The French They Never Taught You 7: The Conditional Doesn't Always Mean "Would"

As we saw in an earlier post, French students practice "if-then" sentences like the following:

S'il était riche, il irait en Australie.

If he were rich, he would go to Australia.

This can give students the impression that the conditional form of the verb (here: il irait) is always translated as "would."

But there is a second use of the conditional that students often don't learn. It's called the le conditionnel d’hypothèse and is used in French when reporting items for which you do not want to take responsibility. It can often be translated as "allegedly" or "reportedly."

For example, judges use the conditionnel d'hypothèse when describing the arguments of each side:

Le demandeur se serait rendu à Paris le 17 novembre 2001. This does not mean that "the plaintiff would have gone to Paris on November 17, 2001." It means: The plaintiff says that he went to Paris on November 17, 2001. OR: The plaintiff claims that he went to Paris on November 17, 2001. OR: The plaintiff allegedly went to Paris on November 17, 2001.

Journalists also use the conditionnel d'hypothèse to report on events where the facts are not yet certain.

Vingt-six personnes auraient trouvé la mort dans l’accident. Apparently, 26 people died in the accident.

Initial reports suggest that 26 people died in the accident.

Twenty-six people are said to have died in the accident.

Note that if you translate the verb incorrectly as "would have died" you are actually suggesting that they did not die, which is the exact opposite of what the sentence means. The sentence says that they "reportedly died" not that "they would have died if something hadn't happened."

Another surprising use of the conditional is with the phrase au cas où. For example, Elle apporta une carte au cas où ils se perdraient.

This means "She brought a map in case they got lost" (not "in case they would get lost").

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