Book review: Barron's 501 French Verbs
There are various verb conjugation guides on the market. A common format in such guides is to present one example verb for each conjugation pattern identified. So for example, there would be one regular -er, plus one -ger verb etc. An index is then provided to tell you, for a given verb, which verb it patterns like. It is then up to the reader to transpose the information from, say, the model -er given in full to the verb they are looking up. In many cases, conjugation guides and vocabulary guides are viewed as separate entities, so that whilst a verb guide might give a brief gloss of a verb, it wouldn't typically give much information about that verb's actual usage.501 French Verbs weighs in at a hefty 750+ pages. The reason for this is that it departs from many of these norms and is actually much more than a simple conjugation reference. Firstly, instead of providing only "model" conjugations, it provides conjugation tables in full for over 500 verbs (actually more than 501, as this number does not include the appendix of defective verbs). The verbs chosen are said by the authors to be "commonly used" (although as far as I can see no strict criteria are given). And– a particular strength of the book– each verb is accompanied by a selection of associated words and phrases. Among the 500 or so verbs, 55 "essential verbs" are singled out for special treatment. These verbs each receive an extra page specifically devoted to related vocabulary and phrases. As well as the main body of verb tables and vocabulary pages, around 100 additional pages give a range of further support information, including an overview of tense usage and a 15-page glossary of grammatical terms, plus some simple drills and word games. So in all, 501 French Verbs provides a wealth of information, if you need it all...
Content and audience
So, assuming you do want a grammar-cum-verb-tables-cum-vocab-book, how does this offering square up? The selection of verbs and associated vocabulary is generally well chosen. A slight disadvantage of the book's approach to vocabulary is that the latter isn't generally presented thematically, unlike many dedicated vocabulary books. Occasionally the authors' criteria for including a particular word as being related to the verb is also suspicious, and may give the reader a false impression about vocabulary associations that French speakers form or don't form. (Is bon marché really related to the verb marcher in speakers' minds? Why is à prix réduit listed under déduire?) And whilst most of the verbs are common, there's no real indication to the reader of those that fall towards the "less common" end of the spectrum.
The approach of laboriously "spelling out" every verb in all 14 tenses may appeal to more "visual" learners. But for others, the approach may be over-egging the omelette at the price of having to carry a fairly hefty tome in your satchel. And whatever your learning style, it's really unclear why, for example, every single regular -ar verb needs spelling out in the imperfect subjunctive and past historic. I would posit that if a student is ready to learn these tenses, they're ready to deduce that if the form of abaisser is abaissasse, then the form from s'abaisser is m'abaissasse.
It seems you can't sell a book nowadays without attaching a spurious CD-ROM to the back cover. The one included here contains what are essentially computerised verb drills. The user is presented with a multi-choice gap filling exercise. Upon choosing the correct answer, you are rewarded with a slightly unnatural-sounding pronunciation of the verb (and just the verb) in question. In case of uncertainty, the software also contains some help pages to guide the student to the answer. The questions cover a range of constructions, some appropriate only for relatively advanced level students who may well have outgrown this type of gap-filling exercise. I see this software as an extra rather than a selling point.
Lack of linguistic perspective?
Most of the supplementary material takes a very traditional perspective, but is generally practical and useful nonetheless. Occasionally the authors' literary rather than linguistic background shows through a little more glaringly, such as when we are told to pronounce nasal(ised) vowels without letting air out of the mouth (p. 686), or when we are told that English has "six tenses", including a simple future (p. 10).
Despite these slight niggles, this book contains a wealth of information. It will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf for a wide variety of learners and users of French. I think that students who buy it at an intermediate stage of their studies will find it a sound investment: it will be a valuable reference at various stages, from the vocabulary and key forms of the "55 essential verbs", to the verb forms of other verbs, and then gradually for them to pick up more phrases and related vocabulary.
The main reason for not choosing this book would simply be if you didn't require all the "extra" information that this work provides beyond basic conjugation. In that case, more compact (but less information-rich) guides are available.
All comments and material contained on this page are accurate to the best of the author's knowledge.