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
Present tense (finir)
Future tense (finir)
Imperfect tense (finir)
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.
This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.