French Verb Tenses

French verb tenses & conjugation is discussed in the present tense, past tense, imperfect tense, imperative tense, and past perfect tense.

French is not a very difficult language to speak, but some people find it to be so. Verbs are often what cause the most trouble. French phrase books can tell one what the verb is, but not how to conjugate so French-speaking (francophone) people will understand. Listed below are some common verbs and their conjugations, as well as past tense, imperative (command) tense, imperfect, and past perfect. Each tense's purpose is explained, and examples are given.

The verb "˜to be' is one of the most common ones in any language, and it is irregular. The conjugations have to be memorized and it follows no particular pattern.


Je suis I am

Tu es You are

Il est S/he is

Nous sommes We are

Vous etes You (pl.) are

Ils sont They are

Another common verb is "˜to have.' The conjugation of this verb is also irregular.


J'ai I have

Tu as You have

Il a S/he has

Nous avons We have

Vous avez You (pl.) have

Ils ont They have

Another verb which is very useful is "˜to go.' Again, it's irregular, though it ends in "˜er.'


Je vais I go

Tu vas You go

Il va S/he goes

Nous allons We go

Vous allez You (pl.) go

Ils vont They go

For all regular "˜er' verbs (such as jouer, to play; ecouter, to listen; taquiner, to tease; aimer, to like), the conjugation is the same. The majority of the verbs in the French language are "˜er' verbs, although it should be noted that "˜payer' (to pay) and "˜aller' (to go) are not considered to be "˜er' verbs. They are irregular. In each of these, "˜er' is dropped and the following endings are added.

Je - e Example:

Tu - es JOUER

Il - s

Nous - ons Je joue (I play)

Nous jouons (We play)

Vous - ez Tu joues (You play) Vous jouez (You pl. play)

Ils - ent Il joue (He plays)

Ils jouent (They play)

These are all conjugations in the present tense. The past tense is a little bit more complicated. Each one involves a helping verb and a past participle of the verb. Past tense is intended for telling events that happened in the recent past. Other things, such as setting the scene (as in a story), telling what used to happen, or telling what happened before something else happened use the imperfect, which will be discussed in a moment. Most of the past participles are easy to form. All "˜er' verbs (this time, payer and aller are included - all irregular ones are) have the same ending. They drop the "˜er' and add é. They are then pronounced the same way as they would have been in the infinitive (with the "˜er'). Listed below are some past participles for irregular verbs.

Past participles:

Avoir - eu.

Étre - été

Dire (to say) - dit

Savoir (to know) - su

Vouloir (to want) - voulou

Pouvoir (to be able to) - pu

Voir (to see) - vu

The helping verbs are almost always avoir. Only a few verbs, such a reflexive verbs (any with "˜se' in front of them) or verbs that show motion (such as aller, naître (to be born), mourir (to die), etc.) require ètre. When setting up the past tense, avoir is conjugated just as it is in the present tense, then the past participle is added.



J'ai voulu I wanted

Tu as voulu You wanted

Il a voulu S/he wanted

Nous avons voulu We wanted

Vous avez voulu You (pl.) wanted

Ils ont voulu They wanted

The imperfect (imparfait in French) is used differently. It doesn't use helping verbs; the endings on the words change. These endings are the same for all verbs, except for irregular ones. The stems for the verbs are the "˜nous' form minus the "˜ons' ending. This is true for all but étre, which is irregular. The stem for it is ét. The endings are as follows. ALL verbs follow this pattern.

Je - ais

Tu - ais

Il - ait

Nous - ions

Vous - iez

Ils - aient



J'avais I used to have

Tu avais You used to have

Il avait He used to have

Nous avions We used to have

Vous aviez You (pl.) used to have

Ils avaient They used to have

The imperative is quite easy. It's giving commands. What happens is that the word "˜tu' or "˜vous' (as commands are usually given as "˜you' do something) is dropped, and the rest of the verb remains, properly conjugated. For example, "˜tu ecoute' is "˜you listen'. However, dropping "˜tu' and simply saying "˜ecoute' means "˜listen' as a command. These are basic commands, and it gets more complicated as it goes into reflexive verbs and other such things, or into suggestions. One example of this:

S'ARRÊTE (to stop [oneself])

There is no "˜je' form in common use.

Arrête-toi (you) Stop

No common "˜il' form.

Arrête-nous Let's stop

Arrête-vous (you pl.) Stop

There is no "˜ils' form in common use.

The past perfect is the final verb tense which will be discussed here. It is known as the plus-que-parfait in French, and is used to talk about something which happened before a past event. For example, this sentence would employ the past perfect: "He told me he had done his homework." The homework was done before the speaker was told. When this happens, the helping verb (again, usually avoir) is conjugated in the imperfect, and then the past participle is used. It is sort of like combining the imperfect and the past tense.

Example: "He told me he had done his homework."

"Il a dit il avait fait ses devoirs."

Notice "˜avait fait,' which is the correct conjugation of the past perfect. All verbs would follow this pattern.

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