Apprendre la Langue Française (Part 27): les verbes conjugaison (une introduction)


Conjugation refers to the five possible inflections of a verb: person, number, mood, tense, and voice. For example:

verb – parler ; person – first person ; number – singular ; mood – indicative ; tense – present ; voice – active = je parle

verb – aller ; person – third person ; number – plural ; mood – subjunctive ; tense – present ; voice – active = qu’ils aillent

When conjugating a French verb, the first things to figure out are the tense and mood, which work hand-in-hand. All moods have at least two tenses (present and past) out of the possible 8. The verb timeline lists moods horizontally and tenses vertically.

The indicative is the most common mood and is normally not stated. When you talk about the passé composé, the imperfect, or the present tense, for example, you mean “of the indicative mood.” It’s only with other moods like subjunctive and conditional that the mood is stated explicitly.

All moods have a present tense, which is not again not made explicit except in the indicative and participle (parentheses indicate what normally goes unsaid):

– present (indicative)
– (present) conditional
– (present) subjunctive
– (present) imperative
– (present) infinitive
– present participle

The imperfect (indicative) and the imperfect subjunctive are two different moods of the same tense. On the other hand, the (present) conditional and the past conditional are two different tenses of the same mood.

This timeline will help you understand French verb tenses and moods.

FUTURE Personal* Impersonal*
Indicative Subjunctive Imperative Conditional Infinitive Participle
future (subjunctive) (imperative) (conditional) future infinitive future participle
future perfect
PRESENT subjunctive imperative conditional infinitive present participle
PAST imperfect [imperfect subjunctive] past imperative past conditional past infinitive past participle
compound past (passé composé)
[simple past (passé simple)] past subjunctive past conditional perfect
past perfect past perfect subjunctive
[past anterior]

*Personal moods have different conjugations for different subjects, while impersonal moods have only one form.

The (parentheses) indicate present tense verb forms which are also used as future forms. Verb forms in [brackets] are the literary equivalent of the verb form in the box directly above (e.g. simple past is literary equivalent of compound past).

There are however some grammatical subjects which make conjugation a bit more difficult.

Multiple subjects. When there is more than one subject, figure out which subject pronouns would replace that group and then conjugate the verb accordingly. For example:

Toi et moi (nous) pouvons le faire. You and I can do it.
Paul, Marie et moi (nous) mangeons. Paul, Marie and I are eating.
Toi et elle (vous) êtes en retard. You and she are late.
Sophie et toi (vous) devez partir. You and Sophie have to leave.
Luc et sa femme (ils) sont arrivés. Luc and his wife have arrived.
Lui et elle (ils) lisent beaucoup. He and she read a lot.

Subject + object pronoun. In a construction with an object pronoun, usually nous or vous, there is sometimes a tendency to conjugate the verb accordingly to it, rather than to the subject pronoun, because the object directly precedes the verb.

(√) Je vous ai donné la liste. (X) Je vous avez donné la liste.
I gave you the list.

(√) Vous nous avez menti. (X) Vous nous avons menti.
You lied to us.

C’est…qui. The construction of c’est + stressed pronoun + qui makes many people want to use the third person singular verb conjugation because of qui. But this is incorrect; in fact, the conjugation has to agree with the pronoun.

(√) C’est moi qui ai gagné. (X) C’est vous qui avez tort.
It’s me that won.

(√) C’est vous qui avez tort. (X) C’est vous qui a tort.
You’re the one who’s wrong.

(√) C’est nous qui allons le faire. (X) C’est nous qui va le faire.
We’re the ones who are going to do it.

Pronoun + qui. Similar to the c’est…qui construction is a subject or demonstrative pronoun + qui. Again, the qui makes people want to use the third person singular, but once again the cojugation has to agree with the pronoun.

(√) Vous qui avez mangé pouvez partir. (X) Vous qui a mangé pouvez partir.
Those of you who have eaten may leave.

(√) Ceux qui veulent aider doivent me voir. (X) Ceux qui veut aider doivent me voir.
Those who want to help need to see me.

(√) Je cherche celles qui étudient. (X) Je cherche celles qui étudie.
I’m looking for the ones who are studying.

Collective subjects can take the third person singular or plural:

Un tas de fleurs sont mortes. or Un tas de fleurs est mort.
A bunch of flowers died.

Un grand nombre de livres ont disparu. or Un grand nombre de livres a disparu.
A large number of books disappeared.

Adverbs of quantity take the third person singular or plural, depending on the number of the noun that follows.

Beaucoup d’étudiants sont arrivés. A lot of students have arrived.
Peu de pluie est tombée. Little rain fell.
Combien de livres y a-t-il? How man books are there?

Indefinite pronouns always take a third person conjugation (either singular or plural, depending on the number of the pronoun).

La plupart a décidé. Most have decided.
Plusieurs sont perdus. Many are lost.
Tout le monde est là. Everyone is there.

…d’entre…When an adverb of quantity or indefinite pronoun is followed by entre + personal pronoun, many want to conjugate the verb according to the personal pronoun, but this is incorrect. In this construction, the verb has to be conjugated to agree with what comes before entre, not what comes after.

(√) Certains d’entre vous ont oublié. (X) Certains d’entre vous avez oublié.
Some of you forgot.

(√) Beaucoup d’entre nous sont en retard. (X) Beaucoup d’entre nous sommes en retard.
Many of us are late.

(√) Chacun d’entre vous peut le faire. (X) Chacun d’entre vous pouvez le faire.
Each of you can do it.


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