Irregular verb patterns in French

On the previous page, we saw that French has a handful of very common but very irregular verbs. The differences between the majority of other "irregular" verbs in French actually boil down to very few details, which can change in a number of set ways. Here are the essential distinguishing features that irregular verbs can have:

  • They typically have a characteristic consonant in all forms except the singular present tense. This consonant can come from the infinitive, or in some cases not be part of the infinitive (although historically they were).
  • They can have a vowel change, typically in the plural present tense forms (and thus the imperfect). In some cases the vowel change occurs just in the nous and vous forms (which have syllabic endings), or else in all present tense forms except these.
  • In a few cases, their future stem is irregular (i.e. not derived from the infinitive minus any final -e).
  • They can have arbitrary past participle forms.

If you know these four features for a given verb, then that is generally enough information to predict any of that verb's forms by applying a few general rules. The table below summarises the main irregular verb patterns (or conjugations) in French and how they differ with respect to these four features. On the next page, we'll look at how to apply this information to derive the different verb forms.

Pattern Stem consonant Vowel change Future stem Past participle Approx no. verbs Notes/Variations
vendre d (from infinitive) -- -- -u 50 rompre, vaincre and foutre are essentially the same, but with a consonant other than d, plus some minor spelling irregularities.
dormir (From infinitive) -- -- -i 15 The characteristic consonant can be v (servir) or t (sentir).
suivre v (From infinitive) -- -- -i 6 Essentially the same pattern as dormir, but the infinitive ends in -re. vivre is essentially the same, except for the past participle vécu.
dire s [z] -- -- dit 33 Pattern generally followed by verbs ending in -ire, except for lire and its compounds. Present tense vous form of dire and redire is irregular: (re)dites; other verbs have interdisez, confisez, traduisez etc. Verbs ending in -uire follow the same pattern, except for their past historic form ending in -uisis etc.
lire s [z] -- -- lu 8 Essentially a variant of the dire pattern with past participle ending in -u. plaire (and its compounds) and taire are essentially the same, except that il plaît is conventionally written with a circumflex accent (past participles plu and tu).
croire -- -- -- cru 6 voir and its compounds are essentially the same, but with past historic forms je vis etc.
boire v oi > u1 -- bu 2 Vowel change does not occur in the ils form: ils boivent.
recevoir v oi > e [ə]1 recevr- reçu 7 These verbs have short singular present tense forms: je reçois; je dois etc. The verb devoir has past participle .
courir -- -- courr- -u 7 --
prendre n en [ɑ̃] > e [ə]/[ɛ] -- pris 10 --
venir n e [ə] > ien [jæ̃] / [jɛ] viendr- [vjæ̃dʁ] venu 30 All verbs ending in -enir (venir, tenir and their compounds) follow this pattern. The vowel changes before a non-syllabic present tense ending (i.e. except nous and vous forms). The consonant n appears in just the plural forms as expected.
mettre t -- -- mis 14 --
battre t -- -- battu 8 This pattern is essentially the same as mettre, but with the longer past participle form.
peindre gn [nj] [æ̃] > [ɛ] -- -eint/-aint/-oint ([æ̃]) 25 Infinitives ending in the vowel [æ̃] plus -dre; possible spellings are -eindre, -aindre or -oindre [wæ̃dʁ]).
connaître ss [s] -- -- -u 17 The il present tense form maintains the circumflex of the infinitive: il connaît. The verb naître is essentially the same, but has the past participle .
conclure -- -- -- -u 5 --
écrire v -- -- écrit 10 Verbs ending in -scrire follow this pattern and have past participles ending in -scrit.
mourir -- ou [u] > eu [oe]2 mourr- mort 1 --
dissoudre v ou [u] > ol -- -ous, -oute (f); -olu 3 dissoudre and absoudre have their past participle in -ous/-oute; résoudre has résolu.
moudre l -- -- -oulu 3 --
coudre s [z] -- -- -ousu 3 --

1. The vowel oi does not change in the ils form: ils boivent, ils doivent.
2. This vowel change occurs except in the nous and vous forms.

How to conjugate verbs from this information

With a few general rules, the information in the above table will allow you to derive the forms of the different tenses of these verbs. The next page deals with how to conjugate irregular verbs from their features.

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.