Introduction to French verbs (ct'd)

On the previous page we saw some general features of verbs. Now we move on to the specific features of French verbs.

Features of French verbs

It turns out that French verbs (and indeed verbs in many languages) do have these basic features. However, there are differences in how these features appear in the two languages.

French has more "synthetic" verb forms

In English, it is common to chain various verb forms together to express notions such as tense (past/present/future) and aspect (continuous/non-continuous).

he was boarding the train
I will be finishing around 4pm
he would prefer a coffee
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In French, the morphemes ("bits of word") that represent many of these notions get "squished together" into a single word:

nous part- -ons > nous partons
we leave 1PL > we leave / we are leaving
nous part- -ir- -ons > nous partirons
we leave FUTURE 1PL > we will leave / will be leaving
nous part- -i- -ons > nous partions
we leave PAST 1PL > we were leaving
nous part- -ir- -i- -ons > nous partirions
we leave FUTURE PAST 1PL > we would leave / we would be leaving
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So in these examples, -i- is a morpheme or "bit of word" that represents 'pastness'; -ir- is a bit of word representing "futureness"; and -ons is a "bit of word" representing 'first person plural' (basically, "we", but see below for a fuller explanation). In French, we combine these morphemes into a single word such as partirions.

The technical term for "squishing bits of words together" is synthesis. So we can say that French verbs are (more) synthetic.

That means that on the surface, a given verb in French has far more forms than in English. But breaking a verb down into its various parts (morphemes) often means there's not so much to learn after all.

Although French verbs are more synthetic, there are still cases where separate words are used as in English. These will be outlined below.

Subject/verb agreement

We saw that in English, -s is often added to the verb when the subject is singular. Similarly, the form is is used with a singular subject, but are with a plural. Occasionally, the choice of verb form is actually the only clue to distinguishing between singular and plural in English, or even between completely different types of sentence:

water boils at 100 Celcius
liquids boil at certain temperatures
the (single) sheep looks happy
the (three) sheep look happy
the sheep is happy
the sheep are happy
flying planes is dangerous
flying planes are dangerous
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In the previous section, we also saw an example of agreement in French: with the subject nous meaning "we", the verb had the morpheme -ons on the end. However, we also saw that in French, verb agreement is more consistent than in English. We saw that even when the tense morphemes -i- and -ir- were added, the same -ons agreement was still added as well. Contrast this with English, where the distinction between singular and plural gets lost in the past tense (so in the sentence the sheep grazed, you can't tell whether there is one or more than one sheep).

The past participle and compound forms

The term past participle describes the 'adjectival' form of the verb that ends in -en or -ed in English (all the pictures were taken; he has finished eating).

French has comparable forms, and they generally have similar functions in French to English. For example, the past participle of the verb fatiguer meaning 'to tire out' is fatigué meaning 'tired (out)'. Thus:

(a) Jean est fatigué
Jean is tired
(b) tu as des élèves fatigués
you have some pupils tired -> "you have tired pupils"
(c) tu as fatigué les élèves
you have tired the pupils (out)
(d) tu fatigues Jean
you tire Jean (out)
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These examples show that, as in English, the French past participle can function as a normal 'descriptive' adjective as in (a) and (b). The construction in (b) is sometimes called a possessive past. There is some implication that the subject has carried out the action of tiring the pupils. In (c), we see the development of this into a compound past tense, where the only interpretation is that the subject has actively carried out the action of tiring the pupils. For comparison, (d) shows a normal synthetic verb form of fatiguer (in this case, the present tense form).

So we see that although generally French verbs are more synthetic than English verbs, French still has compound tense forms, e.g. as fatigué, where multiple verb forms are chained together.

The infinitive

The 'bare' form of a verb (plain take as opposed to takes, taken, took, taking), when it occurs without a subject and conveys no notions of tense, aspect etc., is called the infinitive.

In English, there's no particular form for an infinitive to take, although, for example, many end in -ate or -ise. In French, however, infinitives always take a particular form. That is, an infinitive must end in either -er, -ir or -re. Which it is just depends on the verb in question, although new verbs entering the language almost always end in -er.

Because English infinitives don't have a particular form or ending that is "uniquely infinitival", it's rare for them to occur without the word to before them: to take, to behave, to want etc. The technical term for the word to in this case is an infinitival complementiser. Its equivalent in French is de, but it is required less often since French infinitives have particular endings that mark them out as infinitives. Notice in the following cases that de is optional in French, but to is necessary in English:

ce qu'il veut, c'est...
what he wants is...
... (de) revenir ce soir
... to come back tonight
... (de) partir maintenant
... to leave now
il vaut mieux partir que...
it's better going than...
... (de) rester ici
... to stay here
... (de) devenir impatients
... to get impatient

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"Special" verbs in French

Like English, French has some 'special' verbs that behave differently to other verbs.

But in general, the "special verbs" in French are "less special" than the special verbs in English.

For example, English has so-called modal verbs that have a single fixed form (can, must, may etc), can't be used as infinitives, and don't have past tense forms. French has equivalent verbs such as pouvoir (can, to be able) and devoir (must, to have to). But in French, these verbs function much more like "ordinary" verbs: they have different tense forms, agree with the subject, have an infinitive.

These verbs are, however, special in that they don't block the subject constraint on ce, and in their position in negative infinitives. Normally, ce can only occur as the subject of the verb être, but in literary usage at least, it is possible to say e.g. ce pourrait être, ce devait être. And in negative infintives, ne pas is normally placed before the verb: ne pas manger, not *ne manger pas. But some speakers do say ne pouvoir pas, ne devoir pas (cf. Rowlett, 2007).

Next: the present tense of French verbs

On the next page, you can start learning the present tense of French verbs, starting with the most common kind of verb: -er verbs.

 French grammar index
 French-English dictionary
 English-French dictionary

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