French verbs

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 French grammar - verbs

Page Index  The nature of French verbs Types of verb
Tenses and moods Active and passive

► ► This page is a general introduction to French verbs and verb forms.
For more detail -  tenses, irregular verbs, etc. -  return to the Grammar index or follow the links.

1. The nature of French verbs

French verbs are unlike English verbs, in that they depend heavily on the use of conjugated tenses.  In English, most verbal forms involve using at least two words (such as am eating, was going, have been broken, would go); in French, a large number of the most common verbal forms use just a single word, though some, like English, use two, or even three words.  Examples:
Je mange
Il allait
Ils ont été cassés
Nous irions
Il mangeait
I am eating
He was going
They have been broken
We would go
He was eating

2. Types of verb in French

Regular and irregular French verbs

French verbs are generally classified either as regular verbs, or as irregular verbs. There are three main categories of French regular verbs,
Apart from these, there are dozens of irregular verbs, many of them being commonly used verbs, the most common and most irregular of them all being être and avoir – closely followed by aller and venir .

Transitive or intransitive?

As in other languages, French verbs  can either be transitive or intransitive.  Certain verbs in French can be either transitive or intransitive, according to the context in which they are used. Transitive verbs require an object (or complément d'objet direct - C.O.D. in French), and can be used in the passive voice as well as the active. Intransitive verbs do not take an object, and do not have passive forms. (See below: voices)
Transitiveporter, faire, avoir, mettre - these all require an object
     Intransitive :  dormir, mourir, aller, venir, - these cannot take an object
      Verbs that can be either : manger,  boire,  écrire

3. Tense, mood

French verb tenses are derived from the tenses of Latin.
Verbs can be conjugated in the indicative and subjunctive moods
The simple tenses - which are all in the active voice - are as follows. Sample verb, manger in the third person singular (for full tense conjugations, refer to pages for the tenses in question).
Indicative Subjunctive
Présent Il mange il mange
Futur II mangera -
Prétérit Il mangea il mangeat
Imparfait il mangeait -
Conditionnel il mangerait -

Other tenses - the compound tenses - are formed with the help of auxiliaries. For most verbs the auxiliary is avoir, for a dozen or so verbs it is être.

Indicative Subjunctive
Passé composé Il a mangé il ait mangé
Passé antérieur il avait mangé
(il eut mangé)
il eût mangé
Passé conditionnel Il aurait mangé -

Most tenses of transitive verbs exist also in the passive voice (see below).

For more details, see...

Aspect in French verbs.

By aspect, we mean whether an action is momentary or instant, or whether it is progressive or ongoing.
    In English, aspect is expressed almost exclusively through the use of auxiliaries:  compare I eat potatoes and I am eating potatoes, or I drove the car and I was driving the car.
    In French the present tense does not have any particular aspect. Je mange can mean either I eat or I am eating. In the past, the imperfect tense has a progressive aspect, so Je mangeais means I was eating while J'ai mangé and je mangeai both mean I ate - or I have eaten (confusing!).  
    More on this on the past tenses page.

Modal forms

Other verb forms are formed using what in English we consider to be modal verbs: the French equivalents to English modal verbs are pouvoir and devoir. See modal verbs in French.

4. Voices: active and passive

French transitive verbs can be conjugated in the active and the passive voices.
Active forms have been dealt with above.  
The passive tenses are formed with the help of the auxiliary être, followed by the past participle of the verb. This is the procedure for forming the passive of both simple tenses and compound tenses.

Passive forms of active simple tenses
Indicative Subjunctive
Présent Il est mangé il soit mangé
Futur II sera mangé -
Prétérit Il fut mangé il fût mangé
Imparfait il était mangé -
Conditionnel il serait mangé -

Passive forms of active compound tenses
Indicative Subjunctive
Passé composé Il a été mangé il ait été mangé
Passé antérieur II avait été mangé il eût été mangé
Passé conditionnel Il aurait été mangé .
Imparfait il était mangé .
Conditionnel il serait mangé .
For more detail see French verbs in the passive

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