Reading French 3 : Verbs

© 2015, Greg Lessard

Verbs and subject pronouns

Verbs are the pivot around which a sentence turns. So finding the verb is key to analysing a sentence. There are several techniques to help with this. The first is based on word endings. Verbs in French are marked for number, person and tense. Let us begin by looking at the most frequent conjugation, that of verbs whose infinitive ends in -er. We will begin with the present tense and we will include the personal pronouns associated with each person and number. (More on pronouns below.)

Verb Person and Number Equivalent in English
je chante 1st person singular I sing, or I am singing
tu chantes 2nd person singular You sing, or You are singing
il chante 3rd person singular (masculine) He/it sings, or He/it is singing
elle chante 3rd person singular (feminine) She/it sings, or She/it is singing
nous chantons 1st person plural We sing, or We are singing
vous chantez 2nd person plural You sing, or You are singing
ils chantent 3rd person plural (masculine) They (masc.) sing, or They (masc.) are singing
elles chantent 3rd person plural (feminine) They sing, or They are singing

The pronouns in the table above (je, tu, il, elle, nous, vous, ils, elles) are called subject personal pronouns. That is, they give the subject of a sentence. In French, they are only found in close association with a conjugated verb, so they provide another clue to the existence of a verb.

It is also worth noting that unlike English, French can use the same form to express both the habitual and the progressive perspective. So, ils chantent can allude to the fact that some group has a habit of singing regularly, or that they are singing just now. So appropriate translations include: they sing and they are singing. In French, it is the context which indicates which perspective is being used.

Verb cognates

As in the case of nouns, a number of French verbs are cognates of English verbs, so in reading French, you should always look for potential relations of the sort. Sometimes there are small but systematic variations between the two languages, as the following table illustrates:

French form English form Examples
Verb ends in -er Verb ends in -ate éliminer : eliminate
Verb begins with dés- Verb begins with dis- désinfecter : disinfect
Verb begins with en- Verb has no en- enregistrer : register

Here is a list of cognates among -er verbs in French. Mouse over the words to check their English equivalents.

"abandonner", "abhorer", "absorber", "abuser", "accepter", "accumuler", "acidifier", "activer", "adapter", "administrer", "admirer", "adopter", "adorer", "ajourner", "alarmer", "alerter", "aligner", "amalgamer", "américaniser", "amplifier", "amputer", "angliciser", "animer", "annexer", "annihiler", "annoter", "annuler", "anticiper", "appliquer", "appointer", "apprécier", "appréhender", "approcher", "approprier", "approuver", "arguer", "armer", "arrêter", "arriver", "asphyxier", "aspirer", "assembler", "assimiler", "assumer", "attacher", "attaquer", "attribuer", "augmenter", "autoriser", "baptiser", "bénéficier", "blâmer", "bloquer", "bombarder", "boxer", "brosser", "calculer", "chanter", "codifier", "coexister", "colorier", "combiner", "commander", "commercialiser", "communiquer", "comparer", "complimenter", "composer", "concocter", "confesser", "confirmer", "conforter", "congratuler", "conserver", "consister", "conspirer", "constituer", "consumer", "contaminer", "contempler", "contester", "continuer", "contribuer", "contrôler", "coordonner", "copier", "crier", "cultiver", "danser", "décaféiner", "décapiter", "décider", "déclarer", "décoder", "décomposer", "décorer", "déformer", "démilitariser", "démonétiser", "déprécier", "désappointer", "désarmer", "déshonorer", "désinfecter", "désintoxiquer", "désirer", "désorganiser", "désorienter", "détacher", "détecter", "détériorer", "déterminer", "détester", "dévaluer", "développer", "dévier", "dévorer", "dialoguer", "dicter", "différencier", "diminuer", "dîner", "discerner", "discontinuer", "discuter", "disloquer", "disperser", "disputer", "disqualifier", "dissiper", "distiller", "distinguer", "distribuer", "diversifier", "diviser", "documenter", "domestiquer", "dominer", "doubler", "douter", "éjecter", "électrifier", "électrocuter", "éliminer", "embarquer", "embarasser", "empoisonner", "encercler", "enchanter", "encoder", "endurer", "enregistrer", "enrôler", "entrer", "envelopper", "équiper", "estimer", "étudier", "européaniser", "évaluer", "évaporer", "évoluer", "excommunier", "excuser", "exécuter", "exempter", "exempter", "exfolier", "exhumer", "exhiler", "exister", "exorciser", "expérimenter", "expliquer", "exploiter", "explorer", "exploser", "exposer", "exproprier", "fabriquer", "falsifier", "familiariser", "fasciner", "fatiguer", "favoriser", "féminiser", "fermenter", "fertiliser", "filmer", "flatter", "flirter", "fonctionner", "fonder", "formaliser", "former", "formuler", "fortifier", "fossiliser", "fracturer", "fragmenter", "fréquenter", "frustrer", "galoper", "garder", "généraliser", "glorifier", "gouverner", "grouper", "guider", "handicaper", "harmoniser", "hésiter", "honorer", "hospitaliser", "humaniser", "humidifier", "humilier", "identifier", "illustrer", "imaginer", "immobiliser", "immortaliser", "immuniser", "implanter", "implorer", "importer", "imposer", "improviser", "inaugurer", "inciter", "incliner", "incorporer", "incriminer", "indexer", "indiquer", "individualiser", "infecter", "infiltrer", "inhaler", "injecter", "insister", "inspecter", "inspirer", "installer", "institutionnaliser", "intensifier", "intercepter", "intéresser", "internationaliser", "interviewer", "intimider", "intoxiquer", "inventer", "inviter", "irradier", "irriter", "justifier", "juxtaposer", "kidnapper", "lamenter", "légaliser", "libéraliser", "liber", "limiter", "liquider", "lister", "localiser", "lyncher", "masquer", "massacrer", "mécaniser", "mériter", "mesurer", "métamorphoser", "militariser", "miniaturiser", "moderniser", "momifier", "monopoliser", "moraliser", "nationaliser", "naturaliser", "naviguer", "négocier", "neutraliser", "normaliser", "notifier", "observer", "occuper", "officialiser", "opposer", "oppresser", "orchestrer", "organiser", "orienter", "osciller", "pacifier", "paginer", "paniquer", "parader", "paralyser", "paraphraser", "pardonner", "parfumer", "parodier", "pasteuriser", "pasticher", "patrouiller", "pédaler", "pénaliser", "perfectionner", "perforer", "permuter", "perpétuer", "persécuter", "persister", "personnaliser", "personnifier", "persuader", "perturber", "pétrifier", "philosopher", "photocopier", "photographier", "piller", "piloter", "pirater", "pisser", "pivoter", "planter", "plâtrer", "polariser", "politiser", "polluer", "pomper", "ponctuer", "populariser", "postdater", "pratiquer", "précipiter", "prédestiner", "prédéterminer", "préexister", "préfigurer", "préméditer", "préoccuper", "préparer", "présider", "presser", "présumer", "présupposer", "privatiser", "procréer", "procurer", "professer", "programmer", "prohiber", "pronostiquer", "prophétiser", "proposer", "protester", "prouver", "provoquer", "psychanalyser", "publier", "pulvériser", "purifier", "quadrupler", "qualifier", "raconter", "radicaliser", "raffiner", "raisonner", "ranimer", "rapatrier", "rarefier", "rassurer", "ratifier", "rationaliser", "rationner", "réajuster", "recommander", "refuser", "regretter", "reposer", "représenter", "réserver", "résister", "respecter", "saboter", "sacrifier", "saliver", "sanctifier", "sanctionner", "scarifier", "scintiller", "séparer", "séquestrer", "shooter", "signaler", "signer", "simplifier", "simuler", "skier", "slalomer", "snober", "sodomiser", "solidifier", "spécialiser", "spécifier", "sprinter", "stabiliser", "stagner", "standardiser", "stériliser", "stigmatiser", "stimuler", "stocker", "stopper", "stresser", "structurer", "stupéfier", "subdiviser", "subsister", "substituer", "suffoquer", "suggestionner", "superviser", "supporter", "supposer", "suspecter", "symboliser", "synchroniser", "systématiser", "tanner", "taxer", "téléphoner", "terrifier", "terroriser", "tester", "titrer", "torturer", "tourmenter", "tourner", "transcender", "transfigurer", "transformer", "transgresser", "transplanter", "transposer", "traumatiser", "trembler", "triompher", "tripler", "trotter", "troubler", "truster", "unifier", "urbaniser", "uriner", "utiliser", "vacciner", "valider", "varier", "ventiler", "vérifier", "versifier", "vexer", "vibrer", "visiter", "visualiser", "vitrifier", "vocaliser", "vulcaniser", "zigzaguer"

French-English false friends (faux amis)

As we noted earlier, there are, however, cases where the two languages have words of the same form, but quite different meanings. Here is a list of some verbs like this. Mouse over the list to see the differences in meaning.

"murmurer", "postuler", "présenter", "ramper", "rater", "remarquer", "rester", "retirer", "soliciter", "stationner", "supporter", "tabler", "tamponner", "taper", "tirer", "torcher", "toucher", "tranquilliser", "transpirer", "trépasser", "user", "vaporiser", "ventiler", "verser"

In fact, the situation can be more complex, as the meaning can sometimes be the same between the two languages and sometimes different. Thus, remarquer can sometimes mean 'notice' and sometimes 'remark'. You should pay attention to the context for clues in cases like that.

Finding the meaning of some French pronoun-verb combinations

To check your skill with pronouns and verbs, look at the following list and try to guess the equivalent in English. When you have decided, mouse over the forms in French to check whether you are right.

Verbs and transitivity

As in English, French verbs vary depending on the number and type of arguments they can take. All verbs take a subject, even if it is impersonal, as we saw above with the use of pronouns, but different verbs may take different sorts of objects, or even no object at all, as the following table illustrates.

Type Subject Verb Direct Object Indirect Object Meaning
Intransitive Verb Elle entre 0 0 'She enters'
Transitive Direct Verb Elle commande l'armée 0 'She commands the army'
Transitive Indirect Verb Elle résiste à la pression 0 'She resists the pressure' (note the preposition here: à)
Ditransitive Verb Elle accepte le cadeau de Pierre. 'She accepts the gift from Pierre'

It is important to note that the argument structure of a verb may different between French and English, as the following table shows:

French English
Elle résiste à la tentation She resists temptation
Il préexiste à l'université It preexists the university

In both cases, French adds a preposition (à) not present in English.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that in language we sometime do not specify all objects. Some may be implicit, clear from the situation. Compare for example:

As you read, pay attention to the argument structure of the French verbs you come across.

Noun phrases and verbs

We saw earlier that verbs in French can take a pronoun as subject. They can also take noun phrases, as in:

Together, noun phrases and verbs allow us to begin to produce and understand entire sentences.

An informal quiz on short sentences

Here is a short informal quiz that you can use to test your ability to translate short sentences. Remember, this score is not retained, so feel free to experiment. Remember also that a computer is fundamentally dumb, so you may come up with a correct answer that it doesn't recognize.

Irregular verbs

So far, we have seen the class of -er verbs. This is by far the largest class, with the most members, but it does not contain the most frequent verbs in French. Like many languages, French makes use of two means of storing information about words. On the one hand, much information is stored as simple rules, as in the case of the endings of -er verbs. Once you know the rule, you can apply it to any member of the class. On the other hand, frequently-recurring words seem to be stored directly in memory. This allows them to be retrieved quickly, but it also means that any irregularities are retained. As a result, the most frequent verbs in French are the most irregular. To read French, you must learn them, so some time spent on this now will pay dividends later.

We will begin by looking at the present tense of the five most frequent French irregular verbs: être ('to be'), avoir ('to have'), faire ('to do'), dire ('to say'), and aller ('to go').

être avoir faire dire aller
je suis j'ai je fais je dis je vais
tu es tu as tu fais tu dis tu vas
il va il a il fait il dit il va
elle va elle a elle fait elle dit elle va
nous sommes nous avons nous faisons nous disons nous allons
vous êtes vous avez vous faites vous dites vous allez
ils sont ils ont ils font ils disent ils vont
elles sont elles ont elles font elles disent elles vont

Exploring irregular verbs

One of the best ways of becoming comfortable with irregular verbs is to see them in use often. This is what happens naturally with native speakers of French who see verbs like the five shown above more often than any other verbs. To check your understanding of these verbs, look at the sentences below and try to determine their meaning. Once you have done that, mouse over each sentence to check your progress.

Another verb conjugation: regular -ir verbs

We have seen how -er verbs work in the present tense. Now let's look at another conjugation, illustrated by the following table:

Verb Person and Number Equivalent in English
je finis 1st person singular I finish, or I am finishing
tu finis 2nd person singular You finish, or You are finishing
il finit 3rd person singular (masculine) He/it finishes, or He/it is finishing
elle finit 3rd person singular (feminine) She/it finishes, or She/it is finishing
nous finissons 1st person plural We finish, or We are finishing
vous finissez 2nd person plural You finish, or You are finishing
ils finissent 3rd person plural (masculine) They (masc.) finish, or They (masc.) are finishing
elles finissent 3rd person plural (feminine) They (fem.) finish, or They (fem.) are finishing

The clue in the case of verbs of this conjugation is the ending in -is or -it or -iss-. Here are some verbs of the most frequent verbs of this conjugation, in descending order of frequency. Mouse over them to check their meaning.

finir, agir, saisir, choisir, réussir, réfléchir, remplir, surgir, franchir, établir, envahir, réunir, fournir, accomplir, subir, grandir, obéir, jaillir, rougir, trahir, jouir, avertir, vieillir, unir, ralentir, guérir, bâtir

Some verbs in -oir

Although there are not many verbs in French ending in -oir, some of them are very frequent, so it is important to see how they are conjugated. Let us begin by looking at the following table of the most frequent forms. Notice that the singular forms end in -s, -t or -x. In the plural, look for the usual endings (-ons, -ez, -ent) and notice how the base form may change to include -eu- or -oi-.

pouvoir voir savoir vouloir devoir
je peux je vois je sais je veux je dois
tu peux tu vois tu sais tu veux tu dois
il peut il voit il sait il veut il doit
elle peut elle voit elle sait elle veut elle doit
nous pouvons nous voyons nous savons nous voulons nous devons
vous pouvez vous voyez vous savez vous voulez vous devez
ils peuvent ils voient ils savent ils veulent ils doivent
elles peuvent elles voient elles savent elles veulent elles doivent

Some verbs in -endre

Another important group of verbs consists of those ending in -re. Again, some of these are very frequent, so it is important to learn them. Consider the following table and notice of the most frequent forms. Notice that the singular forms end in -s, -t or zero, as in il comprend. In the plural, look for the usual endings (-ons, -ez, -ent). .

prendre mettre suivre répondre comprendre
je prends je mets je suis je réponds je comprends
tu prends tu mets tu suis tu réponds tu comprends
il prend il met il suis il répond il comprend
elle prend elle met elle suit elle répond elle comprend
nous prenons nous mettons nous suivons nous répondons nous comprenons
vous prenez vous mettez vous suivez vous répondez vous comprenez
ils prennent ils mettent ils suivent ils répondent ils comprennent
elles prennent elles mettent elles suivent elles répondent elles comprennent

A quiz on various verbs

The best way to learn verbs is to practice. The following short quiz will help to do that. Take the quiz several times to see a variety of different verbs.

Reading passages

Probably the best way of learning a language in detail is to read. You now know enough that you can begin to attempt this. Spend some time reading the following passages, looking for determiners, nouns you recognize, verbs and pronouns. Don't be discouraged if you don't recognize a lot: these are still early days. Just try to get a broad sense of the meaning. Once you feel that you've got as far as you can, mouse over the line which reads Translation to see the text in English and compare the two.

A short reading passage from La peste by Albert Camus

Une manière commode de faire la connaissance d'une ville est de chercher comment on y travaille, comment on y aime et comment on y meurt. Dans notre petite ville, est-ce l'effet du climat, tout cela se fait ensemble, du même air frénétique et absent. C'est-à-dire qu'on s'y ennuie et qu'on s'y applique à prendre des habitudes. Nos conci-toyens travaillent beaucoup, mais toujours pour s'enrichir. Ils s'intéressent surtout au commerce et ils s'occupent d'abord, selon leur expression, de faire des affaires. Naturellement, ils ont du goût aussi pour les joies simples, ils aiment les femmes, le cinéma et les bains de mer. Mais, très raisonnablement, ils réservent ces plaisirs pour le samedi soir et le dimanche, essayant, les autres jours de la semaine, de gagner beaucoup d'argent. Le soir, lorsqu'ils quittent leurs bureaux, ils se réunissent à heure fixe dans les cafés, ils se promènent sur le même boulevard ou bien ils se mettent à leurs balcons.


A good way of learning about a city is to discover how people work, how they love and how they die there. In our little city, maybe because of the climate, all of that is jumbled together, and is done with the same frenetic and absent manner. That is, people get bored and try to develop habits. Our fellow citizens work a lot, but always to make themselves wealthy. They are mostly interested in commerce and they occupy themselves above all, to use their expression, with doing business. Naturally, they also have a taste for the simple joys: they love women, movies and the seaside. But, very reasonably, they reserve these pleasures for Saturday evenings and Sunday and they try on the other days of the week, to make a lot of money. In the evening, when they leave their offices, they meet together at the appointed hour in cafés, they walk on the boulevards and they sit on their balconies.

A short reading passage on the Sahara (from Wikipédia)

Le Sahara est le plus vaste et le plus grand désert chaud du monde. Le climat oscille entre la chaleur extrême en pleine journée d'été et la fraîcheur nocturne en hiver, voire le froid dans les régions montagneuses (la nuit, le thermomètre peut descendre jusqu'à - 10 °C dans l'Atakor et dans l'Assekrem entre 2 000 et 2 500 m d'altitude entre décembre et février). Ce désert est connu pour ses extrêmes climatiques : en effet le Sahara possède les endroits faisant partie des plus chauds, des plus secs, des plus arides et des plus ensoleillés au monde.


The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world. The climate oscillates between extreme heat at midday in summer and cold nights in winter, and indeed even cold in mountainous regions (at night, the thermometre can go down to as low as -10 °C between December and February at Atakor and Assekrem situated at an altitude of between 2,000 and 2,500 metres. This desert is known for its climatic extremes: in fact the Sahara has places which are among the hottest, the dryest, the most arid and the most sunny in the world.

A short reading passage on allegory (from Wikipédia)

Une allégorie (du grec : ἄλλον / állon, « autre chose », et ἀγορεύειν / agoreúein, « parler en public ») est une forme de représentation indirecte qui emploie une chose (une personne, un être animé ou inanimé, une action) comme signe d'une autre chose, cette dernière étant souvent une idée abstraite ou une notion morale difficile à représenter directement. Elle représente donc une idée abstraite par du concret.


An allegory (from the Greek ἄλλον / állon, « something else », and ἀγορεύειν / agoreúein, « speak in public ») is a form of indirect representation which uses a thing (a person, an animate or inanimate object or an action) as a sign for something else. This latter thing is often an abstract idea or a moral notion which is difficult to represent directly. So the allegory represents an abstract idea by something concrete.

Summing up

You should now feel comfortable with the following concepts:

  1. the meaning and use of subject personal pronouns
  2. the conjugation of regular -er verbs in the present tense
  3. the conjugation and use of some of the most frequent irregular verbs
  4. the basic structure of -ir, -re and -oir verbs
  5. the interpretation of short sentences combining noun phrases and verbs
  6. strategies for finding verbs in sentences

You have also had the opportunity to take some informal quizzes to test your knowledge, and you will now have dealt with some short reading passages. Together, these things will have prepared you for the next step, the use of adjectives.