The French present tense, as in other languages, is the most basic verb tense, and the one that is easiest to start with when learning French. It is also the most useful for communicating basic concepts or having simple conversations.
Understanding the Present Tense
Just like in English, the subject of a sentence changes the verb’s ending in present tense. For example:
“I talk”, but “she talks”
“You speak”, but “he speaks”
French is the same way – the verb will have a different ending depending on the subject that goes in front of it (though there are more variations to memorize).
On this website and in most French learning textbooks, verb conjugations are placed in a simple chart:
|first person||je* (I)||nous (we)|
|second person||tu (you)||vous (you)**|
|third person||il/elle (he/she/it)||ils/elles (they)|
*Note that je is not capitalized, unlike “I” in English
**Vous is also used as a formal “you”, as to a stranger or superior.
Once you have this order memorized, it will be easy to learn the conjugation of a new verb by the location of each conjugation form in the chart.
For regular verbs (those that follow a set pattern) – there are simple patterns you can learn quickly to know the endings. The most common is the –er pattern.
Regular Verbs that End in -er
|parler (“to speak”)|
|je parle||nous parlons|
|tu parles||vous parlez|
|il/elle parle||ils/elles parlent|
Note that the highlighted cells (what some French courses teach as “the boot” because of the “L” shape it makes on the chart) are all pronounced the same way, with endings that are silent, despite the difference in the spellings. The last sound you hear for the “boot” conjugations in parler, for instance, is the l. Only nous parlons (pahr-LON) and vous parlez (pahr-LAY) are pronounced differently, with endings you can hear.
While the verbs that end in -er are the most common pattern of French verbs, there are two other major verb patterns: -ir and -re verbs.
Regular -ir Verbs
|choisir (“to choose”)|
|je choisis||nous choisissons|
|tu choisis||vous choisissez|
|il/elle choisit||ils/elles choisissent|
Though the singular side of the chart just gets an -is or -it ending, things get a little weird on the plural side of the chart. An -iss + the regular -er ending gets added, creating –issons, –issez and –issent on the nous, vous and ils forms. With the s doubled on the plural side of the conjugation chart, it means you do pronounce the iss (but not the -ent at the very end of the ils/elles conjugation, which never gets pronounced).
On the singular side, the final s or t is not pronounced, but the i is, so all three forms are pronounced the same way (shwah-ZEE). On the plural side, both parts of the -issons and –issez ending are pronounced (ee-SON) and (ee-SAY). On the third person plural side, choisissent is pronounced “shwah-ZEESE”)
Examples of other -ir verbs include finir, partir, venir, and courir.
Regular -re Verbs
|mettre (“to put”)|
|je mets||nous mettons|
|tu mets||vous mettez|
|il/elle met||ils/elles mettent|
For -re verbs, the singular side, is, again, all pronounced the same way, because the –s on the end of the first-person and second-person forms is not pronounced.
Also notice the doubling of the last consonant before the -re ending on the right-hand side of the chart, which means you pronounce the last consonant of the ils/elles conjugation (but never the -ent ending).
Examples of other -re verbs include prendre, connaître, mourir, and offrir.
Important Irregular Verbs in Present Tense
Though many more verbs in French follow a logical pattern than in English, some common verbs have evolved over time to have irregular verb conjugations that you just have to memorize. The four most important to know are être (“to be”) and avoir (“to have”).
|être (“to be”)|
|je suis||nous sommes|
|tu es||vous êtes|
|il/elle est||ils/elles sont|
|avoir (“to have”)|
|tu as||vous avez|
|il/elle a||ils/elles ont|
|aller (“to go”)|
|je vais||nous allons|
|tu vas||vous allez|
|il/elle va||ils/elles vont|
|faire (“to make or do”)|
|je fais||nous faisons|
|tu fais||vous faîtes|
|il/elle fait||ils/elles font|
Other Present Tense Verb Patterns
Other verb patterns consist of small groups of verbs conjugated in the same way, so it’s easiest to memorize each group together rather than as separate conjugations.
For these verbs, you add back the final consonant in the plural forms before tacking on the normal -ons, -ez, -ent endings.
|je dors||nous dormons|
|tu dors||vous dormez|
|il/elle dort||ils/elles dorment|
These verbs get an unusual eu form for the “boot”, with an -x ending for je and tu, and ils/elles takes the je form, minus the x, plus the final consonant + –ent. As mentioned in the side box, the change for the plural form happens because nous + the hypothetical “peuxons” wouldn’t be a strong enough sound, with that soft eu and “z” sound that the x makes, to support the right-hand side verb endings.
As for where the –eu- for the boot forms comes from in the first place, we have no idea. You’ll just have to memorize it.
|je peux||nous pouvons|
|tu peux||vous pouvez|
|il/elle peut||ils/elles peuvent|
Understanding Why: Irregular Verb Patterns
Many verb irregularities happen because the final sound when pronounced would be too soft and insubstantial if the structure didn’t change for the plural forms. French is a language where the sound of a word is very important, and the plural forms need a strong consonant to support the additional syllables.
For example, having just the r alone in nous + the hypothetical conjugation “dorons” isn’t a strong enough sound to support that -ons ending, so the “m” that we dropped on the singular side gets tacked back on to the plural side to provide support.