Learning to conjugate French verbs

Conjugaison des verbes

When you ask people who are learning French what it is that they find most difficult, lots of them will talk about pronunciation or speaking the language. The majority, however, still find grammar – and particularly conjugation – the most challenging aspect. But what is it that makes conjugating verbs so tricky? Are there any mnemonic techniques and tools that you can use to help you learn the various tenses? What differences are there between French and other European languages in this area?

A solid foundation is essential

First, you will have learned that French verbs fall into three groups. The first group encompasses verbs ending in -er, with the exception of aller [to go]. The second group comprises verbs ending in –ir with the past participle -issant (choisir [to choose], finir [to finish], fleurir [to blossom], etc.). Finally, the third group includes all other verbs (for example aller, prendre [to take], dormir [to sleep], entendre [to hear] and so on). This is the point at which you should automatically reach for a guide to French verb conjugation, since it’s impossible to have all of the forms these verbs can take at your fingertips.

Even native speakers can get in a pickle and need to check a grammar reference to clear up doubts about the spelling of a troublesome verb. Most of the time, conjugations are learned by reading and by mastering a lesson. The next step involves exercises in applying and systematising what has been learned, allowing you to assess your skills. That leaves the biggest challenge of all: using these verbs when speaking French. Expressing a point of view in the subjunctive, telling a story in which you alternate between the perfect and imperfect, or talking about plans using the future are all ways of demonstrating that you have a good command of these verb tenses. Plenty of difficulties lie in wait, and some verb forms defy all logical explanation! Just compare il défend (from the verb défendre [to defend]), which has a final d, and il peint (from peindre [to paint]), with a final t.

Mnemonic techniques and learning aids

You can remember that the verb mourir [to die] only has one r because “we only die once”, but that’s just for the infinitive, it doesn’t help with the conjugated forms! When it comes to past participles, the best way to figure out the correct final letter is to ask yourself what the feminine form of the corresponding adjective would be. We write j’ai réduit [I reduced] because the corresponding adjective is réduite, but it’s j’ai pris[I took] because the feminine form of the adjective is prise, and so on. Problems associated with the spelling of verbs are common: the verb être [to be], for example, has 32 different written forms! On the other hand, there are verbs like courir [to run] which are pronounced the same regardless of the personal pronoun involved (je cours [I run], il court [he runs], ils courent [they run], etc.).

“Si j’aurais su, j’aurais pas venu !” Everybody in France knows this line from the film La Guerre des boutons [War of the Buttons], inspired by Louis Pergaud’s book – it’s repeated by the young Petit Gibus every time he encounters a problem. The ungrammatical sentence, which can be translated as something like “If I would’ve known, then I’d’ve not come”, illustrates a common error and the reason why French school children are taught in primary school that “les Si n’aiment pas les rais”. This helps them to remember that si should never be immediately followed by a verb in the conditional tense (i.e. ending in rais/rait/etc.). So, the correct form of Petit Gibus’ line would be “Si j’avais su, je ne serais jamais venu” [“If I had known, I’d never have come”].

Devenir, revenir, monter, rester, sortir, venir, aller, naître, descendre, entrer, rentrer, tomber, retourner, arriver, mourir, partir. Do you recognise this list of French verbs? They are the 16 verbs which are conjugated with the auxiliary être rather than avoir. To help you remember them all, use the mnemonic Dr and Mrs Vandertramp, formed by taking the first letter of each verb in the order presented above (Devenir, Revenir, Monter, Rester, etc.).

It’s best to learn the different verb tenses gradually. They are usually tackled in the following order: present, immediate future, recent past, perfect, future, imperfect, conditional (present and past). Then come the pluperfect, subjunctive or past historic. In the indicative mood, as you know, there are four simple tenses and four compound tenses. But what is a mood, and how can you remember what all the different ones are called? A mood is a way of thinking about the action described by the verb. An action, fact or state can be real, probable or imaginary. So, the subjunctive mood can refer to a wish, a desire, a judgement, a feeling... To help you remember the moods, bear in mind that the first three all start in a similar way (infinitive, indicative, imperative). The four others are the conditional, participle, subjunctive and gerund.

What tools can you use to memorise French verb conjugations? The traditional verb tables will always have their fans. For those who like to draw and write, mind maps are a good alternative – they’re lively, colourful and personal to you. Trees or stars are the perfect way to illustrate different verb endings or chart the uses of the various tenses. If you prefer flash cards, go for it – they’re another effective revision technique. As for the verbs you should know, the teachers at the Centre International d’Antibes will give you a grammar guide, but you can also look for a list of the 100 most common verbs. The easiest way to learn irregular French verbs (aller, devoir [to have to], s’asseoir [to sit], essayer [to try], paraître [to appear], venir [to come], faire [to do], etc.) is to go at your own pace.

Verbs in French and in other languages

The English present continuous tense has a different structure: there is no equivalent construction based on the auxiliary verb être with the present participle in French. As for the English preterite, this can correspond to the past historic, imperfect or perfect tenses in French. But it is when talking about the future that the structures differ the most. In English, you can say: “When I am rich, I’ll buy a big house”, but in French you need to use the future tense.

Italian employs the subjunctive mood more often than French does. The imperfect subjunctive (which is very rarely seen or heard in France!) is frequently used in place of the imperfect indicative in hypothetical phrases. Spanish speakers also use some tenses in a different way. The past historic, which is confined to primarily literary use in the language of Molière, is employed in the land of Cervantes for actions that took place at a given moment and which have been completed by the time they are being spoken about. Given the existence of irregular verbs, in French the perfect (compound past) is closest to this type of simple past tense.

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