Getting to grips with French verbs

French verbs are a difficult part of the language to get to grips with because a French verb can have a relatively large number of forms. Books on French verbs typically give big lists of conjugation tables that show these forms organised by tense (present, future etc) and subject (I, you, he, she etc). For example, the verb finir would generally be listed like this:

je finis
tu finis
il finit
nous finissons
vous finissez
ils finissent
Present tense (finir)
je finirai
tu finiras
il finira
nous finirons
vous finirez
ils finiront
Future tense (finir)
je finissais
tu finissais
il finissait
nous finissions
vous finissiez
ils finissaient
Imperfect tense (finir)
je regarde
tu regardes
il regarde
nous regardons
vous regardez
ils regardent
Present tense (regarder)

Laying verb forms out in this way lets you verify the exact spelling of any particular form. But it can make it difficult to see the wood for the trees. In practice, French verbs are a lot simpler than they look on paper, especially when laid out in tables as above:

  • Many of the apparent complications are in the spelling system only.
  • It's difficult to see patterns across tenses.

Here are some patterns that aren't always pointed out and aren't very easy to see from traditional conjugation tables:

  • For pretty much any verb in the language, the je, tu and il/elle forms sound the same. We'll call this the je/tu/il form. (Major exceptions: key verbs avoir, être, aller.)
  • For -er verbs, the je/tu/il form sounds like the infinitive minus the final -er; for -ir verbs like the infinitive minus the -r. For other verbs, it generally sounds like the infinitive minus the final syllable (men-tir, sor-tir, par-tir, ven-dre, mou-dre, mou-voir, me-ttre...).
  • Every tu form of any tense of any verb ends in either -s or -x (though never pronounced). And only a handlful of special verbs have -x.
  • Every il/elle form of any tense of any verb ends in either -e (for the present tense of -er verbs plus verbs like ouvrir) or -t (virtually all verbs that aren't -er verbs). Major exceptions: aller > va, avoir > a.
  • Every ils/elles form of any tense of any verb ends in -nt in the spelling. No exceptions.
  • The -ss- in -ir verbs appears in any form where the ending begins with a vowel.
  • The vous form of -dre and 'irregular' verbs often has the same consonant as the infinitive: mentir > mentez; vendre > vendons; devoir > devons. Some verbs in -dre have -s- or occasionally another consonant, but they're rare (mou-dre > vous moulez). French native speakers don't always acquire these exceptions instinctively.
  • The nous form of any verb of any tense is almost always the same as the vous but with the final -ez replaced with -ons. Notable exceptions: nous faisons/vous faites; nous sommes/vous êtes. This rule does not hold for the nous/vous forms of the passé simple, but those forms are virtually never used.
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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.