Let me start by giving you the map, which you may call a “cheat sheet”:
A verb in the purest form (without a noun or subject pronoun to perform the action) is called an infinitive. The infinitives in English are characterized by the prefix “to” + “verb form”, the French infinitives are identified by three common endings.
Example: manger (to eat), avoir (to have), entendre (to hear)
Sometimes you’ll hear people call the -er ending the “first conjunction”, the -ir ending the “second conjunction”, and the -re ending the “third conjunction”.
In French, there are three moods: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive:
1. Indicative Mood (objective)
2. Subjunctive Mood (subjective)
3. Imperative Mood (commands)
The indicative mood conveys something as factual or objective. “Je mange le pomme”, (I eat the apple). The indicative mood is the one used most often because it indicates a fact or something that is happening, has happened, or will happen. On the cheat sheet, the blue areas are indicative, so you can see that most useful tenses happen in the indicative mood.
The imperative mood is often a command. For example: “Fermez la porte“, (Close the door). It may also be used to give an order, express a desire, make a request, offer advice, or recommend something. The red areas are imperative.
The subjunctive mood is the mood of doubt, subjectivity, uncertainty, emotion, and will. For example: “Je ne pense pas qu’il puisse y arriver”, (I don’t think he can get there). Generally, the subjunctive mood always follows “que” (though “que” does not always indicate the subjunctive). The orange areas on the chart are subjunctive.
The conditional mood is sometimes mentioned as a fourth mood, because linguistics is so controversial. The French conditional mood is very similar to the English conditional mood. It describes events that are not guaranteed to occur; often they are dependent on certain conditions. While the French conditional mood has a full set of conjugations, the English equivalent is just the modal verb “would” + main verb.
The French conditional is mainly used in if … then situations, to express what would happen if a condition were met. For example: “Il mangerait s’il avait faim”, (He would eat if he were hungry). The green areas on the chart are conditional.
Now we’ll talk about verb tenses. Actions (verbs) can be expressed either in the present, past, future, or conditional tenses. They appear in either simple or compound forms. Verbs that do not require changes in their stems are considered regular. Verbs requiring spelling or stem changes are considered irregular.
The indicative mood has a simple and a compound version of the present tense. The simple present is the same as in English. For example: “Je suis fatigue”, (I am tired). A compound version of the present tense is known as the present perfect.
The present perfect tense is formed by using the present tense of the auxiliary verb avoir (to have) + the appropriate verb’s past participle (regular or irregular form). Example: “J’ai parlé”, (I have spoken).
There are four versions of the past tense in the indicative mood. They are the simple past, pluperfect, present perfect and an imperfect tense.
There are two versions of the future tense in the indicative mood. They are future and past future. The future tense corresponds to the English “will” or “shall”, and the verb is in a simple conjugated form, in a regular or irregular manner. Example: “Je parlerai”, (I will speak).
The past future is formed by using the future tense of the auxiliary verb avoir + past participle (regular or irregular form). Example: “J’aurai parlé”, (I will have spoken).
Indicative mood summary: We have covered eight verb tenses consisting of two present, four past tenses, and two future .
The subjunctive mood has four verb tenses. As mentioned earlier, subjunctive mood is used to express everything except certainty and objectivity…like doubt, uncertainty, and subjectivity. There are many clauses that are used to make the mood subjunctive. You will find a long list of these clauses, here:
The present subjunctive mood simply uses “que” for that and the present conjugations. The clause is subordinate to the main clause.
The past subjunctive mood is used for the same reasons as the present subjunctive, and that is to express emotion, doubts, etc. The past subjunctive is used when the verb in the subordinate clause – the verb that follows que – happened before the verb in the main clause.
The imperfect subjunctive mood, is a literary verb form used in formal writing, such as literature, journalism, and history. Like all literary verb forms, you really only need to be able to recognize it, not use it. The imperfect subjunctive is used in a subordinate clause (so look for “que”) when the main clause is in the past. Its non-literary equivalent is the present subjunctive.
The pluperfect subjunctive mood, is formed by taking the past subjunctive form of avoir, preceding it with “que”, and following it with the past participle. Example: “que j’eusse parlé” (that I had spoken). The French pluperfect subjunctive is the least common literary tense.
The imperative mood has two verb tenses, past and present. With this mood you express an intention to influence the behavior of someone else, by giving them an order, invitation, or request. The French past imperative is very rare, because its usage is restricted to a single situation: it gives a command for something that must be done before a certain time. Example: “Soyez partis à midi”, (Be gone by noon).
The present imperative is conjugation is limited to nous, vous, and tu. When you see the command, you will not see the subject pronoun, just the conjugated verb. Example: “Fermez la porte!”, (Close the door!)
The past imperative is a compound conjugation, which means it has two parts: the imperative of the auxiliary verb (either avoir or être), and the past participle of the main verb.
Subjunctive mood summary: We have covered four verb tenses, consisting of one present, and three past tenses.
French also has three conditional tenses. The conditional is used to express what would happen given certain events or actions.
The first use, conditional present, is when you’d like to express a wish or suggestion. Example: “Je voudrais aller en France pendant les vacances d’hiver’’, (I’d like to go to France during winter holiday.)
The second use, past conditional, is a compound conjugation, which means it has two parts. The first is the conditional of the auxiliary verb (either avoir or être), and then the past participle of the main verb. The past conditional is often used in “si clauses” with the unmet condition in the past perfect. What does that mean? Example: “Si je l’avais vu, je l’aurais acheté”, (If I had seen it, I would have bought it). Notice the two tenses of the “avoir” verb, meaning “to have”.
The third use is the second form of the past conditional, which is the literary equivalent of the conditional perfect and looks like the pluperfect subjunctive (they are conjugated identically). It is important to be able to recognize the tense, but you will probably never need to conjugate it, since it is mainly in literary “si” clauses.
This is the one on wikipedia…and I’m pretty sure my versions are more complete, but the version below does break down the moods, so it may be worth having around. Just wish it included -re and -ir verbs: