French grammar is full of irregularities and exceptions. They make sense when you understand the phonetic and grammatical in’s and out’s of the language, but can still be difficult to navigate – especially at the beginning. Covering every single irregular French verb out there, therefore, is a difficult task to tackle in just one blog post.
To begin with, how can you even tell by looking at it whether or not a verb is irregular? Much of the time, you can’t. Sometimes the phonetic pattern of the verb may be what affects its irregularities; most often, its common usage is what has allowed it to develop as many irregularities as it has. In this blog post, we will look at a few of the most common irregular verb conjugations in the present tense:
1) être – to be
2) aller – to go
3) avoir – to have
4) faire – to do or to make
5) venir – to come
6) tenir – to hold
7) revenir – to come back
The conjugation of “être” is probably the two most irregular verbs in French. For “être,” it can be helpful that “estar” and “ser” are the two Spanish verbs for “to be.” Both verbs are romantic languages with Latin roots. Spanish-speakers may see the forms of both verbs jumping out at them in different present forms. For those who don’t speak another romantic language already, watch as the “s” present in the Spanish verbs sneaks back into the present tense conjugation of its French cousin:
Il / elle / on est
Ils / elles sont
The root “ser-” – the second Spanish verb for “to be” – comes back also in conjugating the future tense in French. For those Spanish speakers out there, keep in mind also that the accent circonflex in French (˄) often indicates an -s that over centuries became silent and was then dropped. So être was likely at one time estre, and êtes was likely once estes – again, likely very familiar looking to Spanish speakers out there.
The verbs “aller” and “avoir” also change forms quite a bit in the present tense:
Il / elle / on va
Ils / elles vont
Il / elle / on a
Ils / elles ont
The verb “faire” becomes a bit more regular. Like most -re verbs, the -re in faire comes off and is replaced by various endings in the present tense, with the exception of the third person plural. Some of the endings corresponding with other subject pronouns also vary a little from the typical -re endings. It is worth noting that this verb really has two separate meanings – to make and to do. So whether you talk about doing homework or making a cake, you will use the same verb when speaking in French. Here is the present conjugation:
Il / elle / on fait
Ils / elles font
A notable element of irregular French verbs is that they sometimes come in pairs and trios that are conjugated in the same way. The pattern for conjugating “venir” can also be applied to “tenir” (to hold) and “revenir” (to come back).
Je viens / tiens / reviens
Tu viens / tiens / reviens
Il / elle / on vient / tient / revient
Nous venons / tenons / revenons
Vous venez / tenez / revenez
Ils / elles viennent / tiennent / reviennent
Other similar pairs include:
1) “croire” (to believe) and “boire” (to drink)
2) “voir” (to see) and “revoir” (to see again)
3) “mettre” (to put) and “remettre” (to put back)
Look out for these patterns to help you categorize the irregular verbs you know, and to learn them more easily! French grammar also has two irregular verbs for to know – “connaître” and “savoir”. To learn more about how to conjugate irregular verbs, check out the video below.
As you acquire more French vocabulary, try practicing using these verbs. For instance, talk about places you might want to go to practice the verb “aller,” or descriptions of yourself or your and friends to use the verb “être.” Then write it down, and check your spelling for each form, correcting them if necessary.
You might try using one or two per week – because each one will take repetition and reinforcement to remember, especially with the irregularities. Remember how common they are, though. That is, after all, why they are so irregular. Even with only a few verbs, you may find there is a lot you can say!
For more one-on-one help with the French language, sign up for lessons with a private French tutor! Tutors are available to teach you in-person or online via Skype. Search for your French tutor today!
Carol Beth L. teaches French lessons in San Francisco, CA. She has her Masters in French language education from the Sorbonne University in Paris and has been teaching since 2009. Learn more about Carol Beth here!
Photo by The Natural Step Canada