Sunday, October 30, 2011

"if" conditional grammar in French and English,
and other remarks on tense

While I wouldn't use this as a rule of thumb, I think it's important to point out that European languages often bear striking resemblances to each other, thanks to their common history. Case in point: how to handle "if" conditional sentences in French and English.*

[NB: This post assumes a certain level of knowledge of both languages.]

The basic format in French looks like this, with the "si (if)" clause coming first:

1. présent --> présent/futur

2. imparfait --> conditionnel

3. plus-que-parfait --> conditionnel passé


1. S'il pleut, j'apporterai mon parapluie. (cas réel)

2. Si j'étais roi, tu ne m'aimerais pas. (cas irréel/hypothétique)

3. Si j'avais su, je ne l'aurais jamais fait. (description d'un passé alternatif/hypothétique/contrefactuel)

In English, the grammar works exactly the same way. To wit:

1. present --> future

2. past --> conditional

3. pluperfect (i.e., past perfect) --> conditional past


1. If it rains, I'll take my umbrella. (real case: planning an action that will definitely happen)

2. If I were king, you wouldn't like me. (unreal/hypothetical case: we're just speculating/imagining)

3. If I had known, I'd never have done it. (description of an alternative/hypothetical/counterfactual past)

So if you've learned the grammar in French for "if" conditional sentences, you can apply it to English, because it maps onto English perfectly. And let this be a warning to all the ungrammatical people who start a sentence with "If I could have..." or "If I would have...": you're not doing it right.

WRONG: If I would have known, I'd have been there sooner.
RIGHT (1): If I had known, I'd have been there sooner.
RIGHT (2): Had I known, I'd have been there sooner. (Inversion takes the place of writing "if.")

Had you not read this blog post, you might have made some critical errors in that essay you're writing. While I'm at it, how well do you know your past tenses?

Simple past (le passé simple in French**):

John ate a huge breakfast.
Meg slept like the dead.
Roger swam the English Channel yesterday.
You farted!

NB: The verb is a single unit expressing a fixed action set firmly in the past.

Present perfect (le passé composé, or "compound past," in French):

John has eaten a huge breakfast, so he's not hungry.
Meg has slept like the dead since she stumbled into the apartment last night.
Roger has swum the English Channel before.
You have farted your last fart in this house, young lady!

NB: Even though this is a past tense, it's called present perfect because the helping verb, "to have," is conjugated in the present tense: has eaten, has slept, has swum, etc. This tense usually describes a past action or event that somehow connects to the present. For example, when someone says "I have been to France," they're implying that the experience of having gone to France remains alive in them. Compare that to the simple past construction "I went to France last year," which merely refers to a specific event locked firmly in the past. Is this an absolute distinction between the tenses? Of course not. But it's a very good general guideline.

Past perfect, also known as the pluperfect tense (le plus-que-parfait in French):

John had eaten far too much.
Meg had slept like the dead through many hurricanes in her youth.
Roger had swum the English Channel five times before he took up BASE jumping.
I moved out of the bedroom and into the parlor on the other side of the mansion because you had farted in your sleep so many times.

NB: The pluperfect tense generally suggests a contrast between two events in the past: the event that's further back in the past is the one that takes the pluperfect. In the fart example above, the incessant and intolerable farting came before the other person's disgusted move to the parlor, which is why the construction is "you had farted." The pluperfect is called the past perfect because the helping verb is conjugated in the past tense.

Practice what you've learned!

I. Finish (or begin) these sentences:

1. Had you not arrived in time...

2. She would have married you...

3. If I see that man again today, ...

4. If Slavoj Žižek were president of the European Union...

5. ...Emmanuelle Mimieux won't love you, Frederick.

II. What's the correct answer? Choose TWO! (Highlight the space below the last multiple choice option to see the correct answers.)

1. If Gerald the tiger _____ , none of these poor villagers would have been eaten.
a. had been fed on schedule
b. hadn't gotten so angry
c. was feeling tranquil
d. wouldn't be provoked
Correct answers: A, B.

2. I'll do it if you _____ .
a. do
b. would
c. shall
d. don't
Correct answers: A, D.

3. What would you do if _____ ?
a. you would have a year's free time
b. you could make yourself invisible
c. you had a million dollars
d. hadn't stolen that circular saw blade
Correct answers: B, C.

4. I'd be all over her if _____ !
a. only she had more money
b. you might have pointed her out to me
c. she would have paid attention to me
d. her eyes weren't so crazy-looking
Correct answers: A, D.

5. _____ had he not caught Rachel Dawes in flagrante delicto in a hotel room with the Joker.
a. Batman won't apologize for what he did
b. Batman wouldn't have gone insane
c. Batman cannot blind himself
d. Batman would have stayed away from a career in stand-up comedy
Correct answers: B, D.

*French is a Romance language while English is classified as Germanic, but both belong to the much larger Indo-European family of languages. English and French both also share a large number of Latin- and Greek-derived words.

**Le passé simple is considered more of a written/literary form than a spoken form of French, although I have heard some older French folks use le passé simple during lectures. We English-speakers are freer in our use of the simple past tense in spoken English, which makes the English simple past and the French passé simple a bit difficult to compare.


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