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Stem-Changing and Spelling Change French Verbs

Updated on January 12, 2013
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French Flag | Source

French -ER verbs are mostly regular and therefore follow a pattern of conjugation that greatly simplifies their ability to be memorised and used successfully in both spoken and written communication. Their regularity renders them simpler than -IR and -RE verbs, usually making them an ideal starting point for those newly introduced to the French language. Whilst aller (to go) is the only truly irregular French verb, there are (just to complicate matters) a number of stem-changing and spelling change -ER verbs that need to be recognised and committed to memory before fluency in the language can hope to be achieved. In order to study stem-changing and spelling change verbs, reinforce your familiarity with regular -ER verb conjugation.

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Notre-Dame de Paris | Source

Spelling Change Verbs

For phonetic reasons, verbs ending in -CER and -GER undergo a slight spelling change in their otherwise regular conjugation, which needs to be committed to memory. This change occurs only before endings beginning with the hard vowels 'a' or 'o', and therefore takes place solely in the nous form of conjugation at the present tense, rendering it a relatively simple pattern to comprehend. Verbs ending in -CER undergo a change whereby the regular 'c' alters to a c with a cedilla (ç), whilst verbs ending in -GER must add or retain an 'e' after the 'g'. This pattern can be explored with the -ER spelling change verbs commencer (to begin) and manger (to eat).

Je commence
Tu commences
Il/Elle commence
Nous commençons
Vous commencez
Ils/Elles commencent

Je mange
Tu manges
Il/Elle mange
Nous mangeons
Vous mangez
Ils/Elles mangent

Note the changes taking place in the nous form, interrupting the otherwise regular -ER conjugation.

Stem-Changing Verbs

Stem-changing verbs are a little more difficult than spelling change verbs and may therefore take slightly longer to understand and memorise. There are a number of varieties of these types of verbs, the first of which comprises verbs ending in -YER.

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Take your language skills abroad | Source

-YER Verbs

-YER verbs comprise three groups of verbs, those ending in -AYER, those ending in -OYER, and those ending in -UYER. Whilst the first offers only an optional stem change, the final two have necessary stem changes that must occur during conjugation. In these verbs, the 'y' must change to an 'i' in all forms excluding nous and vous. For example:

Balayer (to sweep):
Je balaye/balaie
Tu balayes/balaies
Il/Elle balaye/balaie
Nous balayons
Vous balayez
Ils/Elles balayent/balaient

(Note that as this verb ends in -AYER, the stem change from 'y' to 'i' is optional in all forms except nous and vous. Either form of conjugation is acceptable.)

Envoyer (to send):
Je envoie
Tu envoies
Il/Elle envoie
Nous envoyons
Vous envoyez
Ils/Elles envoient

Essuyer (to wipe):
Je essuie
Tu essuies
Il/Elle essuie
Nous essuyons
Vous essuyez
Ils/Elles essuient

(Note that as these verbs end in -OYER and -UYER, the change from 'y' to 'i' must occur in all forms excluding nous and vous.)

Travel and sample some French cuisine
Travel and sample some French cuisine | Source

-E_ER Verbs

Verbs with an unaccented 'e' in the second last syllable of the infinitive can undergo a number of possible changes, greatly increasing their ability to confuse French students. There are three changes that can occur with this form of stem-changing verb:

1. Verbs ending in -ETER:
Some of these verbs double the 't' consonant in all forms except nous and vous. To use rejeter (to reject) as an example:
Je rejette
Tu rejettes
Il/Elle rejette
Nous rejetons
Vous rejetez
Ils/Elles rejettent

2. Verbs ending in -ELER:
Some of these verbs similarly double the 'l' consonant in all form except nous and vous. To use appeler (to call) as an example:
Tu appelles
Il/Elle appelle
Nous appelons
Vous appelez
Ils/Elles appellent

3. However, some -ETER and -ELER verbs follow the usual -E_ER verb pattern of conjugation, which involves changing the 'e' before the consonant to an è. This pattern is obvious in the conjugation of the verb mener (to lead):
Je mène
Tu mènes
Il/Elle mène
Nous menons
Vous menez
Ils/Elles mènent

Paris from L'arc de Triomphe
Paris from L'arc de Triomphe | Source

-É_ER Verbs

Verbs with an accented 'e' in the second last syllable of the infinitive undergo a similar change to -E_ER verbs in that the 'é' changes to an 'è' in all forms excluding nous and vous. For example, the conjugation of compléter (to complete), should become:

Je complète
Tu complètes
Il/Elle complète
Nous complétons
Vous complétez
Ils/Elles complètent

Remember that a verb can involve more than one change. For example, the verb protéger (to protect):
Je protège
Tu protèges
Il/Elle protège
Nous protégeons
Vous protégez
Ils/Elles protègent

As this verb contains both an -É_ER and a -GER ending, the stem-change and spelling change must occur.

French, like any language, is not one that can or will be learned overnight, so stick with it and eventually these changes and exceptions will become second nature. Good luck!


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      James 2 years ago

      This webpage would be even more useful if there were some practice activities that provided immediate feedback. I like how you included "protéger". :-)

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