Imperfect tense vs. Conditional tense of pouvoir

FrankC1Kwiziq Q&A regular contributor

Imperfect tense vs. Conditional tense of pouvoir

This exercise used the imperfect tense of pouvoir to translate the English word, could.  The French also use the conditional tense to translate could.  I am sometimes confused as to the correct choice when trying to translate could.  I searched the library for pouvoir and found lots of lessons regarding various tenses for pouvoir; however, I found none for the imperfect.  I am surmising that the use of the imperfect for pouvoir is appropriate in what I call "if I could-then I would" constructions. The if part would take the imperfect of pouvoir.  This is distinctive from a simple condition as in "Could you pass me the salt?", which I believe would use the conditional form of pouvoir.  I hope you understand my question.  I am simply trying to figure out when to use the imperfect form for pouvoir when trying to translate could.  Thanks in advance.

Asked 1 year ago
ChrisC1 Kwiziq Q&A super contributor Correct answer

Hi Frank, I think you're spot on! The problem arises often with the double meaning of the English "could". This can mean either the imperfect tense or the conditional of the auxiliary verb "can". And in conditional sentences, i.e., if-then constructions, it is important to keep those apart. Other than that, the French grammar parallels the English one perfectly in this case.

In French, just as in English, you never use the conditional in the si-part (if-part, in English) of the sentence.

Si je pouvais, je le ferais. -- If I could, I would do it.
pouvais is the imperfect tense (just as "could")
ferais is the conditional (just as "would")

Here's a sentence which makes it easier to tell those two forms apart:

Si tu étais sage, tu te tairais. -- If you were wise, you would keep quiet.
étais is imperfect tense of être ("were")
tairais is the conditional of tair ("would keep quiet")

CécileKwiziq team member

Hi Frank,

Just to add to Chris' excellent answer. You can always replace the 'could' by 'to be able to' to determine in your mind whether it is an imparfait or a conditionnel.

was able to = imparfait 

would be able to conditionnel

Hope that helps!

Imperfect tense vs. Conditional tense of pouvoir

This exercise used the imperfect tense of pouvoir to translate the English word, could.  The French also use the conditional tense to translate could.  I am sometimes confused as to the correct choice when trying to translate could.  I searched the library for pouvoir and found lots of lessons regarding various tenses for pouvoir; however, I found none for the imperfect.  I am surmising that the use of the imperfect for pouvoir is appropriate in what I call "if I could-then I would" constructions. The if part would take the imperfect of pouvoir.  This is distinctive from a simple condition as in "Could you pass me the salt?", which I believe would use the conditional form of pouvoir.  I hope you understand my question.  I am simply trying to figure out when to use the imperfect form for pouvoir when trying to translate could.  Thanks in advance.

Sign in to submit your answer

Don't have an account yet? Join today

Ask a question

Find your French level for FREE

Test your French to the CEFR standard

Find your French level
Let me take a look at that...