Learn the French Sequence of Tenses

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Note: This is a fairly advanced French lesson. If you are not comfortable with all of the grammar concepts listed to the right, please click the links to study those prerequisites before attempting this lesson.

When speaking French (or any other language), it is important to use the correct sequence of tenses. In complex sentences, there is a relationship between the verb in the main clause and the verb in the subordinate clause. Using the correct sequence of tenses is just as important as conjugating the verbs correctly and using the appropriate mood.

For example, in French you can't say "Je ne savais pas que tu es étudiant"- you have to say Je ne savais pas que tu étais étudiant. Likewise, in English, you would say "I didn't know you were a student" rather than "I didn't know that you are a student." Because the verb in the main clause is in the past, the verb in the subordinate clause must be in the past as well.

In order to determine the correct sequence of tenses, you need to start by examining the temporal relationship between the verbs in the two clauses. The action of the verb in the main clause may occur beforeduring, or after the action of the subordinate verb. It is this temporal relationship that dictates the sequence of tenses. Although the French sequence of tenses is usually the same as the English sequence, there are some exceptions, so don't rely on your English knowledge to determine the correct sequence of tenses in French.

The following table shows the possible relationships between the tenses in the main and subordinate clauses. The "action" column indicates whether the action of the main verb occurs before, during, or after the action of the subordinate verb. Note that you often have a choice of tenses for the subordinate verb, thus it is up to you to choose the tense that expresses the correct nuance. At the same time (pardon the pun), you also need to be sure to use the correct mood: indicative, subjunctive, or conditional.

Main verb Action

Subordinate verb

Present before Future

J'espère que tu finiras.

Subjunctive

Je veux que tu finisses.

during Present

Je sais que tu as raison.

Subjunctive

Je doute que tu aies raison.

after

Passé composé

Je sais qu'il a triché.

Passé simple

Je sais qu'il tricha.

Imperfect

Je sais qu'il avait raison.

Pluperfect

Je sais qu'il avait mangé avant notre départ.

Past subjunctive

Je doute qu'il ait triché.

Future perfect

Je sais qu'il sera déjà parti.

Future before Future

Je te donnerai un livre que tu aimeras beaucoup.

Subjunctive

J'irai à l'ecole avant qu'il ne se réveille.

during Present

Il étudiera pendant que je travaille.

Subjunctive

Je l'achèterai bien que tu aies plus d'argent.

after

Passé composé

J'irai au musée que tu as visité.

Passé simple

J'irai au musée que tu visitas.

Imperfect

Je verrai le film que tu aimais.

Pluperfect

J'affirmerai qu'il était parti avant le cours.

Past subjunctive

Je serai content à condition qu'ils aient étudié.

Future perfect

Je vous dirai quand nous aurons décidé.

Note that the sequence of tenses for subordinate clauses is identical for main clauses in the present and future.

Main verb Action Subordinate verb
Past before Conditional

J'ai promis qu'il serait prêt à midi.

Past conditional

Si j'avais su, je t'aurais aidé.

*Imperfect subjunctive

Je doutais qu'il parlât si bien.

Present subjunctive

Je doutais qu'il parle si bien.

during

Passé composé

J'étudiais quand il est arrivé.

Passé simple

J'étudiais quand il arriva.

Imperfect

Je savais qu'il exaggérait.

*Imperfect subjunctive

Je voulais qu'il eût raison.

Present subjunctive

Je voulais qu'il ait raison.

after Pluperfect

Je savais qu'il avait triché.

*Pluperfect subjunctive

Je doutais qu'il eût triché.

Past subjunctive

Je doutais qu'il ait triché.

Conditional before

*Imperfect subjunctive

Je voudrais que tu le fisses.

Present subjunctive

Je voudrais que tu le fasses.

during

*Imperfect subjunctive

Je saurais qu'il mentît.

Present subjunctive

Je saurais qu'il mente.

after

*Pluperfect subjunctive

Je saurais qu'il eût menti

Past subjunctive

Je saurais qu'il ait menti.

*These literary tenses are nearly always replaced by their non-literary equivalents. The literary tense is the "official" tense to be used in the construction, but in reality, the imperfect subjunctive and pluperfect subjunctive are obsolete in spoken French and rare in written French.