How to Use Infinitives and Conjugations in French

An infinitive is a verb form in which no one is performing the action. In English, the word to always precedes the infinitive; for example, to speak and to dance are infinitives. In French, an infinitive has one of three endings: -er, -ir, or -re. For example parler (to speak), finir (to finish), and vendre (to sell).

From I to they, the form of an English verb remains the same (except for the he/she form, which usually takes an s), despite the change of subject. Here are the present tense forms for the verb to speak:

I speak we speak
you (singular) speak you (plural) speak
he/she/it speaks they speak

In French, each verb form corresponds to a different subject. Using the appropriate version of a verb for a particular subject is called the conjugation of a verb. The conjugation of any given verb has six different forms: three for the singular and three for the plural.

Here’s the present tense conjugation for the verb parler (to speak) so you can compare it with its English equivalent:

je parle nous parlons
tu parles vous parlez
il/elle/on parle ils/elles parlent

Sometimes the je and tu forms look alike, and sometimes the je and il/elle/on forms look alike, but other than that, all the forms are different from one another.

Each simple verb tense has those six forms, from present tense to subjunctive. The essential simple tenses are the present, the imperfect, the future, the conditional, and the subjunctive. It’s a lot of verb conjugations to digest, right? But wait! Each tense has its own pattern, a way to help you conjugate the verb, that’s shared by most verbs.

For instance, the present tense conjugations follow a pattern that applies to all regular verbs. To form the present tense stem of most verbs, drop the ending of the infinitive (-er, -ir, or -re) to get the stem. When you have the stem, you can proceed to attach the endings to it. Endings are different for each one of the three groups.

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