French for Beginners – How to Use Simple Verb Conjugations in the French Language

The biggest challenge of learning the French language is mastering the verb system. It is complicated and full of pitfalls with all kinds of irregular verbs that drive learners crazy. But the good news here is that over 90% of French verbs fall into the category of simple regular verbs. If you understand how these verbs work, you’ve got a handle on most of the verbs that you’ll ever need. Here is a quick guide to how these verbs work.The first thing to keep in mind is that French verbs belong to groups according to the ending of the infinitive form. This is the form under which you look up the verb in a dictionary.The great majority of verbs end in -er. Examples are travailler (to work), parler (to speak) and aller (to go).Then there is a small group of verbs ending in -re such as: boire (to drink), battre (to beat)And, finally, a small group of verbs end in -ir. These include: voir (to see), venir (to come), savoir (to know).When we speak of verb conjugations, we are referring to the forms the verb must take according to the required tense and the person (I, you, he, etc.). To conjugate a verb, you drop the last two letters from the infinitive, leaving a stem to which you add the appropriate endings. Here is the present tense conjugation of parler:je parle, tu parles, il/elle parle, nous parlons, vous parlez, ils/elles parlentI speak, you speak, he/she speaks, we speak, you speak, they speakNotice how we have taken the stem parl and added the various endings. A verb is regular when it is conjugated just like this. Travailler and regarder are regular verbs. Also notice the two you forms: tu is the informal singular and vous is the formal singular and all pluralsAn irregular verb is one that for whatever reason is not conjugated according to the regular pattern. Aller is an irregular verb. It is conjugated like:je vais, tu vas, il/elle va, nous allons, vous allez, ils/elles vontThe vast majority of the -er verbs are regular and present no conjugation difficulties. The few irregular -er verbs have slightly different spelling. For example, the verb envoyer is conjugated:j’envoie, tu envoies, il/elle envoie, vous envoyez, ils/elles envoientNotice how the spelling has changed a bit.All the other tenses are formed basically in similar fashion. You take the stem and add the appropriate endings. So the future tense of parler is:je parlerai, tu parleras, tu parlera, il/elle parlera, nous parlerons, vous parlerez, ils/elles parlerontNow, let’s look at the future of the irregular envoyer:j’enverrai, tu enverras, il/elle enverra, nous enverrons, vous enverrez, ils/elles enverrontIf you look carefully, you see that the endings remain regular, it’s just the stem that changes.The only way to know if a verb is irregular is to look it up in a guide to verb conjugation. This is not a problem with -er verbs because only a few are irregular. And the most important irregular -er verb is aller, as we have seen. So, if you stick to -er verbs, your verb conjugations are no problemThe real troublemakers in the French verb system are the -re and the -ir verbs. They are a small but pesky bunch. This is where things get quite complicated because a very large number of verbs are irregular. The only way to master these verbs is to learn them from a verb handbook.