the conditional also requires the “si” (a two-way rule, not a one-way rule). I thought if you used the conditional, it softened the “future”, even if you didn’t specify the exact condition. For example, if you were talking with a friend, and you were saying goodbye, you might say, “Okay, gotta run. I might call you this weekend”. In that context, I thought it would be perfectly acceptable to use the conditional “téléphonerais” rather than the “future”, or to conjugate it with another verb, both indicating it wasn’t certain that the call would take place. Apparently not.
The “official” rule (and of course there are always exceptions, and then exceptions to the exceptions i.e. rules are made to be broken) is that if I am using the conditional tense for (almost) any verb, I need to put the condition that triggers it somewhere else in the sentence.
The main exception though is if you use a verb that already indicates it’s conditional because it, itself, is not certain…like “pouvoir”, “aimer”, “vouloir”, “souhaiter”. Those four verbs already say “could”, “would like to”, “want to”, or “wish to” in the verb itself, so those can be conditional all on their own without having the “si” elsewhere in the phrase.
So I can conjugate pourrais, voudrais, aimerais, and souhaiterais in front of my regular verb (like téléphoner in the infinitive), and all of those are good additions before the verb I had been previously putting in the conditional by itself. Lots of people would also add “penser” to the list, but that’s more usage than formally acceptable, apparently, and better used with “que”.
Almost 20 years, and it never came up that I was using it completely (or near completely) wrong? How is that possible?
I can partially answer that question myself, I suppose. Which is that the main focus of my training has been on reading (where it would be clear) and oral (where the “wrong” use wouldn’t necessarily be noticeable i.e. the future would have been perfectly fine, because I didn’t use “si”, and it would sound close enough).
So where would it show up? Only in the written, and even then, probably only in the exam. None of my training had me writing out tons of paragraphs and submitting them for corrections; instead, we did exercises out of books, and again, they would appear correctly in the text there. And, on the rare occasion where I made an error on practice exams, I probably thought it was an error of spelling or conjugation, not verb tense.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself today. On Thursday morning, it was a huge source of discouragement.
It’s good that I understand it now, lousy that I have been screwing up something so simple and fundamental, and have to “unlearn” it.