Conditional Phrases and Si Clauses in French

No, not Santa Claus – si clause! A si clause in French expresses a condition that is linked to a resulting action. They are constructed with a dependent clause showing the condition, which is introduced by the word si, and a main clause, one that may stand independently that shows the resulting action. “Si on fêtait le Nouvel An ensemble, ça serait magnifique !” is a si clause that shows the conditions that would need to be in place in order to have a magnificent time.

3 Main Types of French Si Clauses

There are three main types of si clauses, two of which involve verbs in the conditional mode. These three types of si clauses follow the patterns below:

si + présent → futur
si + imparfait → conditionnel présent
si + plus-que-parfait → conditionnel passé

The order of these clauses is not fixed, i.e., the clauses can be moved around, with the dependent clause appearing either before or after the main clause. “Si vous pratiquez le r français tous les jours, vous arriverez à prononcer cette consonne fricative uvulaire voisée” can also be expressed as “Vous arriverez à prononcer cette consonne fricative uvulaire voisée si vous pratiquez le r français tous les jours”.

The first line in the table above uses the present and future tenses rather than a past tense and a conditional. This reflects its position as the most likely scenario to occur of the three. The second line is more hypothetical, expressing a condition that would need to be in place in order for a resulting action to come about. The third line actually places the second line in the past, indicating that something could have occurred in order for a certain resulting action to come about. This is the least likely scenario to occur. In fact, it probably didn’t happen.

"Si" Can Be Translated "As If" In English

The word si in these clauses can be translated as if in English, which is why these types of clauses are sometimes referred to as if / then clauses by English-speakers. Be aware that in the French version, there is no word corresponding to the word then. The sequence of tenses and modes is similar to those that would be used in their English equivalents. Compare the following:

1 FR Si mon mari m’achète un t-shirt chez Target pour Noël, je l’achèterai un t-shirt chez Walmart !
2 EN If my husband buys me a t-shirt at Target for Christmas, I will buy him a t-shirt at Walmart!
3 FR Si nous étions à Paris, nous pourrions écouter le Messie à la Philharmonie de Paris.
4 EN If we were in Paris, we could listen to the Messiah at the Paris Philharmonic.
5 FR Si des rennes étaient arrivés devant la maison au réveillon de Noël, nous aurions été très surpris.
6 EN If reindeer had arrived in front of the house on Christmas Eve, we would have been very surprised.

The first two sentences illustrate a situation that could potentially happen. The speaker’s choice of gift, expressed in the future tense, is contingent upon what she is given at present (no pun intended). This must be the preferred si clause of dermatologists, since I’ve heard it referred to as an SPF sentence (si+présent→futur).

The third and fourth sentences illustrate a hypothetical situation in which the speaker and others could potentially listen to the Messiah at the Paris Philharmonic, if certain things were in place, such as being in the city of Paris. It is a possible occurrence, but gives the impression that the speaker is not in Paris, and so it is a less probable scenario than the SPF phrase.

The fifth and sixth sentences illustrate a past hypothetical situation of the appearance of reindeer on Christmas Eve. Had this occurred, observers would have been very surprised, but as a past hypothetical it conveys the idea that it did not occur.  

Formation of the Conditional

Since two of the three si clauses use conditional forms, let us go over verbs conjugated in the conditional mode. To form the present conditional, use the same radical as the one you would use for the futur simple. This would be the infinitive for regular verbs in the first and second groups, e.g. fêter, finir, dormir, and the infinitive with the final e dropped for verbs in the third group, such as rendre. The radicals of certain irregular verbs change, e.g. pouvoir has the futur simple and conditionnel radical pourr- and se souvenir has the futur simple and conditionnel radical souviendr-. Some radicals change completely, as do ser- for the verb être and ir- for the verb aller. Notice that all of these radicals, whether regular or irregular, end with r, which is why we refer to the r futur when forming them. To form verbs in the conditional mode, we add imperfect endings to these radicals.

Verbs from the first group follow this pattern:


je fêterais nous fêterions
tu fêterais vous fêteriez
elle, il, on fêterait elles, ils fêteraient

This pattern is similar for verbs in the second group, such as finir or dormir (-ir verbs without the infixe -iss).

For the third group of verbs, the final e of the infinitive is dropped before adding imperfect endings:


je descendrais nous descendrions
tu descendrais vous descendriez
elle, il, on descendrait elles, ils descendraient

Irregular verbs may have irregular radicals:


je pourrais nous pourrions
tu pourrais vous pourriez
elle, il, on pourrait elles, ils pourraient

se souvenir

je me souviendrais nous nous souviendrions
tu te souviendrais vous vous souviendriez
elle, il, on se souviendrait elles, ils se souviendraient

The conditionnel passé is formed using the conditional form of an auxiliary verb (avoir or être) and the past participle of the action on which you are focusing.


j’aurais fêté nous aurions fêté
tu aurais fêté vous auriez fêté
elle, il aurait fêté elles, ils auraient fêté


je serais descendue, descendu nous serions descendues, descendus
tu serais descendue, descendu vous seriez descendue(s), descendu(s)
elle, il, on serait descendue, descendu elles, ils seraient descendues, descendus


j’aurais pu nous aurions pu
tu aurais pu vous auriez pu
elle, il, on aurait pu elles, ils auraient pu

se souvenir

je me serais souvenue, souvenu nous nous serions souvenues, souvenus
tu te serais souvenue, souvenu vous vous seriez souvenue(s), souvenu(s)
elle, il, on se serait souvenue, souvenu elle, il se seraient souvenues, souvenus

The conditional is considered an irrealis mode, meaning that the designated action is not known to have happened as the phrase is being uttered. It can, of course, be used independently of si clauses to express something that is contingent upon certain circumstances. “J’aurais essayé le dessert, mais il n’en restait pas” [“I would have tried the dessert, but there wasn’t any left”] illustrates a hypothetical action in the past that never occurred because it was contingent upon certain circumstances that were not in place.

We are also familiar with the conditional mode as a form of politeness, used with verbs such as vouloir, pouvoir, avoir, and aimer when making requests, e.g., “Je voudrais un café, s’il vous plaît”; “Pourriez-vous fermer la fenêtre ?”; “Est-ce que vous auriez l’heure ?”; “Nous aimerions nous asseoir sur la terrasse”.

The inclusion of the conditional mode in si clauses reflects the idea of if that is indicated by the conjunction si. This conjunction comes from Latin and is used in a similar way in Latin phrases, e.g. Virgil’s phrase, “Si parva licet componere magnis” [“If we may compare small things with great”]. If we may compare si clauses with other grammatical constructions in French, it becomes apparent that si clauses are quite formulaic, portable, and will travel well with you throughout your francophone activities.

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