To an English speaker, the number of conjugations of French verbs can look quite daunting. Fortunately, day to day language only requires a limited number of them.
French has several “modes” for verbs.
- Infinitive: the form you find in dictionaries. It is roughly equivalent to the English infinitive (the “to work” form).
- Indicative: used to indicate actual actions, whether past, present or future.
- Conditional: simply put, the mode you’ll use after an “if” statement. This mode indicates that something will happen under a certain condition.
- Subjunctive: this is probably the trickiest mode. It is usually used to mark wish/will, judgement, necessity, etc…
- Imperative: as in English, this is the mode to give orders.
The indicative mode boasts 8 different tenses, but not all are commonly used in conversation.
Here is a short summary of each of them:
- présent: the present tense is used as an equivalent to both the
English present simple and present continuous. It can be used to
- an action currently happening: je marche - I am walking.
- general truth: un jour dure 24h - a day lasts 24h.
- an action repeated regularly: je mange à midi - I eat at noon.
- imparfait: used to indicate:
- actions that last in the past: Quand j’étais étudiant, je travaillais beaucoup. - When I was a student, I was working a lot (or: I used to work a lot). (Note that this sentence does not necessarily imply anything for the present situation of the speaker, he may or may not still be working a lot)
- simultaneous actions in the past: Quand je l’ai vu, il marchait dans la rue. - When I saw him, he was walking in the street.
- descriptions in the past tense: Il pleuvait. - It was raining. Elles avaient 30 ans. - They were 30 years old…
- passé composé: the most commonly used tense for verbs in the past in
spoken French. It can indicate:
- a brief action: Hier, je suis allé à l’école. - Yesterday, I went to school.
- a repeated action: Ton ami a téléphoné 4 fois. - Your friend called 4 times.
- a series of short actions: Il a acheté le journal, s’est assis sur un banc et a lu pendant une heure. - He bought the newspaper, sat on a bench and read for an hour.
- an action with a certain duration in the past, but now finished: Nous avons vécu à Lyon pendant 3 ans. - We lived in Lyon for 3 years. It is roughly equivalent to passé simple, but used both in spoken and written language. In writing, it is a lot less formal than passé simple.
- futur simple or futur: equivalent to the English will + verb. It
indicates actions that will happen in the future.
- example: Demain, nous irons nous promener.
- It can often be replaced by aller + infinitive, especially in the spoken language: Elle va venir la semaine prochaine. - (this is very similar to the English construct: She’s going to come next week.)
- for actions that are just about to happen, futur simple is replaced with présent: J’arrive tout de suite. - I’m coming right away.
- passé simple: It is mostly used in formal written French. It sounds
very formal in speech, where passé composé is used instead (see
above). In writing, it indicates:
- sudden/short actions: Il sortit - he left.
- actions with a limited duration: Elle dirigea la société pendant 4 ans. - She led the company for 4 years.
- actions repeated a limited number of times: Elles visitèrent Paris quelques fois. - They visited Paris a few times.
- plus-que-parfait: a past tense, mostly used for the concordance des
temps in the past. It can indicate:
- one or more completed actions prior to another action in the past: Il avait terminé son repas quand elle arriva/est arrivée. - He had finished his meal when she arrived.
- an action that was started prior to another one in the past, but still ongoing when the second happened: Elle avait disparu depuis 3 jours lorsque la police l’a retrouvée.
- passé antérieur: It is formed with the passé simple + participe
passé. Rarely used in modern French, this tense belongs to formal
language. It can be used:
- to show that an action happened just before another one in the past. The verb will then follow après que, dès que, lorsque, quand in a subordinate proposition: Dès que le soleil se fut couché, ils se mirent en route. - As soon as the sun set, they set off.
- in a fairly rare construct to show the consequence of an action in the past, it is then used with tôt, vite, bientôt…: Elle eut vite fait de comprendre ce qui se passait. - She quickly understood what was going on. (in spoken French, you will mostly hear passé composé instead: Elle a vite fait de comprendre ce qui se passait.)
- futur antérieur: used to indicate that an action will happen before another one in the future.
Many common verbs are irregular.
French regular verbs are split in 3 groups:
- First group: verbs whose infinitive ends in “-er” (except “aller"). They are conjugated like marcher.
- Second group: verbs whose infinitive ends in “-ir”. The typical example is “finir” (to finish).
- Third group: everything else, with infinitives usually ending in “-re” or “-oir”, but not exclusively. Examples of common verbs include: “aller”