1) Forms. Before figuring out the subjunctive and conditional in French, let’s have a quick peek at the forms, in case you don’t have them memorized.
que je parle
que tu parles
que nous parlions
que vous parliez
Note that the subjunctive is formed by taking the present indicative of the ils form and adding the endings, -e, -es, -e, -ions, -iez, -ent. The conditional is formed by taking the future stem (usually the infinitive) and adding the imperfect endings -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient (of course dropping the final -e from -re verbs).
For further information on forming these two moods, you should consult a dictionary. This article deals with when to use them, a far trickier proposition.
2) Background. The
rules I’m about to give, properly applied, are what I call 90% rules. That is, they’re not in a grammar book, but
they work 90% or better of the time.
Whether you’re taking an exam or trying to get by as a pretty good, but
not fluent, French speaker in
Before we begin, there is one other thing we need to mention, and that is the indicative. This is the form you use without even thinking about what it is: Parlez-vous français? Oui, je parle français. Il est 9h. Il pleut. These are all in the indicative mood. The French, incidentally, speak of the indicative mode, that is, it’s a manner of speaking, not a mood, per se. The indicative mood shows that the speaker is indicating something. There’s no judgment, no hesitation, no doubt in the speaker’s mind. He or she is just stating what is – as far as he or she knows.
Moods in French distinguish the relationship between the speaker, the statement and objective reality. One way to think of French modes that may be helpful is to consider them as giving signals. That is, in using one mood instead of another, the speaker is giving the listener a cue as to how to take what he or she is saying. Someone speaking in the indicative is showing that he or she is merely giving information. There is no emotional content, no judgment and no meaningful uncertainty. Just the facts.
3) The conditional.
3a) The conditional is not an exceptionally troubling mood to understand – once you get the logic behind it. The conditional is used to make a statement that depends on a condition.
If I were rich, I would buy a Mercedes. (Si j’étais riche, j’acheterais une Mercedes.)
(condition – thing that will be true if the condition is true = si + imperfect – conditional)
This is pure and simple conditional: There is a condition (expressed with the imperfect in French) and then there is a statement in the conditional. The statement in the conditional will be true if the condition in the imperfect is met. The author is not rich. And he doesn’t have a Mercedes. I.e., the condition in the imperfect isn’t met so the statement in the conditional is not true. But drop a million bucks on my doorstep and I will have my Mercedes. Because then the condition will be met, making the statement in the conditional true.
3b) There are two uses of the conditional that trouble. The first (though more obscure) is the use of the conditional for the future in indirect discourse. What’s that mean? An example will make it clear:
He said he would bring wine. (Il a dit qu’il apporterait du vin.)
In this sentence, the condition isn’t so obvious. There isn’t a big ol’ if-clause flagging it. There are two other ways of writing this sentence: with direct discourse, and with what it means to the French speaker.
He said, “I will bring some wine.” (Il a dit, “j’apporterai du vin.”)
Now you see why I said it was the future for indirect discourse. When you give the actual speech (direct discourse) it is in the future. But what does our final sentence mean to a French speaker?
If he does what he said he would do, he will bring some wine.
(condition – statement limited by the condition)
One could also say:
If he does not do what he said he’d do, he will not bring any wine.
(The condition is not met so the second half is not the case.)
The French speaker uses the conditional for this type of sentence (as do we) because he does not have objective knowledge of whether the wine is to be brought. He only knows what a person said he or she would do. At , people might be saying, “Hurray! Tom brought the wine.” They might also be saying, “That lousy Tom forgot the wine,” or that he didn’t show up at all. By then, there might be objective knowledge of whether the wine was brought. But for now – at the time of our example sentence – the bringing of wine was a thing that would be true if Tom’s word was good and false if it was not. It was dependent on a condition.
3c) The last form of the conditional we’re going to look at is the most common and makes the least sense on its face. This is the use of the conditional for the sake of politeness.
Would you like to go to the movies with me? (Voudriez-vous m’accompagner au cinema?)
The if-clauses you could fill in are numerous: “If I’m lucky…” “If you are able…” “If God in His heaven smiles down on me…” You get the picture. Let’s flip this around to see what we’re talking about:
You would like to go to the movies with me?
Or, as you are hoping:
You would like to go to the movies with me.
This is the place where the conditional starts screaming to be in the subjunctive (about which we’ll hear next) but doesn’t actually get there because, alas, it’s not your emotions that get to decide whether Sally or June or Joe or whomever wants to go to the movies with you; their response does. So what we have is a statement that may be true:
You would like to go to the movies with me. -> You want to go to the movies with me.
or may be false:
You would like to go to the movies with me (if I were someone else, if you weren’t so busy, etc.). -> You don’t want to go to the movies with me.
Because it is a statement that is not yet known to be true or false but may or may not be depending on the response, it is conditioned, and thus in the conditional. Here are a few more.
Could you help me with this document? (Pourriez-vous m’aider avec ce document?)
Possible answers include: I can help you with this document (I have the time, know how to fix it, etc.). I can’t help you with this document (I’m too busy, don’t know Microsoft Word, etc.).
Will you (would you) have some oysters? (Vous prendriez des huîtres?)
Possible answers: I will have some oysters (I love them, I want to be polite, etc.). I won’t have some oysters (I’m allergic to them, I don’t put slimy things in my mouth, not on your life, etc.).
3e) To recap, the conditional is used if the statement in the conditional may be true or may be false depending on a condition, but it is not yet known whether the condition has been met.