Which French tenses/moods/voices can I exclude from daily conversation?

I’m confused about the French tenses/moods/voices in terms of which ones I may use for spoken and written French. I would like some clarification on this matter.

Which French tenses/moods/voices can I exclude from daily conversation? Are their some tenses/moods/voices people may use in daily conversation to show some affectation in their speech, just as we do in English?

I look forward to your feedback.

Tenses that are considered ‘high register’ and therefore very unlikely to be used in ordinary speech are:

In the indicative mood: the passé simple (preterite or past historic) and the passé antérieur (past anterior);

In the subjunctive mood: the imparfait (imperfect) and the plus-que-parfait (pluperfect).

Thanks Cunctator. I wish more grammar books/web sites were as clear on that issue.

Can you provide some examples of these and the acceptable alternatives?

…A few simple sentences to illustrate. Thx!

passé simple :
“Je mangeai au restaurant avec Julie. Nous passâmes un agréable moment”.

In spoken conversation, you’d never say it this way but say :
“J’ai mangé au restaurant avec Julie. C’était sympa.” (;)) (passé composé and *imparfait *respectively)

Ah. J’eus compris maintenands. Merci. :slight_smile:

J’ai compris maintenant.

J’espérais que tu l’eusses compris.

Aaah, and there **Gymnopithys **gives us a great subjunctive example !

Which, as with all things subjunctive, sounds posh and stuck-up as hell :}. But unlike with passé simple/imparfait/passé composé you couldn’t really switch grammatical tenses on the fly there, strictly speaking : the subjunctive is always required after a conjunction (que, qui etc…).

So what do we do instead when talking to each other and don’t particularly want to sound like stuffy 18th century dead white men ? We simply avoid structuring our sentences that way to begin with.
For example, Gymno’s second sentence could be expressed simpler and more casual, such as “C’était l’idée” ou “C’était bien mon intention” or even “C’est ce que j’espérais que tu comprennes” (still subjunctives, but the present, which is a lot more common) or something like that, which would keep the sense and content of the sentence without foraying into treacherous grammatical ground.
Because open secret : half of French speakers couldn’t conjugate in the subjunctive if their life depended on it, either :).

There’s a distinction to be made between subjonctif présent (or le présent du subjonctif) and the other tenses of subjonctif.

Basically, everybody uses subjonctif présent pretty often verbally, and it doesn’t sound stuck-up. Most people will also use it in writing, but the chances of a typo are pretty high.

But l’imparfait du subjonctif and le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif are, indeed, stuck-up. Nobody uses them verbally, they’re only used in novels (and seldom in recent novels).

Now what I’d like is an explanation of why every single time I’ve taken French lessons, the passé simple has been one of the tenses we got tested on :smack: Do native speakers also get tested a lot on these not-so-often used tenses? It certainly is so in Spanish, where the lessons are on grammar (100% prescriptivist) and you better not do such things as use an infinitive with imperative function.

Because the passé simple is the more literary tense, and being able to use it effectively is, or can be, classy as fuck (be it in writing or in conversation). And is generally more elegant than the passé composé, even though it’s harder to work with. Conversely, you have to be able to know what the passé simple looks like and means to be able to follow and enjoy all that classy classical lit. that you line up on your bedroom shelves to look all deep and cultured and shit :).

So yeah, we got extensively tested on it in school, of course. And the subjunctives, oh yes. Also the spelling of really obscure words Emile Zola wiped his ass with once. When all is said and done, we got an official government sanctioned body to regiment the proper use of language, brah/sistah. We don’t fuck around with the prescriptivism :).

More seriously though, there does exist a small semantical nuance between passé simple and passé composé, strictly speaking. If you say/write “Quand je suis arrivé en ville…” it is implied that you’re still in the town as you speak/write. If you write “Quand j’arrivai en ville…” however, the implication is that you’re about to describe what happened at that time, but you’re not necessarily in the town any more at the time of writing. Or more generally, the passé simple is about the far past, recollecting old memories and the like; while the passé composé is for the recent past, “telling you what just recently happened”.

But again, that’s the full, proper, righteous use of the language as prescribed by grammarians. In practice nobody makes that distinction any more, or even realize it exists. The passé composé is a lot less finicky, so that what people use in almost all cases these days. In writing however, the third persons singular/plural of *passé simple *are still relatively common for narration at least - but it’s still more about elegance than strict grammar I think.

Google Translate has fun with this (not that I know how correct it is):

I’m guessing the second is the fancier verb form.

Nonetheless, when I read Maigret stories, I was quite surprised by this: Maigret would sit the suspect down and ask him what happened. And the low type was quoted as using the passe’ simple to tell his story: Je fut…

Merci á tous.

Cettes commentaires m’ont vraiment beaucoup m’aidé. (Hope I expressed it correctly!)


I think it’s because, although you don’t need to know passé simple to have a French conversation, you definitely do need to know it to read French literature. Even fairly modern literature, such as Simenon, as was mentioned, is full of it.

It was typical, at least until modern times, for all writing of publishable quality to be written in passé simple instead of passé compose.

I note that Spanish isn’t so picky about the subjunctive:

In colloquial print media I found this sentence in English:
“If it weren’t for him [the ship captain] hitting those rocks we wouldn’t be here.”
This has been translated into Spanish-American thus:
“Si el no hubiera estrellado el barco contra estas rocas, no estariamos aqui.”

  • Hubiera * is in the past subjunctive; * estariamos * is in the conditional, used after “if” (si).

( I’m using a tablet, which doesn’t make Spanish diacritical marks.)

Excuse me: I don’t know why I typed in "Spanish-American. " It should read just "Spanish. ":o

Do you know if an actual Spanish-speaking translator was involved in that translation? It’s got three things which are strange: the explicit subject, the estas (las would have been more common, since you already know which rocks you’re talking about) and that second verb.

The second verb is incorrect if the speaker isn’t on the rock any more. Note that the English form is a present (“we wouldn’t be”, not “we wouldn’t have been”), yet another detail in which the translation is too close to the original English. The sentence may be correct in Spanish from Harlem, but don’t try to pass it in Spanish Language class.

To be honest about it, the original English came from an issue of * Cracked * from the late 1970s; the Spanish from the Spanish translation that came out months later. (Both were from the magazine’s last - page feature "Shut-Ups, " rendered * Tapabocas * in Spanish.)

That said, how would you have translated it? (Your mention of Harlem was not far off, since the magazine was published in Manhattan. )

It doesn’t count as a zombie if it’s from two months ago, does it?
I would have translated it as “Si no hubiera estrellado el barco contra las rocas, no estaríamos aquí” or “…así” (in this situation, rather than in this place). No explicit subject, no “estas” unless they are being interviewed while on the rocks themselves or within arms reach of them.

Android gizmos give diacritics (all of them, and when working in any language) if you press a key and keep it pressed. After a few seconds of pressing e, you get your choice of e, é, è, ê, ë…