Introduction to Studying French Verbs

A Deep Dive Into the Vocabulary of French Verb Conjugation

Child painting birdhouse
"Je peins." (I paint.). Sally Anscombe / Getty Images

Most French students are impressed with French verbs. So let’s talk about them, and the terms used to explain how we should conjugate French verbs.

What is the 'Verb'?

A verb indicates an action. It can be physical (to walk, to run, to go), mental (to think, to laugh) or a condition or a state (to be, to have).

A "verb" is conjugated to "agree" with (to match) its subject: "He does, she has, they were," as opposed to the incorrect "he do, she have, they be."

What is 'Person' in Grammar?

In grammar, "person" refers to the different pronouns used to conjugate a verb: I, you, he, she, it, we, they. Read more on French subject pronouns to understand this concept better.

What is 'Agreement'?

In French, some words are said to “agree” with each other. It's the same in English; you add an “s” to the end of the verb for he / she/ it, as in: She singS.

In French, it gets a little more complicated. In French, you have to change some words or parts of words (like the endings of verbs) to match other words related them.  

What or Who is the 'Subject'? 

The "subject" is the person or thing that does the action of the verb. 

There is an easy way to find the subject of a sentence. First, find the verb. Then ask: “who + verb” or “what + verb.” The answer to that question will be your subject.

A subject is a noun (Camille, flower, room) or a pronoun (I, you, they).

A noun can be a person, thing, place or idea.

Examples: 
I paint.
Who paints?
Answer: I paint. “I” is the subject.

Camille is teaching French.
Who is teaching?
Answer: Camille is teaching.
“Camille” is the subject. 

What is happening to Camille?
What’s happening?
Answer: What is happening.
“What” is the subject (This one was trickier, wasn’t it?) 

What is a 'Conjugation'?

"Conjugation" is the way a subject changes a verb so they "agree" (match).

In English, the conjugation of verbs is quite simple. The verbs don’t change much: I, you, we, they speak; he, she, it speakS. An exception: the verb "to be" (I am, you are, he is).

It is not this way in French, where the verb form changes with almost every different person.

Some verbs are called “regular” because they follow a predictable conjugation pattern, such as adding an “s” to the 3rd person singular, as in English). Some are called “irregular” because their conjugation pattern is not predictable, like the verb “to be” in English.

The way French verbs are written and their pronunciation are also very different, this is why I highly recommend you train with audio drills when learning French verbs.

What is the 'Infinitive'?

The "infinitive" is the form of the verb before it is conjugated. It’s the verb name, for example, “to speak.” In English, the infinitive is usually preceded by “to” as in “to study,” but it's not always this way, for example: “can.”)

In French, there is no “to” before the verb. The infinitive form is one word, and the last two or three letters of the infinitive will identify the type of conjugation pattern it follows, if the verb is regular. These letters are usually -er, -ir or -re. 

What is a 'Tense'?

A "tense" indicates when the action of the verb is taking place: now, in the past, in the future.

  • A simple tense consists of only one verb form (“I speak”).
  • A compound tense consists of one or more verbs, including an auxiliary verb + a main verb (“I am speaking,” “I have been thinking”).

What is 'Mood'?

The "mood" indicates how the verb relates to the subject: Is the action a statement of fact (indicative mood) or something else like a command (imperative mood) or a wish (subjunctive mood). This will affect the conjugation of the verb. and, likewise, the conjugation will communicate the mood.  

What's the Best Way to Learn French Verb Conjugations?

Learning French verbs is a long process, and you shouldn't learn everything at once. Start by learning useful conjugations in the present indicative of the most common irregular and regular French verbs.

Make sure you get the pronunciation right. French is full of liaisons, elisions and glidings, and it is not pronounced as it is written. 

If you are serious about learning French, start with a good French audio method. Read about how to select the right tools to self-study French.

Your next step: Learning about French Subject Pronouns.