Silence the mind.
That’s it, French learner, step away from Facebook.
Become one with the French language.
Push aside your thoughts of the future and let go of the past.
Today we’re remaining in the present, young French grasshopper.
With this simple guide, you’re going to become the next guru of the French present tense. And once you master the present tense, your mind will be prepared to venture further into the beautiful world of French. So take a deep breath in, a deep breath out, and let’s get started.
Live in the Now: The Essential Guide to the French Present Tense
When to Use the French Present Tense
The present tense in French is much like the present tense in English. It’s used for actions that are happening in the present (i.e. actions that are currently happening as a speaker speaks).
Further, the present tense can be used for habitual actions. This happens in English also, and we can determine a habitual action by a trigger word that denotes continuous action. For example, the phrase “Le mardi, je nage” means “On Tuesdays, I swim.”
Further, the present tense can be used to talk about actions that will occur in the immediate future. Like habitual actions, these immediate future actions need trigger words for context, and these trigger words have to do with time:
- Demain, je vais à la bibliothèque. (Tomorrow I’m going to the library.)
- Il arrive bientôt. (He’s arriving soon.)
The major difference, however, works in your favor! In French, there is no difference between the habitual present (I swim on Tuesdays) and the present progressive tense (I’m swimming on Tuesday). This means that it’s more difficult for French speakers to learn English because there is no distinction between these two tenses in French, but it makes it super easy for English speakers!
Types of French Verbs in the Present Tense
In French, there are two types of verbs: regular and irregular.
A regular verb means it’s part of a group of verbs with the same ending that all follow the same conjugation patterns. In French, these verbs are easy to find because they end in -er, -ir and -re (though some verbs with these endings are, in fact, irregular). For each ending, there are specific rules of conjugation.
Irregular verbs, on the other hand, do not follow regular verb conjugation patterns, and they have their own endings that are not only dissimilar to regular verbs, but also dissimilar to other irregular verbs. These, unfortunately, have to be memorized, but there aren’t too many of them. Plus, irregular verbs are used fairly commonly so they are easy to learn.
Regular French Verbs
Like I stated earlier, regular verbs can be broken into three categories depending on their ending, and verbs with the same endings follow the same conjugation pattern. Check it out!
Verbs that end in -er
Regular verbs that end in -er are the largest classes of verbs in French, accounting for over 12,000 verbs in the language. What does that mean for you? Well, once you learn how to conjugate one regular -er verb in the present tense, you can conjugate all 12,000!
Let’s look at how to do it using the verb parler (to speak).
To start, we want to take the -er ending off of the verb parler so that we’re left with the stem parl-.
From there, we add on endings depending on the subject of the sentence (the person doing the speaking, in this case):
- Je parle français (I speak French)
- Tu parles français (You speak French)
- Il/elle parle français (He/she speaks French)
- Nous parlons français (We speak French)
- Vous parlez français (You speak French)
- Ils/elles parlent français (They speak French)
The best part? With the endings in bold, you can peel the -er off of verbs like chanter (to sing) and donner (to give), add the proper endings and you’ll be using the present tense for -er verbs in no time at all!
Verbs that end in -ir
The next biggest group of regular verbs ends in -ir. Like verbs that end in -er, these verbs have their own endings that can apply to all verbs that end in -ir.
To conjugate in the present tense, take off the -ir ending so you’re left with the stem, and add the appropriate conjugation endings depending on the subject. Here’s an example with the verb choisir (to choose):
- Je choisis un livre (I choose a book)
- Tu choisis un livre (You choose a book)
- Il/elle choisit un livre (He/she chooses a book)
- Nous choisissons un livre (We choose a book)
- Vous choisissez un livre (You choose a book)
- Ils/elles choisissent un livre (They choose a book)
And like -er verbs, you can take these endings and use them for other verbs ending in -ir, like finir (to finish) and réussir (to succeed).
Verbs that end in -re
Finally, the third group of regular verbs are ones that end in –re. In order to conjugate these, remove the ending -re and add the appropriate ending depending on the subject of the sentence. Check out the examples with the verb vendre (to sell):
- Je vends la table (I’m selling the table)
- Tu vends la table (You are selling the table)
- Il/elle vend la table (He/she is selling the table)
- Nous vendons le table (We are selling the table)
- Vous vendez la table (You are selling the table)
- Ils/elles vendent la table (They are selling the table)
Note that the conjugation for the il/elle (he/she) subject for -re verbs does not have an ending. This means that the conjugation is simply the stem of the verb.
Also, you can use this conjugation pattern for other -re verbs, such as perdre (to lose) and descendre (to descend).
Irregular French Verbs
Regular verbs in the present tense are easy enough, right? Congratulate yourself for all you’ve learned this far, and then take another deep breath. Remember those irregular verbs I talked about?
In French, there aren’t a whole lot of irregular verbs (in comparison to 12,000 regular verbs that end in -er), but there are quite a few.
Here are the two most common irregular verbs, être (to be) and avoir (to have):
Être (to be)
This irregular verb is extremely common and means “to be.” This verb is also used an an auxiliary verb to help create compound verb tenses (such as past tenses).
- Je suis avocat(e) (I am a lawyer)
- Tu es avocat(e) (You are a lawyer)
- Il/elle est avocat(e) (He/she is a lawyer)
- Nous sommes avocat(e)s (We are lawyers)
- Vous êtes avocat(e)s (You are lawyers)
- Ils/elles sont avocat(e)s (They are lawyers)
Avoir (to have)
In addition to the meaning of “to have,” avoir is another auxiliary verb that is used to create compound verb tenses such as past tenses. It is also very irregular.
- J’ai une radio (I have a radio)
- Tu as une radio (You have a radio)
- Il/elle a une radio (He/she has a radio)
- Nous avons une radio (We have a radio)
- Vous avez une radio (You have a radio)
- Ils/elles ont une radio (They have a radio)
Other Common Irregular Verbs in French
Check out these other common irregular verbs in the present tense.
Aller (to go)
je vais nous allons
tu vas vous allez
il/elle va ils vont
Pouvoir (to be able to)
je peux nous pouvons
tu peux vous pouvez
il/elle peut ils peuvent
Vouloir (to want)
je veux nous voulons
tu veux vous voulez
il/elle veut ils veulent
Faire (to do)
je fais nous faisons
tu fais vous faites
il/elle fait ils font
But wait! There are more! Check out this link to see how to conjugate even more irregular verbs, such as boire (to drink), conduire (to drive), lire (to read), savoir (to know) and voir (to see).
Resources to Master the French Present Tense
Every talented yogi has learned from many teachers, so let these spectacular resources be your guide.
- About.com has a fantastic resource for present tense verbs (and all those all-too-common irregulars). This website has tutorials on all French grammar topics such as verbs, nouns and sentence structure. In particular, its series on the French present tense includes written explanations, examples and videos!
- More of a book nerd? Check out the handy “500 French Verbs for Dummies” and “French Verb Tenses: Fully Conjugated Verbs.” Both of these books act as guides for French verbs, having a mixture of both regular and irregular verbs. The best part is that each verb is conjugated, and the examples allow you to learn the subtle differences between seemingly synonymous verbs.
- Last but not least, practice makes perfect, right? Check out quizzes on ToLearnFrench.com and ProProfs.com.
So there you have it, young grasshopper. Go forth and bestow your French knowledge upon the world. Besides, your new-found knowledge will be somewhat of a present to those you use it around.
See what I did there?