French verbs

Les verbes en français

Salut, and welcome to our lesson about French verbs at Language Easy! They are a very important part of the language indeed, because they allow to express actions. It’s a quite a complex thing to master because there are a lot of forms variations, but keep calm, you’re in the good place, we’ll explain it all to you in details.

Allez, on y va !

French verbs in Jacques Brel

What are French verbs ?

Qu’est-ce que les verbes ?

Verbs (les verbes) are words that express an action, a state of being, a becoming of an entity (or groups of entities), called the subject (le sujet).

  • Action verbs (les verbes d’action) express actions that are done or undergone by the subject.
  • State verbs (les verbes d’état) express a state of the subject.

Firstly, let’s see some examples of action verbs :

  • René mange une pomme.
    René i
    s eating an apple
  • Bien sûr, la pomme a été lavée.
    Of course, the apple has been washed.

And now of state verbs :

  • La bataille semble imminente.
    The battle feels imminent.
  • Malgré cela, les soldats demeurent calmes.
    Notwithstanding, the soldiers keep calm.

Forms and variations of French verbs

Formes et variations des verbes en français

French verbs can vary a lot, including in number and in gender according to the subject, and many elements must be taken into account when one has to choose the right form to use.

1 – The voice

La voix

The voice (la voix) of a French verb expresses the role that the subject plays in the action. In the active voice (la voix active), the subject does the action, while in the passive voice (la voix passive), the subject undergoes the action.

The voice represents a construction of the sentence, and most of the times, the same idea can be expressed by one voice or the other. Compare this example at the passive voice :

  • Le champs est cultivé par le paysan.
    he field is cultivated by the peasant.

With its active voice counterpart :

  • C’est-à-dire que le paysan cultive le champs.
    That is to say that the peasant cultivates the field.

2 – The mood

Le mode

The mood (le mode) of a French verb represent the way in which narrator presents the action. It can be affirmed, questioned, an actuality, a possibility, an order…

The infinitive mood (l’infinitif) is the default mood, since it describes the action without saying anything about its realization. Therefore, it is the mode in which the verbs are presented in the dictionary, or in vocabulary lists :

  • danser
    to dance
  • courir
    to run

Apart from infinitive, there are six different other moods, the most common being the indicative (l’indicatif) that describes actions that are happening in reality.

3 – The tense

Le temps

The tense (le temps) of a French verb denotes where in the time-line the action is situated : in the past, in the present, or in the future.

This temporal precision might be given relatively to

  • the moment of speech or writing : absolute time (temps absolu)
  • a moment in the past or in the future, specified in the context of the sentence : relative time (temps relatif)

Each mood has various possible tenses, between one (for the gerund mode) and eight (for the indicative). To illustrate this, here are three examples :

  • Indicatif / Futur simple :
    Marc voyagera à Paris le mois prochain.
    Marc will travel travel to Paris next month.
  • Indicatif / futur antérieur :
    Marc y aura été trois fois.
    Marc will have been there three times.
  • Gérondif présent :
    En y allant, il s’arrêtera certainement chez sa mère.
    On the way there, he’ll certainly stop at his mother’s house. (Literally By going there)

Also, you can refer to the sections of this grammar manual corresponding to each mood to learn more about all the tenses of French verbs.

4 – The grammatical person

La personne grammaticale

In a use case of a French verb, the grammatical person (la personne grammaticale) represents the relation between who is speaking or writing, and the grammatical subject of the verb that he’s using.

  1. At the first person, the subject of the verb corresponds to the narrator (singular) or a group that includes him (plural) ;
  2. At the second person, the subject of the verb corresponds to whom the narrator is addressing, as a individual (singular) or a group (plural) ;
  3. Finally, at the third person, the subject of the verb designs a third person (singular) or group (plural).

To each grammatical person corresponds a set of personal pronoun : you certainly already know the basic ones, e.g. the subject personal pronouns :

  • singular : je, tu, il/elle
  • plural : nous, vous, ils /elles

Of course this doesn’t apply to the three impersonal modes (les modes impersonnels), infinitive, participle, and gerund, which describe an action without anyone doing the action.

Infinitive, conjugation and groups

L’infinitif, la conjugaison et les groupes

The termination of French verbs varies according to the mood, the tense, and grammatical person. Sometimes, it also varies according to the gender of the subject.

The action of choosing the right termination for a verb is called conjugation (la conjugaison).

This is a very complex system, and undeniably there is no way to always guess right, so you’ll have to learn the terminations for each mood / tense / person. That is the meaning of the conjugation table that you surely have already been confronted to. For example, the conjugation table for the verb chanter, at the indicative mood and the present tense, looks like :

  • Je chante
  • tu chantes
  • il / elle chante
  • nous chantons
  • vous chantez
  • ils chantent

Another difficulty is that all French verbs don’t behave the same, which means for example that other verbs than chanter might have a different conjugation table. Fortunately there are families of French verbs that behave the same, and we call them the three verb Groups :

  1. The verbs which infinitive ends in -er belong to the first group.
  2. The verbs which infinitive ends in -ir belong to the second group.
  3. All the other verbs belong to the third group and are called irregular verbs.

Later, if you want, you can read our complete article about French conjugation.

Grammatical families of French verbs

Les familles grammaticales des verbes

We distinguish a few types of verbs that have different grammatical function or behaviour.

Auxiliary verbs

Les auxiliaires

Auxiliary verbs (les auxiliaires) are verbs that help in the conjugation of other verbs to form compound tenses (les temps composés).

There are two auxiliaries verbs in French :

  • être (to be)
  • avoir (to have)

To clarify, let’s see some examples of usage of auxiliaries :

  • Hélène était allée chez son ami. (être)
    Hélène had been at her friend’s house.
  • Cependant, elle avait préféré ne rien dire à Pierre. (avoir)
    However, she had prefered not say anything to Pierre.

Surely, with the first example, you’ll have noticed that the use of the auxiliary to have or to be in English doesn’t always correspond to the same auxiliary avoir or être in French. With each French verb, you’ll have to know which is the preferred auxiliary to use with it, although there is a logic.

Semi-auxiliary verbs

Les semi-auxiliaires

Semi-Auxiliary verbs (les verbes semi-auxiliaires) are verbs that are used as auxiliary verbs but that are not involved in the formation of compound tenses. In that manner, they help to express nuances in conjugation.

A few examples are worth stating indeed :

  • Laisser (to let) :
    Laisse-le essayer tout seul !
    et him try on his own!
  • Faire (to do) :
    Marc fait nettoyer sa voiture tous les dimanches.
    Marc has his car washed every Sunday.
  • Aller (to go) :
    Jean va entrer à l’université l’année prochaine.
    Jean is going to enter University next year.

Pronominal verbs

Les verbes pronominaux

Pronominal verbs are verbs that are accompanied by a pronoun that refers to the subject. Their characteristic is the  pronoun se which is present before the verb in the infinitive form, and what’s more, it must vary in agreement with the subject in the other forms.
Obviously, examples are always welcome :
  • se laver
    to wash oneself
  • se souvenir
    to remember
  • Je me fais plaisir
    I’m treating myself (Lit. I am doing pleasure to myself)

So, the pronominal verbs have three main functions that we’ll enumerate now.

1. Reflexive (verbe réfléchi) : the verb expresses an action that one does to himself.

  • Ils se lavent.
    They wash themselves.

2. Reciprocal (verbe réciproque) : the verb expresses an action done reciprocally one to another.

  • Ils se lavent (l’un l’autre).
    They wash one another.

3. Passive (voix passive) : the verb expresses an action without naming who or what is doing that action.

  • Les mains se lavent avec du savon.
    Hands must be washed with soap.

Certain French have a pronominal form and a non-pronominal form, like laver (to wash) and se laver (as you saw in the previous examples) ; whereas other verbs like se souvenir (to remember)exist only at the pronominal form (these are the essentially pronominal verbs, verbes essentiellement pronominaux).

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Les verbes transitifs et intransitifs

A transitive verb (verbe transitif) is a verb that is accompanied by an object complement (Complément d’objet), that can be :

  • direct (Complément d’objet direct = C.O.D) : whom or what the action is done to ; it’s never introduced by a preposition.
  • indirect (Complément d’objet indirect = C.O.I) : whom or what indirectly receives the action that is done ; It’s always intrduced by a preposition.

On the contrary, an intransitive verb is one that is not accompanied by such an object complement.

To illustrate, let’s give a few examples:

  • Marc parle à son ami. (transitive : COI, with a preposition)
    Marc is talking to his friend.
  • Il lui raconte sûrement ses aventures en détail. (transitive : COD, without a preposition)
    He’s probably telling him his adventures in details.
  • Moi, je pars. (intransitive : no complement at all)
    I’m leaving.

Did you know ?

Le saviez-vous ?

When I was a child learning French grammar at school, they asked every pupil to buy an exemplary of a little book called “The Bescherelle”. It was a reference for all terminations and conjugations of all the French verbs, and it contained everything ! One would use it as we use a dictionary when in doubt about the right spelling of a word, only for grammatical purpose.

Nowadays, at the digital age, I doubt many pupils still refer to this book in the paper format, but of course, it now exist as a tool online. Want to check it out ?

Le Bescherelle en ligne

It might help you anytime you’re in doubt about how to write any French verb at any mood, any tense, any person. Kind of a lifesaver !

What’s next?

C’est quoi, la suite ?

Et voilà, we reached the end of our lessons about French verbs  It isn’t a simple subject indeed, and you’ve taken a big step in your goal of understanding the French language. So, what’s next? Well, if you want to take a step further and deepen your study of French verbs, you might consider reading our course of conjugation. If you want something simpler to cool your brain down for a while, why not study the adverbs?

Allez, à bientôt !

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