Introduction to French verbs

The purpose of this section is to outline some of the features that verbs generally have. This will help us to discuss specific features of French verbs in more detail in later sections.

What is a verb?

Verbs are generally those words that could fill the gap in one of the sentences:

he can _________
I'll _________ it
she'll _______ me
she didn't _________ herself
_______ it!
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Example verbs in English thus include take, send, kill, wash, return, answer, mend, prevaricate, meditate, amplify, analyse ...

Verbs tend to be the 'focus' of a sentence. The verb is generally the part of the sentence that most expresses the 'action' or 'event' of the sentence.

But note that the last sentence is an informal observation, not a formal definition. In the sentence His departure was unexpected., you might argue that the word departure conveys the 'action', but in most analyses it would not be considered a verb.

Features of verbs

Verbs in English have at least the following important features:

  • A verb can have a different form to express past tense (you take vs you took).
  • The 'bare' form of English verbs generally adds -s if the subject is singular (and not I or you): he takes vs. they take. In other words, the verb to some extent agrees with the subject.
  • You can generally add -ing to a verb (take > taking). This form is used for special purposes such as expressing continuous actions (he is taking) or in other particular constructions such as him taking the money was unacceptable.
  • Verbs generally have a form ending in -en or -ed that can be used as a kind of adjective: everything was taken; take a lighted match to the powder.
  • There are many constructions where an English verb is preceded by to, especially when two verbs are 'joined together'. For example: he wants to do it; it is dangerous to play with fireworks.
  • A handful of verbs have special features. For example, the verb forms has and can (and a few others) can have a negative form ending in -n't (hasn't, can't). But you can't do that with most verbs: *playn't, *gon't etc. Another 'special' feature of some verbs is that they can't be preceded by to in the way described above. For example, you can't say: *he wants to can do it.

If we take away some of the details particular to English in the above descriptions, we are left with some general features of verbs that we should look out for in French verbs. So, we might expect at least the following to be possible in French:

  • For verbs to be able to change their form to express tense (e.g. present/past).
  • For verbs to agree with the subject in some way.
  • For verbs to have other special forms used in particular constructions (equivalent to our -ing and -en forms).
  • For some verbs to have special features not common to other verbs (but to still have enough features in common that we still call them verbs).

Features of French verbs

On the next page we look at some features specific to French verbs.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.