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The Basics of French Verb Forms

Just like in English, the French verb provides the action in a sentence. Verbs (les verbes) are the core element of a sentence because they provide essential information. They take many different forms to do so. They indicate:

  • What action is being performed, through the choice of the infinitive

  • Who performs it, through the choice of the subject

  • When it is performed, through the choice of the tense

French infinitive verb forms

The infinitive is like the name of the verb. It also tells you the type of a verb: regular verbs are grouped into three types, according to the ending of their infinitive. They are:

  • Verbs ending in -er, like parler (to talk)

  • Verbs ending in -ir, like finir (to finish)

  • Verbs ending in -re, like vendre (to sell)

And then there are the irregular verbs, like avoir (to have), aller (to go), faire (to do, to make), and être (to be), to name only a few. These verbs follow different patterns when they’re ­conjugated (changed to reflect the subject and tense).

French subject-verb agreement

To start putting a verb into action (to conjugate it) you need a subject (who or what is doing the action). In French, you always say who the subject is, except in commands (English is the same way).

Each subject corresponds to a matching form of the verb. These differences in the forms happen at the end of the verb itself. For example, you say tu chantes (you [singular informal] sing) but nous chantons (we sing), changing the form of the verb on the ending, according to the subject.

French verb tenses

An action can be expressed in a variety of tenses, such as the past tense, future tense, conditional tense, and many more. Here are some examples of different tenses for parler (to speak):

  • Present: nous parlons (we speak/are speaking)

  • Imperfect: nous parlions (we used to speak)

  • Future: nous parlerons (we will speak)

Tenses come in two types: simple tenses and compound tenses.

  • A simple tense is a one-word verb form, like vous parlez (you speak).

  • A compound tense involves two words, like tu as parlé (you spoke).

Some tenses express a mood, like the conditional and the subjunctive. But to simplify, you can just look at those so-called moods as other tenses.

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