Irregular French verbs

The majority of French verbs fall into two regular patterns, generally referred to as regular -er verbs and regular -ir verbs (and by far the majority, including virtually all new verbs entering the language, fall into the regular -er category). In French-speaking analyses, the two groups are often simply called "group 1" and "group 2".

The remaining 300 or so French verbs are generally lumped together as irregular verbs (or "group 3"). We're going to dive straight in and have a look at some common verbs belonging to this third group. The table below shows the present tense forms plus past participle of some "irregular" verbs. As well as the written French forms, a phonetic transcription of a typical pronunciation is also given (using the IPA).

If you're not used to phonetic transcription, the thing to bear in mind is that, unlike conventional spelling, a particular symbol in phonetic transcription represents "the same sound" wherever it occurs. Normal spellings often retain historical pronunciation differences which have nowadays disappeared. For example, looking at the singular forms of the first verb mettre, we see that there are two distinct spellings, but only a single pronunciation. Looking at the pronunciation thus gets rid of spelling complications and lets us "see the wood for the trees".

je mets
tu mets
il met
nous mettons
vous mettez
ils mettent
pp: mis [mi]
je viens
tu viens
il vient
nous venons
vous venez
ils viennent
pp: venu [vəny]
je dors
tu dors
il dort
nous dormons
vous dormez
ils dorment
pp: dormi [doʁmi]
je prends
tu prends
il prend
nous prenons
vous prenez
ils prennent
pp: pris [pʁi]
je vends
tu vends
il vend
nous vendons
vous vendez
ils vendent
pp: vendu [vɑ̃dy]
je suis
tu es
il est
nous sommes
vous êtes
ils sont
pp: été [ete]

So what can we make of all this? Well, it's clear that these different verbs don't all follow exactly the same pattern. And it's also clear that they differ from the two regular groups. But they also share some common characteristics both with each other and, in some cases, with the so-called "regular" verbs:

  • In the written form, the singular present tense endings are generally -s, -s, -t. (As is the case for regular -ir verbs.) Exceptions here are where the il form would end in the combination -dt, in which case the final -t is dropped.
  • In the spoken form, the singular present tense endings of a particular verb generally sound the same for the three persons. This is also the case for regular -er and -ir verbs. We notice that être is an exception.
  • These verbs often have a 'characteristic consonant' (for example, the m of dormir) which is present in the pronunciation of the infinitive and in the plural forms of the present tense, but not the singular forms. (Remember, we're talking pronunciation.) Again, we see that être is an exception: it has more distinct forms than the other verbs.
  • The past participle can have a greater variety of forms than for regular verbs, and there is no clear pattern across the different irregular verbs. That said, the pronunciation of irregular past participles tends to end in either [i] or [y].
  • Again with the exception of être, the vous form is always the same as the nous form, but with -ons changed to -ez.

In looking at French irregular verbs, we'll have to consider a few verbs such as être which are highly irregular and have more distinct forms than other verbs. Then we'll need to consider other verbs which, although following some common patterns as outlined above, differ in a few details.

Where to go next...

On the next page, then, we look at some common highly irregular verbs. Following that, we look at irregular French verb patterns in general and show that most irregular verbs actually share a lot of similarities with one another and are less irregular than verbs such as avoir and être.

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2017. All rights reserved.