This article is a follow up to The Landscape of French Verbs, in which I tried to explain the theory behind different verbs tenses. Today, I'll try to explain how they work, nuts and bolts. It will be more technical this time, meaning it will be more practical (not more boring!)
Armed with tables and examples, I will show you how verbs generally behave in 3 verb tenses: présent, passé composé and imparfait. But before talking about trends, let's bring everybody up to speed with a short introduction on subjects and type of verbs. Subjects To conjugate in French, we use 9 different subjects. Granted, that's a lot more that In English. Those subjects are divided in 2 categories: singular and plural.
|FRENCH||ENGLISH EQUIVALENT||FRENCH||ENGLISH EQUIVALENT|
je (or j' if the verb starts with a vowel)
you: friendly and talking to one person
|vous||you - polite OR plural|
|ils||they (masculine or mixture)|
|elles||they (all females)|
Please note that we don't have a French equivalent for "it". Since everything is either masculine or feminine, there is not point for "it". For example, when talking about a mouse, we say "elle" (she). Using "it" with a living creature is a bit rude from our point of view!
We have 2 words for "you". Actually, I heard there were 2 words in English too, but one just got abolished. Here is a recurring question: "should I use tu or vous when talking to people?". Using "vous" is called "vovoyer" (it's a verb meaning "to say VOUS") and using "tu" is "tutoyer"(verb meaning "to say "tu").
• "Vouvoyer" is polite but it's not as common as it used to be. Personally I say "vous" to older and people higher than me on the social ladder. Please note that some women don't like "vous" as it "makes them feel old" as they put it.
• "Tutoyer" is highly recommended with friendly people of your age. It creates a relax atmosphere. In a rigid classroom, you might want to say "vous", but in informal tutoring classes, "tu" seems more appropriate (at least for me).
• In doubt, use "vous". The other person will reply "on peut se tutoyer" (we can say "tu" to each other) if they want it more casual.
By the way, there are 9 subjects, but the conjugation for "il", "elle" and "on" are identical. The same is true of "ils" and "elles", so basically there are only 6 categories of subjects. We call them "persons":
1. ère personne du singulier (je),
2. e personne du singulier (tu),
3. e personne du singulier (il, elle, on) and then we have,
1. ère personne du pluriel (nous),
2. e personne du pluriel (vous),
3. e personne du pluriel (ils, elles).
(I may refer to them that way later as it's the way it's been taught to me.) Last comment on subjects: "il" and "elle" sounds respectively like [EEL] and [L]. NOT to be confused. Beware!
Order in the Chaos
Verbs are split in 3 categories, according to their ending.
As conjugating verbs follow sets of rules, separating them that way will be handy to predict their behavior.
|1st GROUP||2nd GROUP||3rd GROUP|
|Verbs ending in ER||HALF of the verbs ending in IR||The leftover: the rest of IR, OIR, RE|
The good and the bad news:
- Verbs in ER are the easiest to learn.
- There are lists of IR verbs to let know in which group each belong. (They are basically sorted by their past participle: if it finishes in "ISSANT" that's a verb from the second group, if not it belong to the third group.)
- Verbs of the 3rd group is "the bin" group and the most unruly. They are possibly the oldest verbs, hence the chaos. (New verbs invented these days are exclusively ER verbs).
Example of verbs from the 1st Group (ER)
manger (to eat), danser (to dance), parler (to talk), arriver (to arrive), entrer (to enter), monter (to go up), rester (to stay), tomber (to fall), etc.
|Example of verbs from the 2nd Group (IR)||finir (to finish), réussir (to succeed), grandir (to grow/ to grow up), guérir (to heal), avertir (to warn), maigrir (to slim down), rajeunir (to get younger/rejuvinate), moisir (to get moldy), faiblir (to weaken), etc.|
|Example of verbs from the 3nd Group||IR: dormir (to sleep), partir (to leave), sortir (to exit), sentir (to smell/to feel), mentir (to lie), servir (to serve), etc.|
|OIR: vouloir (to want), devoir (must), recevoir (to receive), décevoir (to dissapoint), apercevoir (to notice), etc.|
|RE: prendre (to take), comprendre (to understand), apprendre (to learn), etc.|
The Nuts and Bolts
In this section, I will explain you verb endings for each verb tense. But here are few explanations before you start using my tables:
• You will need to break a verb in two. The first part is called the root, it’s the part of the verb that SHOULD stay the same regardless of the verb tense. The other part, called the ending (ER, IR or OIR) is what you need to change in order to conjugate verbs. (So for a verb like "danser" (to dance) you get "DANS" as the root and "ER" is the ending.)
• My tables only supply the ending, so where you'll see 3 dots (…), put the root of your verb.
• I said roots should stay the same, but they don't always. This is particularly true of verbs of the 3rd group. Sometimes, they only keep as little as one letter of the root, so proceed with care with them.
• This table is not about exceptions, which are numerous; it's about what is common, so take it with a pinch of salt. It's still very useful to show you trends in verb tenses. It will allow you develop an "ear" for verbs. Practice with a teacher and do some more in-depth study to learn all the exceptions.
Let's have a go now. Let's start with the present tense.
|endings for the 1st group||endings for the 2nd group||endings for the 3rd group|
il / elle/ on
ils / ellas
|...s OR "eux "
...s OR "eux "
...t OR …d OR …a
Let's see one example, to check if you get how to use my table.
Parler (to talk) would be: PARL (root) ER (ending). It belongs to the first group.
- Je parle
- Tu parles
- Il parle, elle parle, on parle
- Nous parlons
- Vous parlez
- Ils parlent, elles parlent.
Now let see what we can deduce from this table and let me explain few quirks of French.
• "s" at the end of a verb signal the 2nd person ("tu"), not the 3rd like in English. Keep it in mind!
• Before introducing my next point, I need to repeat 2 basic pronunciation rules which I think are not stressed enough, so bear with me:
1) the letter "E" in French is called [UH] if you speak American English or [ERR] if you speak British English. (NOT [EE] like in English). For example "je " is pronounced [JUH]
2) When you see a word finishing with a plain "E", don't pronounce it (but make sure you pronounce the consonant that was just before!) For example, "je parle" could technically be pronounced [JUH PAR LUH] but it would be more adequate to say [JUH PARL-] Note: this rule doesn't apply to accented "E". Think of "é" and "è" as different letters, they should always be pronounced.
• Except for verbs of the second group, verbs in the present tense in the 3rd person plural ("ils" or "elles") sounds just like the 3rd person singular ("il" / "elle" / "on") but we add a silent "NT" to the plural form to differentiate them. So, "il parle" and "ils parlent" are both pronounced [EEL PARL].
• In the table, for the 3rd group I mentioned a series of options, sorry about that. For example, verbs in OIR like "vouloir" and "pouvoir" would become "je veux" and "je peux". On the other hand, verbs with IR and RE ending, like "partir" and "prendre" would become "je pars" and "je prends".
• Now, stop moaning and focus on the positive: Verbs of the first group in the present tense are really easy. Have you notice that the first 3 persons and the last one sounds the same? They may not be spelled the same, but we say je/tu/il/elle/on/ils/elles [PARL-] So basically, you only need to remember the 1st and 2nd person of the plural [NOO PARLON] and [VOO PARLAY] and there you have it all memorized. Now who said French was overly complex? ;-)
"Passé composé" might scare you at first, but this is not justified. It's actually incredibly easy to conjugate. This verb tense is made of 2 parts (called auxiliaire and participe passé). If you know to conjugate "avoir" and "être" in the present tense, you already know the first part (the auxiliaire)! If not, here they are:
il / elle / on a
vous avezils ont
il /elle/ on est
vous êtesils /elles sont
One popular question about those 2 verbs is "should I pronounce "ils ont" (they have) and "ils sont" (they are) the same way?" The answer is no. We make a bridge ("une liaison") in "ils ont" and it becomes [EEL ZON] whereas "ils sont" is simply [EEL SON] with a soft "snake" S.)
Now back to passé composé. The second part is also easy to remember as it resembles the verb in its infinitive (when it's not conjugated). The difference is minuscule.
• Verbs in ER simply end in "é" pronounced [AY]. PS both "é" and "er" sound the same!
• Verbs finishing in IR (2nd and 3rd group) ends in "i" which is pronounce [EE]
• Verbs finishing in RE ends in "is", which is also pronounced [EE]
• Other Verbs finish in "u" (most of them at any rate!)
• But here are some common exceptions: "mourir" becomes "mort", "courir" becomes "couru", "assoir" becomes "assis", "revenir" becomes "revenu", "naître" becomes "né" and the biggest trap for French learners: "lire" becomes "lu".)
Exceptions aside, it's simple as 1-2-3:
1) take the verb avoir (or être) in présent
2) put down the root of the verb you want to conjugate
3) add the correct ending.
Here are the tables for passé composé:
|AVOIR||endings for ER verbs||endings for IR verbs||endings for RE||endings for OIR|
il / elle / on a
ils / elles ont
|ÊTRE||endings for ER verbs||endings for IR verbs||endings for RE||endings for OIR|
il / elle / on est
ils / elles sont
Please note that with être you need to conjugate the second part, hence why I added and "s" for the 3 plural persons. Keep in mind that you will also need to add an "e" if the subject is a female, hence why I put it in brackets.
There are rules to decide if a verb is conjugated with "avoir" or "être" in passé composé. I admit this is the hardest bit with this verb tense. For the purpose of this introduction, suffice to say that the majority of verb use "avoir" (For more info on this and how they conjugate when the subject is female, please read my other text Gender Obsession in French: Chivalry or Burden).
Let's see an example in passé composé of each group:
|Parler (to talk)||Finir (to finish)||Perdre (to loose)|
tu as parlé
il / elle / on a parlé
nous avons parlé
tu as fini
il a fini
nous avons fini
tu as perdu
il a perdunous avons perdu
vous avez parléils ont parlé
vous avez finiils ont fini
vous avez perduils ont perdu
|endings for the 1st and 3rd group||endings for the 2nd group|
il / elle / on
ils / elles
Here are 3 things you can deduce from this table:
• There NEVER is an "R" in the ending of a verb in imparfait. This is an absolute rule. ("R" belong to futur and conditionel présent)
• Endings of the first and third group are the same. Hooray!
• 1st, 2nd, 3rd person singular and 3rd person plural sounds the same with a [è] sound.
Now, people often ask "what's the difference between é and è?"
In France, the answer is "pretty inexistent".
In Canada: é = [AY] or [A] like in the word "gAme".
è is like a sour é. The mouth is stretched more. It's like [E] in the word "jet".
Now let's see how it behaves with the verb "parler":
- Je parlais
- Tu parlais
- Il parle, elle parle, on parlait
- Nous parlions
- Vous parliez
- Ils parlent, elles parlaient
• When your read "nous parlions" make sure you separate it in 3 syllables [PAR LEE ON]. Same for "vous parliez" [VOO PAR LEE AY]. Never blend that "I" with the following vowels. We need to hear it, otherwise it sounds like présent!
That's it from me for today. Now your job begins my dear readers! Find verbs you would like to conjugate, extract the ending and substitute it by the appropriate ending using one of the tables above. Make loads of examples and double check them online afterwards (You can use Le Figaro or if you type the name of a verb and "conjugué à tous les temps" in google, that should bring you the whole table de conjugaison for that verb.) A lot of students find it useful to practice this with a teacher: you get an immediate feedback, the repetition burns the info in your brain and it's more fun than doing it alone. Think about it!
If it's seems all too much, don't panic. My advice is two-fold:
• Focus on "ER" verbs to start with as they are both easier and more common.
• Learn only the behaviour of verbs in the first person "je" (or "nous" if you are married) as this will be the most useful one for you at this point.
For more theory on when to use passé composé versus imparfait, have a look at my previous text, the Landscape of French Verbs
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