Semi-regular -er verbs (3):
Phonologically-motivated rules

The spelling complications outlined on this page have to do with patterns in the sound system of the language. They all boil down to the following fact:

The "mute e" (represented by an unaccented e) and "close e" (represented by é) do not occur1 in closed syllables in French.

Without going into all the details, a closed syllable is basically one that ends in a consonant. Where possible, consonants tend to "belong" to the beginning of syllables, so that the word préférer is syllabified pré . fé . rer.

Verbs ending in -éCer

Consider what happens in the present tense of préférer if we simply apply the regular vous and il endings with no other modifications:

vous préférez > pré . fé . rez
*il préfére > pré . fé . r(e) > pré . fér
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The vous form is absolutely fine. Because the ending -ez contains a pronounced vowel, the syllabification does not change from the infinitive (indeed, the vous form is pronounced the same as the infinitive for -er verbs).

But the il form is more problematic. Because the ending -e isn't pronounced, we've effectively removed a syllable. Now, the final -r sound must 'latch on to' the end of the previous syllable. That means we end up with a closed syllable with a closed é sound. And we said that such syllables don't occur in French.

So what happens instead? Well, the final (pronounced) vowel changes to an open e sound, written è, which can occur in a closed syllable. So we end up with:

This variation affects all endings with an (unpronounced) -e-. That means, the singular present tense forms, plus the third person plural (i.e. ils/elles) form. So we end up with:

je préfère
tu préfères
il préfère
nous préférons
vous préférez
ils préfèrent
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Note that the nous and vous forms have -é- just like the infinitive.

Other verbs affected: other verbs ending in -é- plus consonant3 plus -er.

Verbs ending in -eCer

These verbs have a similar pattern to préférer, only the infinitive has a mute e rather than an é sound. So the -e- changes to -è- before the endings -e, -es and -ent. For example, the present tense of the verb mener ("to lead") is:

je mène
tu mènes
il mène
nous menons
vous menez
ils mènent
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Verbs ending in -eter and -eler

These verbs are a particular subset of verbs ending in -eCer. Where the consonant is a -l- or -t-, an alternative spelling is possible in which the consonant is doubled to -ll- or -tt- respectively. For example, this is the usual spelling for jeter ("to throw") and appeler ("to call"):

je jettej'appelle
tu jettestu appelles
il jetteil appelle
nous jetonsnous appelons
vous jetezvous appelez
ils jettentils appellent

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Unfortunately, not all verbs ending in -eter or -eler double the consonant by convention, although most do (cf. Thomas, 1971: 143; Hawkins & Towell, 2001: 152; Price, 2003: 263). Some verbs ending in -eler and -eter follow the "normal" pattern of a -eCer verb and instead have the è spelling. For example, geler ("to freeze") goes: je gèle, tu gèles etc. Another common verb is acheter, which goes j'achète etc.

The verbs jeter, appeler, acheter and geler are common, and so their spelling is fairly well established. For other verbs ending in -eter and -eler, things aren't quite so clear cut. This issue is discussed further here.

Verbs with multiple complications

It is possible for a verb to be affected by more than one of the above spelling and pronunciation issues. For example, the verb protéger is both a -ger verb and a -éCer verb. So, both rules apply: the -g- changes to -ge- before -ons. And before an "unstressed" ending (-e(s), -ent), the é vowel changes to è.

1. Where a mute e would have occurred, e.g. due to the end of a word being chopped off or due to syllables in a word being rearranged in Verlan, an open [oe] generally occurs.
2. The closed [e] sound can apparently occur in closed syllables of loanwords (cf. mél).
3. The 'consonant' can actually be a consonant cluster (-vr-, -br-, -tr-) or a consonant written as multiple letters (-ch-, -gn-).

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