Conjugation Without Memorization: 7 Patterns You Can Apply to Tons of French Irregular Verbs
If you’re struggling to remember whether a verb is conjugated regularly or irregularly, if you’re wondering how the spelling changes depending on the form, if you’re trying to figure out whether you need to change an accent… this article will help clear up those tricky little questions.
We’ll start by going over the most important and common irregular verbs, and then cover some of the different families/types of irregular verbs, showing you how to conjugate them efficiently based on shared patterns.
- What Are Irregular Verbs?
- Practice with Irregular Verbs
- Irregular French Verbs, Made Surprisingly Easy: Learn These Patterns and Tricks
- The 4 Most Common Irregular Verbs
- Spelling-change Verbs
- Irregular Verbs in the Pouvoir Family
- Irregular Verbs in the Mettre Family
- Irregular Verbs in the Prendre Family
- Irregular Verbs in the Venir Family
- Irregular Verbs in the Partir Family
What Are Irregular Verbs?
Irregular verbs are simply verbs that don’t follow the normal rules of conjugation.
For example, regular verbs ending in -er all change their endings the same way when conjugated. Regular -ir and -re verbs follow their own sets of rules as well.
Irregular verbs don’t follow these normal rules of conjugation and must be learned individually.
Don’t become overwhelmed, though. There are still patterns that can help you remember how to conjugate these verbs. That’s why we’ll tackle them in groups with similar or even identical conjugations.
My French teacher, nevertheless, was correct—some of the most common and important verbs (and some of the first verbs you learn!) in the French language are irregular. Mastering these is crucial to express some of the most fundamental ideas and statements in French.
Practice with Irregular Verbs
Practicing the patterns we’ll teach you below is the best way to absorb them. Here are some good places to go for practice with irregular verbs. Note that this article can’t include every single irregular verb in the French language, so some of these activities may include verbs not explicitly discussed here.
- Sporcle French Irregular Verbs Quiz tests the most common and important irregular verbs: être, avoir, aller and faire (to be, to have, to go and to do, respectively).
- With “FrogVerb” Irregular Verbs, you help a frog catch the flies that have the proper conjugated form of the requested verb. It’s an engaging way to review irregular verbs. Plus, if you want to focus on specific verbs or keep ones you don’t know out of the game, you can customize which verbs appear.
- The FluentU program teaches you irregular verbs by letting you hear them in authentic French videos. The program lets you watch how native speakers use these words in various contexts. You can also practice what you’re learning through quizzes following each video, or focus on specific verbs by adding them to flashcard decks.
- This 10-question multiple choice quiz is a quick and simple way to find out how well you understand French irregular verbs.
- This fill-in-the-blank quiz is also 10 questions (it does include some verbs not mentioned here) testing your knowledge of irregular verbs.
- Reverso Conjugation isn’t exactly a practice tool, but it’s a great reference source for double-checking how a specific verb is conjugated or for learning new verbs. Simply type in the verb you want and it’ll show you every possible form, including other tenses (past, future, subjunctive).
Irregular French Verbs, Made Surprisingly Easy: Learn These Patterns and Tricks
The 4 Most Common Irregular Verbs
Here we’ll go over four of the most common irregular verbs in French. Unlike the families you’ll find below, these verbs don’t follow similar or shared conjugation rules, but they’re used so frequently you’ll memorize them organically, as long as you’re aware of them while you practice French.
Être (To Be)
One of the most basic and essential verbs there is, être is wholly irregular. This verb is also sometimes used as an auxiliary to form the passé composé (perfect tense). For example: Pourquoi es-tu arrivé en retard? (Why did you arrive late?)
Je suis (I am)
Tu es (You are)
Il/Elle/On est (He/She/One is)
Nous sommes (We are)
Vous êtes (You are)
Ils/Elles sont (They are)
Avoir (To Have)
Avoir is another powerful verb and the main auxiliary verb used to form the passe composé. For instance: Les étudiants n’ont pas lu le livre (The students didn’t read the book).
J’ai (I have)
Tu as (You have)
Il/Elle/On a (He/She/One has)
Nous avons (We have)
Vous avez (You have)
Ils/Elles ont (They have)
Aller (To Go)
Aller is also very irregular, and it’s used to form the futur proche (near future). For example: Vous allez faire la vaisselle après le dîner (You are going to do the dishes after dinner).
Je vais (I go)
Tu vas (You go)
Il/Elle/On va (He/She/One goes)
Nous allons (We go)
Vous allez (You go)
Ils/elles vont (They go)
Faire (To Do)
Faire is employed in a wide variety of everyday expressions, from faire attention (to pay attention) to faire le ménage (to do the chores/housework).
Je fais (I do)
Tu fais (You do)
Il/Elle/On fait (He/She/One does)
Nous faisons (We do)
Vous faites (You do)
Ils/Elles font (They do)
Now we’ll explore one of the most annoying types of irregular verbs. For the most part, they’re conjugated regularly based on their respective endings.
However, with the subjects nous and/or vous, the conjugated verb is spelled differently from regular rules. Sometimes we need to add an extra letter. Other times, we must change or add an accent.
Here, we’ll break down the main types of spelling-change verbs:
-Er Verbs with a “G”
These verbs, such as manger (to eat) and nager (to swim) keep the “e” in the nous form.
The reason has to do with pronunciation. Based on standard rules of French pronunciation, mangons would be pronounced with a hard “g” (as in “gopher”) as opposed to a soft “g” (as in “Germany.”) Thus, in order to retain the “j” sound, we say nous mangeons (we eat) and nous nageons (we swim). The other subjects are conjugated like normal -er verbs.
Je mange (I eat)
Tu manges (You eat)
Il/Elle/On mange (He/She/One eats)
Nous mangeons (We eat)
Vous mangez (You eat)
Ils/Elles mangent (They eat)
Accent Omission Verbs
Some verbs, such as acheter (to buy) and préférer (to prefer) have accent changes depending on the subject they’re used with. In the nous and vous forms, the conjugated verb more closely resembles the infinitive.
For instance, acheter has an accent in all conjugated forms except the nous and vous forms. Otherwise, they’re conjugated like regular -er verbs.
J’achète (I buy)
Tu achètes (You buy)
Il/Elle/On achète (He/She/One buys)
Nous achetons (We buy)
Vous achetez (You buy)
Ils/Elles achètent (They buy)
Préférer is similar. The double accent aigu (acute accent) stays only in the nous and vous forms.
Je préfère (I prefer)
Tu préfères (You prefer)
Il/Elle/On préfère (He/She/One prefers)
Nous préférons (We prefer)
Vous préférez (You prefer)
Ils/Elles préfèrent (They prefer)
Accent Addition Verbs
Similarly, verbs like commencer (to begin) and effacer (to erase) undergo an accent change. However, it’s that one is added (not omitted) in the nous and vous forms.
For pronunciation purposes, we must add a cédille (cedilla—the little “tail” accent) to the “c” in those forms. Otherwise, these verbs are conjugated like typical -er verbs.
Je commence (I begin)
Tu commences (You begin)
Il/Elle/On commence (He/She/One begins)
Nous commençons (We begin)
Vous commençez (You begin)
Ils/Elles commencent (They begin)
Keep the “Y” Verbs
One more major spelling-change verb type is those such as payer (to pay) and envoyer (to send), in which the “y” becomes an “i” in all forms except the nous and vous forms. Otherwise, they’re conjugated like other -er verbs.
Je paie (I pay)
Tu paies (You pay)
Il/Elle/On paie (He/She/One pays)
Nous payons (We pay)
Vous payez (You pay)
Ils/Elles paient (They pay)
Irregular Verbs in the Pouvoir Family
The next set of verbs are conjugated in similar, but not identical ways. We’ll go over the full conjugation for each one separately, but first, let’s take a quick look at what these verbs have in common.
You’ll find the same middle vowel pairs across je, tu and il/elle/on conjugations. For instance, for pouvoir (to be able), these forms contain “eu” in the middle, while for savoir (to know) these forms contain “ai” in the middle.
To make things even easier, the je and tu forms will be the same, whereas the il/elle/on form will end with a “t.”
You’ll also see that the nous and vous forms closely resemble the infinitive. These forms are the same except at the end, but don’t worry, they have regular -er verbs endings, (-ons and -ez).
The ils/elles form, while unique to each verb, ends in the regular -ent.
Pouvoir (To Be Able)
Pouvoir is quite a common verb. In context, pouvoir is usually used with an infinitive to express something one can do.
For example: Je peux nager (I can swim) or Vous pouvez jouer aux échecs? (Can you play chess?). Note that, depending on context, pouvoir is often translated as a form of the English verb “can.”
Je peux (I can)
Tu peux (You can)
Il/Elle/On peut (He/She/One can)
Nous pouvons (We can)
Vous pouvez (You can)
Ils/elles peuvent (They can)
Vouloir (To Want)
Vouloir is also rather common. (I’m sure we could all list many things we want in life!) This verb is most often used with another verb or a noun. For instance: Elle veut un café (She wants coffee) or Ils veulent jouer au foot (They want to play soccer).
Je veux (I want)
Tu veux (You want)
Il/Elle/On veut (He/She/One wants)
Nous voulons (We want)
Vous voulez (You want)
Ils/Elles veulent (They want)
Savoir (To Know)
Note that connaître is also translated “to know.” The difference is that, while savior refers to knowing a fact, connaître has a more intimate meaning, referring to knowing a person or a place.
Thus, one would say Tu sais que la Deuxième Guerre mondiale est finie en 1945. (You know that World War II ended in 1945.), but Nous connaissons bien Pierre. Il est notre voisin. (We know Peter well. He is our neighbor.).
Je sais (I know)
Tu sais (You know)
Il/Elle/On sait (He/She/One knows)
Nous savons (We know)
Vous savez (You know)
Ils/Elles savent (They know)
Voir (To See)
Finally, voir means “to see,” and is also, unsurprisingly, rather common. (Are you beginning to see what my French teacher was talking about?)
Je vois (I see)
Tu vois (You see)
Il/Elle/On voit (He/She/One sees)
Nous voyons (We see)
Vous voyez (You see)
Ils/Elles voient (They see)
Irregular Verbs in the Mettre Family
Good news! These verbs are conjugated in the exact same way as one another.
Even more good news! The meanings of these verbs are generally easy to remember because they’re often similar to their English counterparts. Some examples: admettre (to admit), promettre (to promise), permettre (to permit) and soumettre (to submit).
Mettre (To Put)
Mettre is used in many expressions, such as mettre la table (to set the table).
Je mets (I put)
Tu mets (You put)
Il/Elle/On met (He/She/One puts)
Nous mettons (We put)
Vous mettez (You put)
Ils/Elles mettent (They put)
You can easily follow the same pattern for all verbs mentioned above.
Je promets (I promise)
Tu promets (You promise)
Il/Elle/On promet (He/She/One promises)
Nous promettons (We promise)
Vous promettez (You promise)
Ils/Elles promettent (They promise)
Irregular Verbs in the Prendre Family
As with mettre, the verbs in the prendre (to take) family are conjugated in the exact same way as one another.
The weird thing about these verbs is that the letter “d” is only included in the singular forms (with je, tu, il/elle/on). In the ils/elles form, replace it with an extra “n.”
Some common verbs in this group are apprendre (to learn), comprendre (to understand) and surprendre (to surprise).
Je prends (I take)
Tu prends (You take)
Il/Elle/On prend (He/She/One takes)
Nous prenons (We take)
Vous prenez (You take)
Ils/Elles prennent (They take)
Again, you can follow the same conjugation patterns for all verbs mentioned above.
Irregular Verbs in the Venir Family
Once again, the verbs in the venir (to come) family are conjugated in the same way. The unique characteristic of these verbs is that, in the nous and vous forms, we don’t have the “ie” that’s found in the other forms.
If you recall from spelling-change verbs, the nous and vous forms often seem to be the ones that want to go rogue.
Some common verbs in this family are tenir (to hold/to keep), obtenir (to obtain), devenir (to become) and appartenir (to belong). Appartenir in context is most often combined with à (to) and a person or organization.
For instance: Oui, cette robe apartient à mon soeur (Yes, this dress belongs to my sister) and J’appartiens à l’Alliance Français de Chicago (I belong to the French Alliance of Chicago).
Je viens (I come)
Tu viens (You come)
Il/Elle/On vient (He/She/One comes)
Nous venons (We come)
Vous venez (You come)
Ils/Elles viennent (They come)
Irregular Verbs in the Partir Family
Although these verbs aren’t simply built off one another (like how promettre just has “pro” tacked onto the word mettre), they’re conjugated in the same way as one another.
Remove the last three letters of the infinitive (“tir” or “mir”) and add the appropriate endings. The singular tense conjugations follow the pattern “s,” “s,” “t.” The good news is that the plural forms closely resemble regular -er verbs.
Partir means “to leave.” For instance: Je pars pour Angleterre demain (I leave for England tomorrow). Some other verbs in this group include sortir (to exit), mentir (to lie), dormir (to sleep) and sentir (to feel).
Je pars (I leave)
Tu pars (You leave)
Il/Elle/On part (He/She/One leaves)
Nous partons (We leave)
Vous partez (You leave)
Ils/Elles partent (They leave)
The good news: the majority of French verbs follow the rules.
The bad news: the most common and important ones don’t.
The better news: you just learned what many of those verbs are, as well as how to conjugate and use them properly.
Rachel Larsen is a lifelong francophile and freelance writer who dreams of living in France one day. She’s currently a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. To learn more, visit her LinkedIn page.