French Grammar: Irregular Verbs – Basics
French Grammar: Irregular Verbs – Basics
la grammaire française: verbes irreguliers – les essentiels
Verbs are used to communicate actions. They DO things!
If you plan on doing anything in French, you’ll need to learn how verbs work! When we conjugate all kinds of verbs, they are usually identified as regular or irregular verbs.
Here’s some review from the lesson on regular -ER verbs, and verb conjugation.
Infinitive verbs are verbs that are unchanged. They are in their most basic form, and can be adapted in many different ways. (An infinite number of ways, so to speak.)
Infinitive verbs in French will always end with -ER, –IR or -RE.
Infinitive verbs in English always mean “to do … (action)”. For example: to run, to read, to speak, to live, to eat, to see, to hear, to work, to study …
-ER verbs are all infinitive verbs that end with the letters -ER. Besides the -ER ending, there really is no kind of pattern to why certain verbs are -ER verbs.
AIDER : To help
CHANTER : To sing
MARCHER : To walk
The system of adapting infinitive verbs to different people, places, and things is called verb conjugation.
When we conjugate verbs, we team them up with different Subject Pronouns to attach actions to people, places or things. Like from TO SPEAK to HE SPEAKS.
When we conjugate verbs, we DROP the -ER ending, and then reattach a NEW ENDING that lets us know who or what is acting or being acted upon.
Subject Pronoun + New Ending = Correctly Conjugated Verb!
IRREGULAR VERBS are verbs that not only change the ending during conjugation, but also need to change the root or stem (the beginning part of the word) as well. That means there are spelling changes in the beginning and ending of the verb!
Why are some verbs regular and others irregular?
This is mostly due to spelling and pronunciation rules that French must follow in order to work correctly. When a verb conjugation doesn’t end up following those spelling rules, changes in the stem/root must take place in order to help the verb work right again.
These spelling and pronunciation rules can be very complicated, and are usually reserved for advanced linguistics / phonetics students.
You may be familiar with some irregular verbs already.
ALLER : to go
Je VAIS : I go
Notice how the verb ALLER changes its spelling entirely in the “je” form! This is an example of just one kind of spelling change that needs to happen to make the ALLER conjugation work correctly.
Nous ALLONS : Notice how the “nous” form looks a lot like the infinitive ALLER form from which it is derived. Here is a case where the “nous” form stays in a regular form while the other forms like VAIS are irregular.
AVOIR : to have
J’AI : I have
Notice that the “je” form begins with letter ‘a’ just like the infinitive AVOIR. But, the ending of the “je” form is quirky. This is an example of just another kind of spelling change that needs to happen to make the AVOIR conjugation work correctly.
Nous AVONS : We have
Here is a case where the “nous” form stays in a regular form while the other forms like AI and ONT are irregular. Verbs can have regular and irregular forms in the same tense! Be careful!
Ils ONT : They (masculine) have
We saw a change in the “je” form of AVOIR, and now we see a completely different change in the “ils” form, as well. Note how this change is even different from the “je” form. So we can see different spelling changes within forms of the same verb!
ÊTRE : To be
Je SUIS : I am
Notice how the verb ÊTRE changes its spelling entirely in the Je form! This is an example of just one kind of spelling change that needs to happen to make the ÊTRE conjugation work correctly.
Nous SOMMES : We are
Notice how the “nous” form doesn’t look like the infinitive ÊTRE from which it is derived, nor does it look like the “je” or “vous” forms. This is yet another example of a spelling change that needs to happen to make the ÊTRE conjugation work properly.
Vous ÊTES : You are (formal singular/formal plural/informal plural)
Notice how the stem of the Vous form looks a lot like the infinitive ÊTRE from which it is derived. But, its conjugated ending is not a regular Vous ending.
Ils SONT : They are (masculine)
We saw a change in the “je” form of ÊTRE, and now we see a completely different change in the “ils” form, as well. Note how this change is even different from the “je” form.
Again, we can see different spelling changes within forms of the same verb! Be careful!
So, what do we do?
Method #1: Memorize.
While the most time consuming and difficult, in the beginning you’ll just need to memorize which verbs are regular and which verbs are irregular (or have some irregular forms). Writing the verb conjugations out on paper and practicing them out loud can help you learn faster!
Method #2: Categorize.
Most French textbooks like to do this as soon as possible. You’ll see that certain verbs are categorized together because they all seem to change either their roots/stems or their endings in the same way.
You’ll see such categories as:
-ER Verb Spelling Change Patterns
Irregular -IR Verb Patterns
Irregular -RE Verb Patterns
Verbs with Irregular Stems but Predictable Endings
These are great once you begin to learn many different verbs that you can organize into groups. But you’ve got to learn all of those infinitive verbs first!
There are also verbs that are regular in the present tense, but irregular in other tenses (past, future, etc.) Learning these verbs over time will help you from feeling overwhelmed. Take it one verb at a time!
Vous êtes d’où?
Where are you (formal) from?
Je suis des États-Unis.
I am from the United States.
Who are they (masculine)?
Ils sont étudiants de français.
They (mascuilne) are French students.
Vous avez un chien?
Do you (formal) have a dog?
Non, je n’ai pas de chien. J’ai un chat.
No I do not have a dog. I have a cat.
Where are you (formal) going?
Je vais à l’école.
I am going to school.
- LEAF French Verb Conjugation Chart: The Verb ALLER
- LEAF French Verb Conjugation Chart: The Verb AVOIR
- LEAF French Verb Conjugation Chart: The Verb ÊTRE