An Introduction to Translating French Verb Tenses and Moods

Boys hands taking a chocolate chip muffin from a muffin tray
This person already 'took' the muffin, so they would say 'je pris' meaning 'I took'. Mrs_2015/Getty Images

This lesson is an overview of how French and English verb forms match up, and we illustrate points with examples: the je form of prendre (to take) and the vous form of aller (to go). Make sure you know how regular verbs are fully conjugated in the simple and compound tenses and how the irregular verbs prendre and aller are fully conjugated in the simple and compound tenses.

French has many different tenses and moods, which come in two forms: simple (one word) and compound (two words). Translating French verbs into English, and vice versa, can be difficult for several reasons:

  • The two languages don't have the same verb tenses and moods.
  • Some simple forms in one language are compound in the other.
  • English has modal verbs (unconjugated auxiliary verbs such as "could," "might" and "must," that express the mood of the verb that follows), but French does not. 
  • Many verbal constructions have more than one possible equivalent in the other language, depending on the context.

1. Simple Verb Tenses

Simple tenses consist of only one word. Compound tenses consist of more than one word: usually an auxiliary, or helping, word and a past participle. 

  •     je prends > I take, I am taking, I do take
  •    vous allez > you go, you are going, you do go
  •    je prendrai > I will take
  •    vous irez > you will go
  •    je prendrais > I would take
  •    vous iriez > you would go
  •    je prenais > I was taking
  •    vous alliez > you were going
  •    je pris > I took
  •    vous allâtes > you went
  •    (que) je prenne > (that) I take, "me to take"
  •    Il est important que je prenne... > It's important that I take...
  •    Veut-elle que je prenne...? > Does she want me to take...?
  •    (que) vous alliez > (that) you go, "you to go"
  •    Il est important que vous alliez... > It's important that you go...
  •    Veut-elle que vous alliez...? > Does she want you to go...?
  •    (que) je prisse > (that) I took
  •    (que) vous allassiez > (that) you went

2. Compound Tenses

As we did with simple (one-word) tenses, for compound tenses, which consist of an auxiliary verb and a past participle, we will be using examples: the je form of prendre (to take) and the vous form of aller (to go). Remember that these are irregular verbs and that prendre needs avoir as the auxiliary verb, while aller requires être. To properly absorb this lesson, make sure you understand how to fully conjugate compounds verbs in every tense and mood, in particular the compound versions of the example words: prendre and aller.

  •    j'ai pris > I took, I have taken, I did take
  •    vous êtes allé(e)(s) > you went, you have gone, you did go
  •    j'aurai pris > I will have taken
  •    vous serez allé(e)(s) > you will have gone
  •    j'aurais pris > I would have taken
  •    vous seriez allé(e)(s) > you would have gone
  •    j'eusse pris > I would have taken
  •    vous fussiez allé(e)(s) > you would have gone

The following French compound conjugations all translate to the English past perfect, because these tense distinctions, which are so important in French, aren't made in English. In order to understand how the French verb forms are different in meaning and usage, please follow the links.

  •    j'avais pris > I had taken
  •    vous étiez allé(e)(s) > you had gone
  •    (que) j'aie pris > I had taken
  •    (que) vous soyez allé(e)(s) > you had gone
  •    (que) j'eusse pris > I had taken
  •    (que) vous fussiez allé(e)(s) > you had gone
  •    j'eus pris > I had taken
  •    vous fûtes allé(e)(s) > you had gone

3. Impersonals and Imperatives

To illustrate a comparison of these French and English verb forms, we will again use examples: the nous form of prendre (to take) and the vous form of aller (to go).

a. Imperatives

Imperatives are a verb mood that's used to: 

  • give an order
  • express a desire
  • make a request
  • offer advice
  • recommend something
  •    (nous) prenons > let's take
  •    (vous) allez -> go
  •    (nous) ayons pris > let's have (something) taken
  •    (vous) soyez allé(e)(s) > have gone

b. Impersonals

"Impersonal" means that the verb does not change according to grammatical person. Why? Because no person or other living being carries out the action. Therefore, impersonal verbs have only one conjugation: the third person singular indefinite, or il, which in this case is equivalent to "it" in English. They include expressions like il faut (it's necessary) and weather terms such as il pleut (it's raining).

Simple impersonal conjugations:

  •    prenant > taking
  •    allant > going
  •    pris > took, taken
  •    allé > gone, went

Compound impersonal conjugations:

  •    ayant pris > having taken
  •    étant allé(e)(s) > having gone
  •    avoir pris > have taken, having taken
  •    être allé(e)(s) > have gone, having gone