French conjugation

La conjugaison

Salut, and welcome to our lesson about French conjugation at Language Easy! Of course, you came to this page with the right understanding of what French verbs are, right ? Good, because this course is the logical continuation. Mastering French conjugation is surely a bit of a challenge, but don’t worry, we will explain it clearly !

Allez, on y va !

French conjugation by Francis Cabrel

What is French conjugation ?

Qu’est-ce que la conjugaison ?

French conjugation is the art of choosing the right form for a verb when it’s used in a sentence.

It is a complex subject indeed, because the verbs vary according to the mood, the tense, and grammatical person. Sometimes, it also varies according to the gender of the subject.

For example, let’s take the verb aimer (to love). So, let’s say that you want to say that your friend Jessica used to love you back in your elementary school days, which form of the verb would you use, and how would you spell it ?

  • aimer : Jessica m’______ quand nous étions au collège.

This is a typical French conjugation problem, and by the way, the answer is : aimait (indicative imperfect).

French conjugation tables

Les tables de conjugaison

Unfortunately, given the complexity of the variations of the verb, when we study French conjugation we have no choice but to explicit all the possible cases.

So, let’s first explicit all the different parameters that do play a role.

Variation in mood and tenses

Variation en mode et en temps

The mood of a French verb represent the way in which the action is presented by the narrator, whereas the tense denotes where in the time-line the action is situated : in the past, in the present, or in the future.

So, here are all the moods and tenses that exist in French conjugation:

  • Indicative (indicatif): it presents the action as real. This mood has eight possible tenses:
    • présent (present)
    • passé composé (narration tense)
    • imparfait (imperfect)
    • plus-que-parfait (pluperfect)
    • passé simple (simple past)
    • plus-que-parfait (pluperfect)
    • passé antérieur (anterior past)
    • futur simple (future perfect)
    • futur antérieur (anterior future)
  • Subjonctive (subjonctif): it presents the action as wished, contemplated, or doubtful. This mood has four possible tenses:
    • présent (present)
    • passé (past)
    • imparfait (imperfect)
    • plus-que-parfait (pluperfect)
  • Conditional (conditionnel): it presents the action as possible but not realized. This mood has two possible tenses:
    • présent (present)
    • passé (past)
  • Infinitive (infinitif): it says what the action is, no more. It has one present and one past tense only.
  • Participle (participe): it expresses the action as an adjective. It has one present and one past tense only.
  • Gerund (gérondif): it expresses the action as an adverb (to transform it into a circumstance). It has one present and one past tense only.

Consequently, there are 20 different tenses that have to be developed in the French conjugation tables (for each verb).

Variation in grammatical person

Variation en personne grammaticale

The grammatical person represents the relation between who is speaking or writing and the grammatical subject of the verb that he’s using.

  1. First person: the subject of the verb corresponds to the narrator (singular) or a group that includes him (plural) ;
  2. Second person: the subject of the verb corresponds to whom the narrator is addressing, as a individual (singular) or a group (plural) ;
  3. Third person: the subject of the verb designs a third person (singular) or group (plural).

To sum up, with three singular persons, and then three plural ones, this makes six different possible forms for any verb, at a given tense of a given mood. They are generally shown in this order, along with the corresponding personal pronoun to help with the comprehension :

  1. Je chante
  2. tu chantes
  3. il chante
  1. nous chantons
  2. vous chantez
  3. ils chantent

Summing it up

En résumé

In conclusion, if you make the total, you’ll find out that there are 96 different variations for any verb. However, this should not discourage you in your study of French conjugation, because :

  • firstly, there are patterns, and the verb have similar variations are studied in group ;
  • secondly, some tenses are not used a lot nowadays, therefore you don’t have to worry about them at the beginning (some tenses of the subjunctive are not used at all) ;
  • thirdly, some tenses are easy to learn because they are composed of a generic known auxiliary (être or avoir) at a simple tense, put before a participle.

The three groups of verbs in French conjugation

Les trois groupe de verbes en conjugaison

At the infinitive form, most of the verbs can be separated in two parts : their radical (radical) and their termination (terminaison).

  • aimer = aim | er
  • paraître = par | aître
  • finir = fin | ir

Verbs with similar termination at the infinitive form usually behave the same at any mood / tense / person, therefore learn the conjugation table for one and you can apply it to the others.

How about a few examples ?

  • aimer (to love), jouer (to play)…
  • boire (to drink), croire (to believe)…
  • peindre (to paint), feindre (to feign)…

There are two such families of verbs in particular, that are so common that we call them the first group and second group of verbs. The third group containing all the other ones.

First group of conjugation

Le premier groupe

The first group is formed by all the verbs that have their termination in -er at the infinitive, except aller (to go).

They all behave exactly the same at any mood / tense / person, without any exception.

The first group gathers 90% of all French verbs, and new verbs are usually formed according to this model.

Examples :

  • chanter
    to sing
  • danser
    to dance
  • aimer
    to love
  • adorer
    to like
  • vibrer
    to vibrate
  • chercher
    to seek, to look for

Learn more about the first group of French verbs and their conjugation tables here.

Second group of conjugation

Le deuxième groupe

The second group is formed by all the verbs that have their termination in -ir at the infinitive, and their present participle in -issant.

There are about 300 such verbs in French, including :

  • grandir
    to get bigger
  • arrondir
    to round
  • finir
    to end
  • salir
    to smear
  • jouir
    to enjoy
  • anéantir
    to destroy

It’s impotant to note that some verbs ending in -ir have their present participle in -ant instead of -issant and therefore they don’t belong to this group :

  • finir : en finissant → belongs to the second group
  • sentir : en sentant → doesn’t (belong to the third group)

Learn more about the second group of French verbs and their conjugation tables here.

Third group of conjugation

Le troisième groupe

The third group is formed by all the other verbs, also called irregular verbs.

So, here are some verbs that belong to the third group :

  • être
    to be
  • avoir
    to have
  • aller
    to go
  • croire
    to believe
  • sentir
    to smell
  • pouvoir
    to be able to
  • craindre
    to fear
  • vendre
    to sell
You’ll find their conjugation tables in the conjugation section on the left menu.

A useful tool for French conjugation

Un outil utile pour conjuguer

Here is a useful tool for French conjugation :

Le conjugueur – Bescherelle

It will allow you to enter any verb in its infinitive form and you’ll see its entire conjugation table.

Did you know ?

Le saviez-vous ?

Languages are evolving entities, and even though it is usually a long time before neologisms enter in the dictionary, they are pretty common in the spoken language, and even more in slang. Specifically, one of the common way to form neologism is by deriving new verbs from other words, adding the –er or –ir termination at the end, when they don’t normally accept this derivation.

This is pretty common in the realm of new technologies and social media. To illustrate, let’s state another few verbs that are not (yet ?) in the dictionary:

  • liker (to give a like in Facebook)
  • tweeter (to tweet)
  • plussoyer (to agree with an opinion in web forums)
  • skater (to ride a skateboard)

As a matter of facts, these neologisms are most of the time constructed as members of the first group of verbs by adding the usual er termination, categorizing them de facto in the first group of verb. This comes from the usage : as this family of verb is the bigger one,  there are the terminations the ear is obviously best acquainted with. If I want to derive a verb from voiture to mean that I have been driving, I could make up voiturer, and although it would sound a bit weird, it would be understood. But voiturir, voituraire or voituroir would absolutely miss the point. No one would get it !

By the way, there are quite interesting words on the neologism page from French Wikipedia, if you’re interested.

What’s next?

C’est quoi, la suite ?

Et voilà, we reached the end of our first lesson about French conjugation. This is mostly an introduction, since the hard work is still ahead of you, when you will have to learn the actual conjugation tables for each group of verbs. You can find them in the menu under the “conjugation” category. Still, now you have all the understanding necessary to carry on your study !

Allez, à bientôt !

Werbung French Language-online