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French Verbs Made Simple(r)

French Verbs Made Simple(r)

An easier, yet more complete approach to learning French verbs than 501 French Verbs

January 2006
342 pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 |

It's time for a new approach to learning French verbs. Unlike popular verb guides that require the rote memorization of hundreds of verb forms, this book clearly explains the rules that govern the conjugation of all classes of French verbs—especially the irregular ones that give second-language learners the most trouble. These straightforward, easy-to-understand rules for conjugating French verbs are effective learning tools for both beginning students and more advanced speakers who want to perfect their usage of French verb forms.

French Verbs Made Simple(r) has many helpful features that you won't find in any other verb guide:

  • Clear explanations of all verb tenses and forms.
  • The simple patterns and rules that govern the conjugation of all verbs—including those verbs whose irregularities follow patterns that can be easily learned.
  • A detailed discussion of how each verb form is used, with numerous examples.
  • A full explanation of whether a verb should be conjugated with avoir or être, and the conditions under which the past participle is variable—two of the thorniest problems for students of French.
  • An extended treatment of the subjunctive that will help you understand why it is used in some situations but not others.
  • Complete conjugations for 57 basic model verbs (along with 27 "variants") and a comprehensive listing of some 6,200 verbs that indicates which of the models each verb follows.

Going well beyond any other guide in the clarity and detail of its explanations—as well as the innovative manner in which individual verbs are linked to model conjugations—French Verbs Made Simple(r) is the only guide to French verbs a learner needs.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Forms of Verbs
    • 1. Present Tense
    • 2. Imperfect Tense and Present Participle
    • 3. Past Participle
    • 4. Simple Past (Passé Simple)
    • 5. Future and Conditional Tenses
    • 6. Subjunctive and Imperative
    • 7. Compound Verb Forms
    • 8. Orthographic Modifications
    • 9. Summary
  • Part II. Uses of Verbs
    • 10. Indicative
    • 11. Present and Past Subjunctive
    • 12. Simple Past and Imperfect Subjunctive
  • Part III. Annexes
    • A. Model Verbs, with Complete Conjugations
    • B. Alphabetical Listing of 6,200 Verbs by Model Number
    • C. Defective Verbs
  • Selected References

David Brodsky, who currently resides in Aix-en-Provence, France, is also the author of Spanish Verbs Made Simple(r). He holds advanced degrees from MIT and Yale University. His extensive experience working abroad as an economist and project manager showed him how foreign languages can be learned—and taught—in far more effective ways than the conventional "rote" approach.


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The fundamental aim of this book is to provide:

  • (a) easily understood—yet comprehensive—tools to recognize and learn the patterns that govern the large majority of "irregular" verbs in French; and
  • (b) clear and systematic illustrations of the use of all the principal French verb forms, with particular emphasis on the subjunctive.

It is intended both for the relatively new student grappling with the apparent complexities of French verbs and for the more advanced practitioner seeking to "perfect" his or her understanding.

The book is divided into three parts, which to a certain extent are independent:

Part I provides a description of the various verb tenses and forms, with a focus on establishing patterns and rules which can assist in learning (and remembering) the conjugations of the so-called Class III (irregular) verbs. Chapter 8 provides a comprehensive treatment of the regular orthographic changes which affect approximately 15 percent of -er (Class I) verbs. For example:

tu appelles versus tu appelais
je cède versus nous cédons
je pèse versus nous pesons
je lance versus nous lançons
il emploie versus vous employez

Chapter 9 provides an overall summary of verb forms and shows that (at most) six key conjugations determine the complete conjugation of any verb. The few exceptions are specifically highlighted.

Part II illustrates the use of the various verb tenses and forms. Special consideration is given to two of the thorniest problems for students of French: (1) whether a verb is to be conjugated with avoir or être; and (2) the conditions under which the past participle is variable (e.g., Marie s'est lavée, Marie s'est lavé les mains, les mains que Marie s'est lavées). Chapter 11 is devoted to the use of the subjunctive. While no longer an element of spoken French, the passé simple remains an important element of the written language, and its use is covered in Chapter 12.

Annexes: By reviewing Annex A, the student can become familiar with the various "model" verbs (or classes) and their unifying features. Complete conjugations are presented for each of the models, including those displaying purely orthographic modifications. The key elements for each are highlighted, and all other verbs with analogous conjugations are explicitly identified. A summary table provides in concise form all of the key elements required to conjugate completely all French verbs. Annex B provides an alphabetical index of 6,200 verbs, showing the model class to which each verb belongs. Annex C presents the conjugations of "defective" verbs, which exist in only a limited number of forms.

A more advanced student has the option of reading the book sequentially or "à la carte". A student at a more elementary level may find it preferable to concentrate initially on those chapters dealing with the indicative (excluding the passé simple)—both forms and uses—before moving on to the subjunctive and then to the passé simple. In this case the following order of chapters is suggested:

1-3, 5 indicative verb forms, other than passé simple
7 compound verb forms
8 orthographic modifications
9 summary and presentation of verb classes
10 uses of indicative
6 subjunctive and imperative forms
11 uses of subjunctive
4 simple past (passé simple)
12 use of simple past and imperfect subjunctive

Alternatively, the relatively new student may wish to concentrate initially on the presentation of verbs and verb forms in Annexes A and B, before venturing into the more analytical presentations in Parts I and II.

The structure of French verbs is not difficult to comprehend for a native English speaker, since most of the forms parallel or are very close in meaning to those employed in English. One seeming major difference is that French employs two "moods": the indicative and the subjunctive. The mood of the verb does not refer (at least directly) to the mood of the speaker but rather to the type of statement that he or she is making. The indicative can be thought of as the "normal" verb mood (or mode), while the subjunctive is used in a number of special circumstances—in connection with orders, desires, uncertainty, etc. Contrary to what many might think, the subjunctive also exists in English, though its existence generally passes unnoticed, since subjunctive and indicative verb forms in Modern English are almost always the same. But a sentence like

I insist that he be punished

provides an illustration that there is at times a difference between the two.

In addition to the indicative and subjunctive, there is a third verbal "mood" in both French and English—the imperative (e.g., "Go!" "Run!").

For any English verb there are essentially only five "simple" forms:

infinitive (to) write
present write(s)
past wrote
past participle written
present participle writing

All other verb forms are compound ones created from the simple ones by using various auxiliaries or "helping" verbs (e.g., I was writing, I will write, I would have written). For French, there are eleven simple verb forms—the five English ones, plus:

indicative subjunctive imperative
imperfect present present
future imperfect  

Each French verb has 48 basic "simple" conjugations. For example, for the verb parler ("to speak"):

infinitive parler
present indicative parle, parles, parle, parlons, parlez, parlent
imperfect parlais, parlais, parlait, parlions, parliez, parlaient
simple past parlai, parlas, parla, parlâmes, parlâtes, parlèrent
past participle parlé
present participle parlant
future parlerai, parleras, parlera, parlerons, parlerez, parleront
conditional parlerais, parlerais, parlerait, parlerions, parleriez, parleraient
present subjunctive parle, parles, parle, parlions, parliez, parlent
imperfect subjunctive parlasse, parlasses, parlât, parlassions, parlassiez, parlassent
imperative parle, parlons, parlez (you singular, we, you plural)

In addition there are a number of compound verb forms, most with close English counterparts.

The French future and conditional tenses are each equivalent to very specific English compound forms (I will write, I would write). For the imperfect tense, there is no one-to-one correspondence with a specific English verb form, which probably is why among the various indicative verb forms it often causes the greatest difficulty.

The table below illustrates basic English equivalents for the simple and principal compound French indicative verb forms. In each case the name in boldface (e.g., simple past) is the name by which the form will be referred to throughout the text; for several of the forms, common alternative names are shown in parentheses.

Simple Forms (Indicative)
infinitive To live is to love.
present He writes in the book.
simple past (preterite) He wrote a book about Shakespeare (in 1974).
imperfect When I was young I played baseball every day.
When the phone rang I was leaving the house.
future Someday I will write a book about Shakespeare.
conditional If I were not so lazy, I would write a book about Shakespeare.
present participle I saw your brother crossing the street.
past participle The book, written in the Middle Ages, is now in the British Museum.
Compound Forms (Indicative)
compound past (present perfect) He has written a number of best-sellers.
past perfect (pluperfect) By the age of 30, he had written a number of best-sellers.
future perfect By the time I retire, I will have worked 40 years.
conditional perfect (past conditional) I would have done it, if only I had had the chance.

For the simple and compound pasts we will frequently use their respective French names, passé simple and passé composé.

Verb Classes

French verbs can be divided into four groups according to the endings of their infinitives:

1. -er verbs parler "to speak"
2. -oir verbs recevoir "to receive"
3. -re verbs répondre "to respond"
4. -ir verbs finir "to finish"

The -er verbs are by far the most numerous, as shown in the following breakdown based on the 6,444 verbs contained in Le Petit Robert:

Distribution of French Verbs
-er -oir -re -ir
5,756 40 252 396
89% 1% 4% 6%

The -er verbs are also the most dynamic, in the sense that "new" verbs virtually without exception take this ending. For example:

téléphoner "to telephone"
skier "to ski"
photocopier "to photocopy"
scanner "to scan"
boycotter "to boycott"
digitaliser "to digitize"

Irregular Verbs

In French, as in most languages, a "Murphy's law of verbs" seems to hold:

  1. Regular verbs are infrequently used.
  2. 2. Frequently used verbs are irregular.

There is actually a simple explanation apart from that of monsieur Murphy: frequently used verbs simply have much greater capacity to resist the constant pressure to become uniform. Consider, for example, the English verb to crow, whose historical past tense was crew:

Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew. (Matthew 26:74, King James Version)

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted—"Open then the Door!" (Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyám)

Yet the verb was so infrequently used that most people assumed, or were easily convinced, that the past tense must be crowed, and so it has become.

Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, "I do not know the man." And immediately the cock crowed. (Revised Standard Version)

The verb to mow (old past tense mew) had a similar experience, while the much more commonly used verbs to know, to blow, to grow have been able to resist such uniformizing tendencies and still have "irregular" past tenses: knew, blew, grew.

Of course if one goes back far enough in the history of English (and its predecessors) one will discover that most irregular verbs are really quite regular, following archaic patterns that have become obscured by several thousand years of gradual phonetic (and other) changes. In French a similar situation prevails, but with one important advantage: a very large number of (seemingly) irregular verbs follow easily understood and readily remembered patterns. This applies in particular to virtually all of the nearly 800 "irregular" -er verbs: only two do not follow precise patterns throughout their conjugations.

Recognizing and learning these patterns is a far more efficient way to learn French verbs than simply attempting to memorize what may at first seem like almost random irregularities.

Additional Observations

1. Etymology

The common heritage of English and French—approximately 60 percent of English words have a Latin, often via French, origin—can be a useful tool for remembering certain irregularities that otherwise might appear mysterious. Consider, for example, the —oudre verbs, whose present tense plurals offer a stem consonant (or consonants) which differs from the -d of the infinitive:

infinitive "we"  
couDre couSons sew
mouDre mouLons grind
résouDre resoLVons resolve

For résoudre the connection with English resolve is apparent. Perhaps not so obvious is that the -l in moulons is the same as in English molar and mill, both descended from Latin MOLERE ("to grind"). Via an Indo-European root common to Latin and the Germanic languages, it is also the same -l which appears in meal. Similarly, the -s in cousons is the same -s which appears in English suture—from Latin (CON)SUERE ("to sew")—and, via a common Indo-European root, in sew and seam.

For these three verbs it is thus the seemingly irregular plurals which have in fact preserved the historically "correct" forms, the -d in the infinitive in place of -s being a relatively recent innovation.

Throughout the text (frequently in footnotes to avoid disrupting the flow) we have included etymological references which can serve as aids for remembering certain "irregular" elements and which are often of interest in their own right.

2. Pronunciation

A number of irregularities—real or apparent—can only be understood by examining the correspondence between the written form and the actual pronunciation. While most language manuals and English/French bilingual dictionaries make use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), many students are not familiar with such notation. We have therefore chosen to use a highly simplified notation which requires little explanation.

  representation IPA
savons [savon] [sav\o]
mouvoir [mouvoir] [muvwar]
meuvent [meuv] [mœv]
meus [meu] [mø]
brute [brut] [bryt]
rompt [rom] [r\o]
parte [part] [part]
part [par] [par]

Our sole objective in introducing such notation is to indicate: (a) which consonants are actually pronounced; and (b) whether the vowel "E" is pronounced or is mute. Hence, apart from "E" we simply reproduce the vowel combinations as they appear: -ou, -eu, etc. Where a vowel is nasalized, as in savons and rompt, we include the succeeding consonant in the phonetic transcription to indicate this nasalization, rather than placing a tilde over the vowel as is customary.

The contrasting pronunciations of parte and part illustrate that final -e (unless it has a written accent) and most final consonants are not pronounced. Word-final -e thus serves generally only as a marker that the preceding consonant is pronounced. A common example of this is the feminine form of nouns and adjectives—e.g., verte ("green", feminine) pronounced [vert], vert (masculine) pronounced [ver].

In French there are two different types of pronounced "E": the closed -e of liberté and the open -e of fête, essentially corresponding to the vowels in English mate and met. In phonetic transcriptions we will mark both with capital letters [É] and [È]—to highlight their contrast with unpronounced ("mute") -e.

  representation IPA
aime [Èm] [|em]
fête [fÈt] [f|et]
cédons [cÉdon] [sed\o]
cèdes [cÈd] [s|ed]
moulez [moulÉ] [mule]

There is ambiguity—or controversy—with regard to the pronunciation of -ai when it appears as the final sound in a word: in "Parisian" French it is generally [È] (and this is what is normally shown in dictionaries), while in most forms of "non-Parisian" French it is [É]:

  É È
Parisian fait, faite, fête, j'ai, avais
"Other" fait, j'ai, avais faite, fête

We will mark this sound [É], since for our purposes the fundamental distinction is whether or not a final -e is pronounced, not which variety it is. Hence:

  representation IPA
fait [fÉ] [f|e] or [fe]

Where the distinction in pronunciation of final syllable -ai has relevance for the verbal system, we will make note of it.

At several points we will use the terminology open syllable and closed syllable. An open syllable is one in which the vowel is the last (spoken) element—e.g., all three syllables in avocat:


A closed syllable is one in which the final (spoken) element is a consonant—e.g., the first syllables in both parler and taxer:



3. Terminology and Numbers

There will frequently be statements like: "prendre is the only verb . . ." These should be understood as shorthand for the more long-winded forms: "prendre and other verbs sharing the same conjugation (apprendre, comprendre, surprendre, etc.)". When like-sounding verbs differ in a particular conjugation—for example, vous dites (infinitive dire) compared to vous prédisez (prédire) this will be indicated.

At various points, reference will be made to the number of verbs in a particular class—e.g., 47 verbs (among those listed in Le Petit Robert) are conjugated like rendre. These numbers by themselves have no importance, since using a different set of verbs would produce an entirely different set of numbers. Nonetheless, the relative numbers are significant: céder and rapiécer are "model" verbs for particular classes of orthographic modifications; yet while there are 211 other verbs conjugated like céder, no other verb is conjugated like rapiécer.

The notation 1s, 2s, 3s, 1p, 2p, and 3p will be used as follows:

1s first person singular (je)
2s second person singular (tu)
3s third person singular (il, elle)
1p first person plural (nous)
2p second person plural (vous)
3p third person plural (ils, elles)

4. Definitions and Dictionaries

Brief definitions (one or two words) are given for a number of the verbs presented in the text. These definitions are meant to be suggestive only and are in no manner a substitute for fuller definitions to be found in a dictionary. As early as possible, it is recommended that the student use a French-French dictionary. When purchasing such a dictionary it is important to confirm that it has both pronunciations and examples of use (not only definitions).

5. Simple Past and Imperfect Subjunctive

Many students pay little or no attention to the passé simple and subjonctif imparfait since these forms have long since disappeared from the spoken language. This neglect is ill-advised, however, particularly with regard to the passé simple, which remains alive and well in the written language—from Le Petit Prince to the French edition of National Geographic. Contrary to its reputation, the passé simple is not difficult to learn. At a minimum one should learn to recognize its forms, something which can be accomplished with relatively little effort.

In contrast to the passé simple, the contemporary use of the imperfect subjunctive is very restricted. However, since it is equally easy to learn—or at least recognize—why deny oneself the opportunity to appreciate classical French literature, in which its use was not infrequent?

Le nez de Cléopâtre: s'il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées [1660])

Cleopatra's nose: had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been different.