How do I say would in French?

This page deals with the different ways of translating the English word would. The French translation for would depends mainly on whether it is used to express a condition, a future-in-the-past, a habitual action or a 'historic future'.

would (or 'd) expressing a condition

When would is used to express a condition-- generally accompanied by a clause with if ...-- then it is generally translated in French with the conditional tense. A common pattern in French is thus:

si + imperfect, main clause with conditional tense

For example:

si j'avais plus d'argent, je pourrais m'acheter cette robe
if I had more money, I'd be able to buy myself that dress
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However, just as with English would, this isn't the only pattern involving the conditional. The condition can also be implied with a phrase such as mais ... (but ...):

je m'achèterais cette robe, mais je n'ai pas assez d'argent
I'd buy myself this dress, but I don't have enough money
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would (or 'd) indicating future-in-the-past

In English, will is generally replaced by would when it is turned into indirect speech reported in the past. A French translation of would of this future-in-the-past is generally also to use the conditional tense:

il a dit qu'il pourrait m'aider
he said he would be able to help me
il a dit qu'il viendrait avant huit heures!
he said he would come before eight
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would (or 'd) expressing a habitual action

When would expresses a habitual activity in the past (and is thus often a paraphrase for used to ...), the usual French translation is to use the imperfect tense.

je quittais la maison tous les jours à la même heure
I would leave (=used to leave) the house at the same time every day
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would expressing a 'historic future'

In English narratives, would is sometimes used to denote an event future to the current point in the narrative, but nonetheless actually occurring in the past. This 'historic future' use of would is typical in museum descriptions and historical accounts. (Note that in this case, the contraction 'd is not generally used.) The French equivalent is generally to use the future tense, and the conditional is not generally a possible French translation:

le roi mourra en 1457
the king would die in 1457
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If you've been to a French museum, you've probably seen mistranslations such as "the king will die in 1457". Now you know why...!

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.