Infinitives are a very basic concept to understand, but they are, if not vital, then a huge help in understanding French verbs and how to form them.
Infinitives are the equivalent to “to + VERB” in English, such as “to go” or “to swim”. In French, however, infinitives are a single word, and they provide hints to how to conjugate the verb endings, because many follow certain patterns.
In English, the verb ending is easy, with only two endings possible (the only one that is different from the others is third person singular, which includes “he”, “she”, or “it” + VERB). For example:
|I swim||we swim|
|you swim||you swim|
|he swims||they swim|
In French, there are a few more forms to be aware of, but they usually follow set patterns, and it should not be that difficult to get the patterns down.
Thinking of verbs in their infinitive form will help you think in terms of the French verb endings that should be applied, instead of thinking in terms of having to memorize six different forms for each verb.
We discuss verb conjugation forms in more detail in other lessons, but the main patterns are listed below, so that you get used to seeing them.
Irregular Infinitive Forms
These infinitives do not follow a set pattern, meaning that you must simply memorize all forms of the conjugation. Most of these are commonly used verbs, which makes sense as language evolves, and the most frequently used words are more likely to become irregular over time.
Some of the most common irregular verbs are être (“to be”), faire (“to make” or “to do”), and avoir (“to have”).
|je suis||nous sommes|
|tu es||vous êtes|
|il est||ils sont|
|je fais||nous faisons|
|tu fais||vous faites|
|il fait||ils font|
|tu as||vous avez|
|il a||ils ont|
As you can see, you can’t trust the infinitive form of any irregular verb to give you any hint on the correct verb conjugations.
Common Infinitive Patterns
Fortunately, most verbs in French do follow set infinitive patterns, making it much easier to quickly add new verbs to your vocabulary once you identify which infinitive pattern it follows.
The three core forms to know are:
- Verbs with -er infinitives
- Verbs with -ir infinitives
- Verbs with -re infinitives
1.) Example of an -er Verb: Parler (“to speak”)
|je parle||nous parlons|
|tu parles||vous parlez|
|il parle||ils parlent|
Going from top to bottom and then left to right, the -er pattern is to drop the -er and add -e, -es, –e, –ons, –ez, and –ent.
2.) Example of an -ir Verb: Choisir (“to choose”)
|je choisis||nous choisissons|
|tu choisis||vous choisissez|
|il choisit||ils choisissent|
The -ir infinitive adds some “s”‘s on the right hand, plural side.
Going from top to bottom and then left to right, the -ir pattern is to drop the -ir and add -is, -is, -it, –issons, –issez, and –issent.
3.) Example of an -re Verb: Vendre (“to sell”)
|je vends||nous vendons|
|tu vends||vous vendez|
|il vend||ils vendent|
Going from top to bottom and then left to right, the -re pattern is to drop the -re and add -s, -s, nothing, –ons, –ez, and –ent.
Pronunciation of the Infinitive Forms
You’ll notice a shaded region that makes an “L” shape in the conjugation tables. These four verb forms, though they have different endings, are all not pronounced. The tricky one to remember is the ils form: no matter how tempting it is, the -ent ending makes no sound at all (note that on the -ir verb forms, the iss part of the –issent is pronounced, but the ent still is not).
Infinitive Forms in Other Verb Tenses
You may have noticed that the patterns listed above are all in the present tense. This is to keep this lesson simple, but you will be happy to hear that the infinitive form also creates patterns for the various verb tenses (such as future and past), which we will discuss in future lessons.