Mastering the French Indicative: A Comprehensive Learner’s Guide
“My pet unicorn is named Archibald.”
“I just won a million dollars!”
“My father takes a spaceship to the moon every Tuesday.”
What do these three improbable sentences have in common?
They all use verbs in the indicative mood.
In French, as in English, we use the indicative mood for statements of fact and descriptions of the world around us.
It doesn’t even matter how wacky or improbable the descriptions are. You could say “my house is made of bricks,” or you could say, “my house is made of gold-plated gingerbread cookies.” As long as what you’re saying is factual, you’ll need to use the indicative mood.
The indicative mood is the “standard” grammatical mood that you’ll learn in French class. If you speak French at all, you’ve been using the indicative mood already. Sentences like J’habite à New York (I live in New York) and Elle s’appelle Marie (her name is Marie) use the indicative mood. So, good news for you: if you’re learning French, you’re already familiar with the indicative mood, even if you’ve never specifically learned about it!
Read on to learn all the ins and outs of understanding and using the French indicative.
Mastering the French Indicative: A Comprehensive Learner’s Guide
What Is the French Indicative Mood?
Even if the French indicative is the first mood taught in class, that doesn’t help when figuring out just what “mood” or “indicative” means.
What are French moods?
It may be confusing to English speakers, but when we use verbs in French, we care about the attitude we have towards the verb. The indicative mood is used when we’re stating a fact or describing the world around us. There are several other moods in French, including the subjonctif (expressing doubt or possibilities), the impératif (expressing commands and orders) and the conditionnel (expressing hypothetical situations).
When do we use the indicative mood?
As stated above, we use the indicative mood to discuss facts and certainties. But what does that mean in practice? A fact can be any statement you use to transmit information, for example:
Elle aime les chats. (She likes cats.)
We can also discuss information about events or descriptions that took place in the past, for example:
Il a fait du shopping hier. (He went shopping yesterday.)
Here, we’re using the passé composé conjugation of the indicative to describe something that definitely happened.
When we’re doing something like writing a novel, we use the indicative to set the scene or describe events:
Un jour, quand il faisait très froid, un chien est entré dans la maison. (One day, when it was very cold out, a dog came into the house.)
In this example we’re using both the imparfait to set the scene and the passé composé to describe an action that happened once. Both conjugations are indicative.
Looking at the subjunctive—another French mood—can clarify when to use the indicative. The subjunctive mood is used to express doubts, emotions or uncertainty. For example:
Il faut qu’il vienne! (It is necessary that he come!)
In this phrase we’re expressing an emotion or opinion about an action, and therefore we must use the subjunctive mood. But if we were to just state the facts of the action itself, we would use the indicative.
How to Conjugate in the French Indicative: The Big 3
All verb moods in French have their own conjugation rules, and the indicative is no exception. Note that you’ve probably seen these conjugations before. What do I mean by the big three? I mean that in this post, we’ll learn how to conjugate the three main verb groups in French, -er, -ir and -re verbs, in the three major tenses of the indicative mood: présent (present), passé composé (past perfect) and imparfait (imperfect).
Conjugating -er verbs
Let’s look at a typical example of an -er verb: aimer (to like). It’s conjugated as follows:
J’aime (I like)
Tu aimes (You like)
Il/elle/on aime (He/she/it/one likes)
Nous aimons (We like)
Vous aimez (You [polite] / You all like)
Ils/elles aiment (They like)
Example: Il aime sa maison. (He likes his house.)
J’ai aimé (I liked)
Tu as aimé (You liked)
Il/elle/on a aimé (He/she/it/one liked)
Nous avons aimé (We liked)
Vous avez aimé (You [polite] / You all liked)
Ils/elles ont aimé (They liked)
Example: Il a aimé sa maison. (He liked his house.)
J’aimais (I liked)
Tu aimais (You liked)
Il/elle/on aimait (He/she/it/one liked)
Nous aimions (We liked)
Vous aimiez (You [polite] / You all liked)
Ils/elles aimaient (They liked)
Example: Il aimait sa maison. (He liked his house.)
Conjugating -ir verbs
For -ir verbs, let’s look at the example gravir (to climb). It is conjugated as follows:
Je gravis (I climb)
Tu gravis (You climb)
Il/elle/on gravit (He/she/it/one climbs)
Nous gravissons (We climb)
Vous gravissez (You [polite] / You all climb)
Ils/elles gravissent (They climb)
Example: Je gravis la montagne. (I climb the mountain.)
J’ai gravi (I climbed)
Tu as gravi (You climbed)
Il/elle/on a gravi (He/she/it/one climbed)
Nous avons gravi (We climbed)
Vous avez gravi (You [polite] / You all climbed)
Ils/elles ont gravi (They climbed)
Example: J’ai gravi la montagne. (I climbed the mountain.)
Je gravissais (I climbed)
Tu gravissais (You climbed)
Il/elle/on gravissait (He/she/it/one climbed)
Nous gravissions (We climbed)
Vous gravissiez (You [polite] / You all climbed)
Ils/elles gravissaient (They climbed)
Example: Je gravissais la montagne. (I climbed the mountain.)
Conjugating -re verbs
Finally, let’s look at -re verbs, using the example prendre (to take). It is conjugated as follows:
Je prends (I take)
Tu prends (You take)
Il/elle/on prend (He/she/it/one takes)
Nous prenons (We take)
Vous prenez (You [polite] / You all take)
Ils/elles prennent (They take)
Example: Nous prenons le bus. (We take the bus.)
J’ai pris (I took)
Tu as pris (You took)
Il/elle/on a pris (He/she/it/one took)
Nous avons pris (We took)
Vous avez pris (You [polite] / You all took)
Ils/elles ont pris (They took)
Example: Nous avons pris le bus. (We took the bus.)
Je prenais (I took)
Tu prenais (You took)
Il/elle/on prenait (He/she/it/one took)
Nous prenions (We took)
Vous preniez (You [polite] / You all took)
Ils/elles prenaient (They took)
Example: Nous prenions le bus. (We took the bus.)
Note that not all French verbs fall under these categories. There are irregular verbs too, some of which are critical, including être (to be) and avoir (to have). We won’t cover irregular conjugations in this post, but it’s good to know that they exist and practice their conjugations, too.
Resources to Study the French Indicative
Looking at conjugation tables will only get you so far when it comes to memorizing and internalizing French indicative conjugations. Read on for a wealth of amazing online resources to suit any learning style.
Resources for Practicing Indicative Conjugation
To Learn French is great for conjugation practice because it provides several fill-in-the-blank exercises for all tenses in the indicative mood. Fill in the blanks and click “check my test” to see the answers and how you stacked up against other users. At the bottom of the answer page, you’ll see similar exercises for more practice.
If you’re looking for detailed information about the indicative tense, check out coLanguage. They do a great job of explaining grammatically every aspect of the indicative tense. I recommend you study the page thoroughly for a theoretical basis of what you learn in your beginning French classes.
Finally, if you’re looking to practice conjugating all forms of French verbs, there’s a great resource at the University of Texas. On the page you can form your own lessons by selecting the verb type (-er, -ir, etc.) and the tense. For example, if you select -er and passé composé, you’ll be prompted to conjugate several verbs by memory, one after another.
Resources for Practicing the Indicative vs. Subjunctive Moods
One of the biggest headaches for French students is learning which mood to use when. Fortunately, the internet is full of resources that deal with the question of whether to use the indicative or subjunctive mood.
For example, check out Quia, which has a great quiz with several questions where you must conjugate either in indicative or subjunctive based on the context. Or, return to the previously mentioned To Learn French for their “indicative vs. subjunctive” quiz.
Another good resource for indicative vs. subjunctive quizzes is FunTrivia, which is similar to Quia but with the added feature of timed quizzes. See how you stack up!
The French indicative is a great place to start when you’re trying to build your French grammatical know-how. With all this information and the above resources, you’ll be conjugating like a pro in no time. And that’s a fact!