French Language
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How to master essential French verbs

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"How to master essential French verbs"
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It is an unfortunate fact that the most-used verbs in many languages are irregular in their conjugation, and French does not depart from the pattern in this respect. So students embarking on a study of the French language must first come to grips with the three groups of regular verbs, by way of introduction to the standard configuration, and then shortly afterwards grapple with three distinctive irregular verbs: être, avoir and aller.

Regular -er verbs

It is customary for a French teacher to adopt a verb from each of the three regular classes, and subsequently use that one verb to illustrate all tenses in both the indicative and subjunctive mood. Fermer (to close) is an -er verb often chosen for this purpose. Its regular stem is 'ferm', and equally regular endings are added to the stem in all tenses and moods. For the present tense the endings are -e, -es, -e, -ons, -ez, -ent, producing the following conjugation:

  • je ferme
  • tu fermes
  • il/elle ferme
  • nous fermons
  • vous fermez
  • ils/elles ferment

Fermer forms its compound tenses (perfect or passé compose, pluperfect, future perfect and conditional perfect) using avoir as the auxiliary verb. The imperfect tense requires the endings -ais, -ais, -ait, -ions, -iez, -aient to be added to the stem. Future tense endings are -erai, -eras, -era, -erons, -erez, -eront. The conditional requires the endings -erais, -erais, -erait, -erions, -eriez, -eraient. Simple past (preterite tense) endings are -ai, -as, -a, -âmes, -âtes, -èrent. The present subjunctive is identical to the present indicative, except for the first and second persons plural which duplicate the nous and vous forms in the imperfect tense.

Once students of French have mastered these regular forms for -er verbs, they have absorbed all that it is essential to know about this group. A few -er verbs do demonstrate minor irregularities, but being familiar with them could not be regarded as essential, at least in the early stages of learning French.

Regular-ir verbs

Once a class has grasped the basics of -er verbs, the teacher will normally move on to regular -ir verbs. Finir (to finish) is a verb typically chosen for the purposes of demonstration. The stem is 'fin' and the present tense endings are -is, -is, -it, -issons, -issez, -issent:

  • je finis
  • tu finis
  • il/elle finit
  • nous finissons
  • vous finissez
  • ils/elles finissent

Finir, like fermer, forms its compound tenses using avoir as the auxiliary verb. The imperfect tense endings are similar to those for -er verbs, but are preceded by the additional letters 'iss', producing the endings -issais, -issais, -issait, -issions, -issiez, -issaient. Future tense endings are also similar, replacing the 'e' (in the endings for -er verbs) with the letter 'i', thus: -irai, -iras, -ira, -irons, -irez, -iront. Using the same pattern, the conditional requires the endings -irais, -irais, -irait, -irions, -iriez, -iraient. Simple past endings are -is, -is, -it, -îmes, -îtes, -irent. Present subjunctive endings are -isse, -isses, -isse, -issions, -issiez, -issent. Not all French verbs with infinitives ending in -ir are regular, but the essential ones are.

Regular -re verbs

Using vendre (to sell) as the model, and adding the present tense endings -s, -s, -, -ons, -ez, -ent to the stem 'vend', the present indicative appears as follows:

  • je vends
  • tu vends
  • il/elle vend
  • nous vendons
  • vous vendez
  • ils/elles vendent

Once again, avoir is the auxiliary verb used for compound tenses. Imperfect tenses endings are identical to those used for -er verbs. Future tense endings are also similar, but the 'e' is omitted, thus: -rai, -ras, ra, -rons, -rez, -ront. The conditional endings follow the same pattern, omitting the initial 'e': -rais, -rais, -rait, -rions, -riez, -raient. Simple past endings are identical to those used for -ir verbs: -is, -is, -it, -îmes, -îtes, -irent. Present subjunctive endings are the same as those used for -er verbs.


Regular verbs are fine for creating text book exercise sentences, but irregular verbs are essential for conducting normal conversation as well as standard grammatical constructions. The verb avoir (to have) is essential for explaining, among other things, possession (J'ai une bicyclette bleue - I have a blue bicycle), a person's age (Mon fils a trente ans - My son is thirty) and impersonal availability (Il y a des gens là-bas - There are some people over there). Most of all, though, avoir is essential for its role in conjugating transitive verbs in three compound tenses. For this reason it is imperative for French students to memorize the present, imperfect, future and conditional tenses of this very irregular verb. Here they are:

The present tense:

  • j'ai
  • tu as
  • il/elle a
  • nous avons
  • vous avez
  • ils/elles ont

The imperfect tense:

  • j'avais
  • tu avais
  • il/elle avait
  • nous avions
  • vous aviez
  • ils/elles avaient

The future tense:

  • j'aurai
  • tu auras
  • il/elle aura
  • nous aurons
  • vous aurez
  • ils/elles auront

And finally, the conditional tense:

  • j'aurais
  • tu aurais
  • il/elle aurait
  • nous aurions
  • vous auriez
  • ils auraient

These forms of avoir are used as auxiliary verbs in the perfect tense (J'ai fini - I have finished), the pluperfect (Tu avais fini - You had finished), the future perfect (Il aura fini - He will have finished) and the conditional perfect (Nous aurions fini - We would have finished).


Just like avoir, the verb être (to be) is highly irregular, used constantly in spoken and written French, and indispensable in its role as an auxiliary verb. Intransitive verbs of movement like aller (to go), venir (to come) and retourner (to return) all use être rather than avoir in compound tenses. Once again, the essential tenses are the present, imperfect, future and conditional.

Here's the present tense:

  • je suis
  • tu es
  • il/elle est
  • nous sommes
  • vous êtes
  • ils/elles sont

The imperfect tense:

  • j'étais
  • tu étais
  • il/elle était
  • nous étions
  • vous étiez
  • ils/elles étaient

The future tense:

  • je serai
  • tu seras
  • il/elle sera
  • nous serons
  • vous serez
  • ils/elles seront

and the conditional tense:

  • je serais
  • tu serais
  • il/elle serait
  • nous serions
  • vous seriez
  • ils seraient

Use être in compound tenses for intransitive verbs of movement, including the perfect tense (Vous êtes venus - You came), the pluperfect (Elles étaient venues - They had come), the future perfect (Je serai venu - I will have come) and the conditional perfect (Tu serais venu - You would have come). Note that the past participle, which is 'venu' in its simple masculine singular form, behaves like an adjective when used in these compound tenses with être, in that it has to agree with the verb's subject pronoun by adding an 'e' for subjects known to be feminine, an 's' for masculine plural subjects and 'es' for feminine plural subjects.


Aller is the final essential (and yet again, irregular) French verb, and it means 'to go'. Not only is it used regularly in its own right in talking and writing about movement and many colloquial expressions, it also comes in handy as a simple way of expressing the future in French, in much the same ways as English speakers say they are "going to" do something. For this reason, only the present tense may be regarded as indispensable:

  • je vais
  • tu vas
  • il/elle va
  • nous allons
  • vous allez
  • ils/elles vont

However, for those curious about the other tenses, the stem for the future and conditional tenses is 'ir' (conjugate in the same way as the future and conditional of être - 'j'irai' and 'j'irais' rather than 'je serai' and 'je serais'). The stem for the imperfect tense is 'all' (again, conjugate like the imperfect of être - 'j'allais' instead of 'j'étais').

French language learners who have at their command one example of each of the three groups of regular verbs, plus the irregular verbs avoir, être and aller, have made great strides in their study of the language and laid an essential foundation for future fluency.

More about this author: Rosetta Taylor

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