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Learning Article : Landscape Of French Verbs


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Landscape Of French Verbs

Verbs are probably the most daunting thing for French learners. This bad reputation is partly due to the fact that there is more than 20 verb tenses in French. It may seem overly complex, but luckily, we only use about 8 tenses in normal life, so let's break it down with some examples...



I was just wondering why you said that the subjunctive doesn't exist in English. Surely it would be more accurate to say that it isn't used much in English?



I said it doesn't exist but perhaps I should have said English subjonctive is not French subjonctive, they only share a name, but I could be wrong: English is not my field of expertise.

French subjonctive is often used in situation where in English you don't conjugate the verb at all. For example. "J'aimerais QUE TU VIENNES avec moi" is "I would like you TO COME with me" or "Il faut QUE J'ACHÈTE une pomme" is "I need TO BUY an apple" or "Je veux QUE TU TÉLÉPHONES à Marc" is "I want you TO PHONE Marc".


We (native speakers) may use it, but in the nearly 3 years I've been teaching, I've never stopped a student and say "sorry you need to use plus-que-parfait for that sentence". Not once. They can live a whole life without needind it, but yes, they may come accross it.

What I find particularly challenging about verbs in French is how they get linked to either en or y in verbal constructions which seem to be typically French: s'en prendre à qch, s'y prendre avec qch, etc. These tend to be pretty hard to master expecially because they must be learnt by rote (no word-for-word translation in this case would be of any help). Then, things get even more complicated than a pure exercise in memorization. All these Frech "phrasal verbs" (they are, at least in terms of translatability, pretty similar to what in English is referred to as phasal verbs) must be conjugated into all those almost 20 tenses that you have already mentioned. The result being, in my opinion, the most difficult thing French has in store for everyone wishing to master it for real.


Re: Plus-que-parfait (equally applies to Futur antérieur) in French.


Are these tenses used more or less like/exactly as they are in English?  The reason I ask is...I noticed above that you mentioned that you can live without this tense, but in English it's used pretty frequently and in some instances, it's the only tense that would be appropriate.

Even though I'm still learning French, I'd really like to sound precise in my tense-choice.  When I'm speaking to someone learning English (especially beginners), I'm impressed when they correctly and appropriately use the English equivalent plus-que-parfait and future anterior.




Patrick, I wouldn't loose too much sleep over this, it's not essential to be understood. Keep it simple.


Interesting question Adrian. I can't answer. I feel I learned English verbs by listening to people/film/etc more than studying it, so my English grammar is a bit patchy (and when I ask my British husband, he's always cluless, I don't think grammar what thought during his studies). As for French, I learned an awful lot trying to explain it to people, because natives tend to forget the rules and act on instincts, and frankly C1 grammar doesn't interest me. I find good pronunciation, basic skills, speed and confidence more important for been understood than using the right verb tense or flourish. If you ask the question in the "answer tab", someone will be more than happy to give you a better answer.


My goal is to help students develop reflexes & instinct, not learn complex rules that takes time to assimilate and stall the conversation.


On this, I wanted to add something for Patrick (and others in the same situation), if you struggle with some words, try synonyms! For example "il s'y prend mal" (he doesn't do it the right way) could be "il travaille mal" or "ce n'est pas la bone façon de faire". And as for "il s'en prend aux plus jeunes" (he pick on the young ones) you could say "il n'est pas gentil avec les jeunes". PROBLEM BYPASSED :-)


If I read "il s'en prend aux plus jeunes", in my head I'd be thinking "He takes himself of it to the youngest ones"?!


and, "il s'y prend mal" = He takes himself to it badly?


Yes yes I vote for simplicity!

"On this, I wanted to add something for Patrick (and others in the same situation), if you struggle with some words, try synonyms!"

So is your professional advice to stay clear of everything hard that your language has to throw at me and stick with everything that is basic and simple in it? If so, I'm afraid I'm going to say no to your suggestion.


err..I think the point is that you should not and need not unnecessarily overcomplicate language and make learning more difficult than it has to be. When there's a simpler word, use it.  When there's a more straightforward syntax, use it. 

Not doing so is like taking the stairs (backwards with one leg) when there's an elevator.

I think simplicity is most definitely advisable for the 99.99% of us who aren't Oxford scholars...!





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