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Learning French Verbs

Updated on January 13, 2013
The Arc de Triomph, an iconic symbol of France
The Arc de Triomph, an iconic symbol of France | Source

Learners of foreign languages will often cite their greatest difficulty, or at least their most frustrating one, as the conjugation of verbs, due to the vast number of changes and transformations that occur throughout the tenses and that need to be committed to memory. French is no exception to this tedium, containing five verb forms (-ER, -IR, -RE, stem-changing and irregular) that need to be learned and constantly revised before fluency can be achieved. Verbs are important for all elements of speech, including the formation of questions, and are therefore of particular importance to even those interested in only learning a language to a rudimentary level, perhaps for purposes of travel. Thankfully, regular -ER, -IR, and -RE verbs follow a pattern that greatly simplifies the process of their conjugation, and this is the method that I intend on exploring:

Some Definitions

Verb: A verb is, quite simply, a doing-word, or anything that describes an action. When you run, jump, dance, skip, hop, crawl and sing you are performing actions, and therefore each of these words, along with countless others, are verbs.

Pronouns: This is a word that refers to the participant in a conversation, for example: I or you. Verb conjugation in French involves five pronouns:

Je - I

Tu – You (informal/singular)

Il/Elle – He/She

Nous - We

Vous –You (formal/plural)

Ils/Elles - They

NB: The vous form should be used on formal occasions and/or when speaking to members of authority, to those older and who therefore require respect, and to strangers or acquaintances. Similarly, when referring to a group of people, elles can only be used if no males are present.

Stem and ending: French verbs are broken up into stems and endings and it is through this division that a pattern of conjugation can be devised. The stem encompasses all letters that precede the endings of either -ER, -IR or -RE, depending on which category of verb is being studied. Looking at the extremely common regular -ER verb of Parler (To Speak), we can separate the infinitive ending, -ER, from the stem, parl. When conjugating regular verbs in the present tense, you always keep the stem, replacing the ending with different letters that subscribe to a pattern.

The regular -ER verb pattern

The majority of French verbs fall into this category. In fact, of all -ER verbs, only one (aller) is truly irregular, and a mere handful of others are stem-changing or involve spelling changes. The regularity of most -ER verbs render them simple in comparison to those of other categories, and are a good place for French students to start.

When conjugated, the endings of regular -ER verbs follow the pattern of:

Therefore, when this rule is applied to the verb parler, its conjugation should appear as follows:
Je Parle
Tu Parles
Il/Elle Parle
Nous Parlons
Vous Parlez
Ils/Elles Parlent

Notice how the ending, -ER, has been removed and replaced with the appropriate endings that conform to the pattern, whilst the stem, parl, has been retained.

The verb chanter (to sing) can provide another example of this form of conjugation:
Je Chante (I sing)
Tu Chantes (You sing)
Il/Elle Chante (He/She sings)
Nous Chantons (We sing)
Vous Chantez (You sing)
Ils/Elles Chantent (They sing)

The Louvre, Paris.
The Louvre, Paris. | Source

The Regular -IR and -RE Patterns

Regular –IR and –RE verbs follow the same method, but use different endings. The endings of regular –IR verbs follow the system of:

Whilst the endings of regular –RE verbs are:

Therefore, the regular -IR verb, finir (to finish), should become:
Je Finis
Tu Finis
Il/Elle Finit
Nous Finissons
Vous Finissez
Ils/Elles Finissent

And the regular -RE verb, perdre (to lose), should look like:
Je Perds
Tu Perds
Il/Elle Perd
Nous Perdons
Vous Perdez
Ils/Elles Perdent

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower | Source

Verbs ending in –IR or –RE are often irregular, and therefore need to be memorised and learned through constant reiteration. Some common regular –IR and –RE verbs that conform to the above patterns include:

  • Entendre (to hear)

  • Rendre (to return)
  • Descendre (to go down)

  • Attendre (to wait)

  • Mordre (to bite)

  • Punir (to punish)

  • Réfléchir (to reflect)

  • Obéir (to obey)

  • Jouir (to enjoy)

  • Choisir (to choose)


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      Lily 3 years ago

      Thank you so much! This really helped me understand verbs!