The most complicated part of French grammar is the verb system. There are over 12,000 verbs, and each verb is conjugated in many tenses. Moreover, French is notorious for its irregular verbs and tricky spellings. If learning all of this seems daunting, you are right, It is not easy. There is, however, some logic and order underneath what may seem to be a staggering amount of material to learn. With the right strategy, you can make learning the system relatively easy. Here are four steps to mastering French verbs.
Step 1. Get a verb handbook. This indispensable tool consists of the complete conjugations of a number of key verbs and an index of thousands of verbs that can be conjugated just like the model verbs, Although verb conjugation guides can be found freely on the Internet, I strongly recommend the paper product.
Step 2. Focus on irregular verbs. When we speak of verb conjugations, we are speaking basically about modifying the form of the verb when we use different tenses (present, past, future, etc.) and different pronouns (I, you, we, he, she, etc,)
All French verbs fall into three groups according to the endings of the infinitive. The infinitive is the basic form under which you would look up the verb in a dictionary. These endings are -er, -re and -ir. Typical verbs are parler (to speak), lire (to read) and partir (to leave).
The basic rule for conjugating a verb is to drop the last two letters of the infinitive and add endings that will indicate the tense and agree with the pronoun. Here is the present tense of the above verbs:
je parle, tu parles, il/elle parle, nous parlons, vous parlez, ils/elles parlent
I speak, you speak, he/she speaks, we speak, you speak, they speak
je lis, tu lis, il/elle lit, nous lisons, vous lisez, ils/elles lisent
I read, you read, he/she reads, we read, you read, they read
je pars, tu pars, il/elle part, nous partons, vous partez, ils/elles partent
I leave, you leave, he/she leaves, we leave, you leave, they leave
Notice the important distinction between the informal you (tu) and the formal you (vous).
If all verbs were conjugated just like these three, then things would be pretty simple. But that would not be French. Things get really complicated because many verbs, especially some very common one, are conjugated differently. Here are three irregular verbs in the present tense: aller, faire and venir.
je vais, tu vas, il/elle va, nous allons, vous allez, ils/elles vont
I go, you go, he/she go, we go, you go, they go
je fais, tu fais, il/elle fait, nous faisons, vous faites, ils/elles font
I make, you make, he/she makes, we make, you make, they make
je viens, tu viens, il/elle vient, nous venons, vous venez, ils/elles viennent
I come, you come, he/she comes, we come, you come, they come
Notice in particular vous faites (you make).
The irregular verbs are the source of difficulty. How do you know which verbs are irregularall You can’t tell by looking at them. You basically have to learn them by heart. But don’t get discouraged. Over 90% of French verbs end in -er and the vast majority are regular. The irregular verbs tend to be the -re and -ir verbs. Those are the ones to watch out for. The only thing to do is to look them up in the verb handbook.
Step 3. Concentrate on the main tenses. In a verb handbook, you will see around 16 tables for each verb. Keep in mind that most of these forms are rarely used, especially in the spoken language. In fact, you can get by with four or five of those tables. The most important tense is the present, of course, because it is the most flexible.
Then you should learn the Imperfect, the Compound Past, the Imperative and the Future. In reality, you can nearly do without the future tense because in the spoken language the future is often replaced by the present of aller (to go) with the infinitive. So, we have je vais partir (I’m going to leave) instead of je partirai (I will leave). At a later stage, you should add the Present Subjunctive.
Step 4. Concentrate on the most common verbs. Although there are thousands of verbs in French, most everyday conversations use less than a 100 verbs. In fact, just eight irregular verbs, ETRE, AVOIR, FAIRE, DIRE, VOULOIR, POUVOIR, SAVOIR and ALLER, account for nearly 40% of all verbs in ordinary conversations. In other words, if you are speaking French, you are guaranteed to encounter these verbs very often. Learn them by heart.