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.

Prerequisites:
Verb tenses: Present, Passé composé, Imperfect, Pluperfect, Future, Literary tenses
Verb moods: Subjunctive, Conditional, Imperative
Conjunctions, Relative pronouns, Subordinate clauses, Si clauses, Indirect speech

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 verbActionSubordinate verb
PresentbeforeFutureJ'espère que tu finiras.
  SubjunctiveJe veux que tu finisses.
 duringPresentJe sais que tu as raison.
  SubjunctiveJe doute que tu aies raison.
 afterPassé composéJe sais qu'il a triché.
  Passé simpleJe sais qu'il tricha.
  ImperfectJe sais qu'il avait raison.
  PluperfectJe sais qu'il avait mangé avant notre départ.
  Past subjunctiveJe doute qu'il ait triché.
  Future perfectJe sais qu'il sera déjà parti.
    
FuturebeforeFutureJe te donnerai un livre que tu aimeras beaucoup.
  SubjunctiveJ'irai à l'ecole avant qu'il ne se réveille.
 duringPresentIl étudiera pendant que je travaille.
  SubjunctiveJe l'achèterai bien que tu aies plus d'argent.
 afterPassé composéJ'irai au musée que tu as visité.
  Passé simpleJ'irai au musée que tu visitas.
  ImperfectJe verrai le film que tu aimais.
  PluperfectJ'affirmerai qu'il était parti avant le cours.
  Past subjunctiveJe 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
PastbeforeConditionalJ'ai promis qu'il serait prêt à midi.
  Past conditionalSi j'avais su, je t'aurais aidé.
  *Imperfect subjunctiveJe doutais qu'il parlât si bien.
  Present subjunctiveJe doutais qu'il parle si bien.
 duringPassé composéJ'étudiais quand il est arrivé.
  Passé simpleJ'étudiais quand il arriva.
  ImperfectJe savais qu'il exaggérait.
  *Imperfect subjunctiveJe voulais qu'il eût raison.
  Present subjunctiveJe voulais qu'il ait raison.
 afterPluperfectJe savais qu'il avait triché.
  *Pluperfect subjunctiveJe doutais qu'il eût triché.
  Past subjunctiveJe doutais qu'il ait triché.
   
Conditionalbefore*Imperfect subjunctiveJe voudrais que tu le fisses.
  Present subjunctiveJe voudrais que tu le fasses.
 during*Imperfect subjunctiveJe saurais qu'il mentît.
  Present subjunctiveJe saurais qu'il mente.
 after*Pluperfect subjunctiveJe 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.