A work-in-progress one-stop-shop for french verb conjugation!

Présent

Indicates present tense action. This tense corresponds to the following three English present tense forms: I buy; I am buying; I do buy. To say I watch and I am watching in English is to use two different present tenses. In French this is commonly represented in a single tense: Je regarde.

Le présent progressif ("in the middle")

It is possible (albeit more specific) to give extra weight to the "present" part of the verb using être en train de before an infinitive verb.

"I am in the middle of working" becomes "Je suis en train de travailler."

Le passé récent ("just happened")

This tense is sometimes known as "The immediate past."

In English, the immediate past is constructed with the combination of have just + past participle: "I have just finished my work, why are you making me do more?"

In French, we operate similarly to the présent progressif (the use of en train de), to express something that has just happened in the present: by combining a conjugation of venir de + infinitive verb.

For example, we have just eaten becomes: Nous venons de manger.

Le passé simple

Le passé simple, also known as le passé historique, is a French past tense that is only used in written language. It has the same meaning as the passé composé; it talks about a completed, one-time action in the past.

source: Le passé simple: the past historic in French

The Passé Composé (The "Composed Past")

We use the passé composé to talk about one-time, completed actions that took place in the past.

The past tense is formed by using the present tense of avoir or etre (it becomes an "auxiliary") in combination with the the past participle of the verb in question. Passé Composé gets its name from the composition of auxiliary and infinitive verb.

Passé ComposéEnglish
Il a acheté un portable.He bought a phone (lit. he has bought a new phone).
Ne n'avons pas fini^we have not finished

As usual, there are exceptions. Use Être instead of Avoir with certain verbs (often those indicating movement): aller, sortir, venir, partir, descendre, tomber, naitre, devenir, arriver, monter, mourir, retourner:

  • Je suis allé = I went.

  • Nous sommes partis = we left.

As usual, there are many irregularities you just have to memorize. For example, I learned is j'ai appris.

L'imparfait (Imperfect)

The L'imparfait (see: Imperfective aspect) is used for describing states and continuous, ongoing or repeated events in the past. The L'imparfait is often used for telling stories. It is to the Future simple as The Passé Composé is to the *Future Proche*; in this case, verb endings are changing and we are not creating auxiliaries from avoir/etre.

Examples:

Quand il était petit, Lucas aimait beaucoup les gâteaux.

> When he was small, Lucas liked cake a lot.

Nous parlions au téléphone.

> We were talking on the phone.

L'imparfait:      We were talking on the phone -> nous parlions au téléphone
Passé Composé:    We talked on the phone       -> nous avons parlé au téléphone
Conditional Past: We would talk on the phone   -> nous parlerions au téléphone

The imperfect tense is conjugated by using the present-tense stem of a verb in the nous form (that is, in the first person plural form, we), and adding different endings depeneding on the pronoun:

Je, Tu, Il/Elle/On, Nous, Vous, Ils/Elles corresponds to: ais, ais, ait, ions, iez, aient.

Le Plus-que-parfait

Corresponds to the "past perfect tense" in English. Used to talk about an action or situation that took place before another past action, and so, this tense is often used in conjuction with another past tense to establish an order of events.

The Plus-que-parfait is constructed by combining the imperfect form of avoir and etre as the auxiliary verb, followed by the participe passé of the main verb:

Elle avait beaucoup travaillé avant de pouvoir jouer le morceau parfaitement.

It is quite similar to using the passé composé, except that the auxiliar is the past tense of avoir or etre.

L'imparfait vs Passé Composé

I find it difficult remembering when to use which verb tense for the past. I think for now, I understand the following:

Use of "ed"

This is not a hard and fast rule so much as a useful pointer. In English, past tense verbs that end in ed likely correspond to Passé Composé. For example, you liked your room (tu as aimé ta chambre). In this example, we have a statement that describes a one time, completed action in the past as noted above in the section on the Passé Composé.

Sense of Narrative/Ongoing-ness

In contrast with the above, in a more narrative, continuous sort of conversation, one might say you were liking your room. (tu aimais ta chambre). Here, the example indicates that we are indeed "describing states and continuous, ongoing or repeated events in the past". The person was enjoying/liking the room they were staying in; it is a state of being that is continuous. Further, at least to me, this almost feels like a story or narrative, as if the account could go on ("you were really liking your room when all of a sudden you realized there was mould in the ceiling!")

...She was liking her room; she was reading in her favourite chair every night and was using the new bookshelf too.

(elle aimait sa chambre; elle lisait dans sa chaise préférée tous les soirs et utilisait aussi la bibliothèque.)

For me, Keywords like was, were, and used to are possible indicators that L'imparfait may need to be used. This is a loose rule, as it seems in general that English does not have an imperfective tense.

My hunch is relatively confirmed by page 303 of Assimilº:

French TenseEnglish TenseFrenchEnglish
Passé ComposéPast simpleJ'ai regardéI looked
Passé ComposéPresent perfectJ'ai regardéI have looked
L'imparfaitPast continuousJe regardaisI was looking
L'imparfaitPast frequentativeJe regardaisI used to look
Le futurFuture simpleJe regarderaiI will look
Le futurFuture continuousJe regarderaiI will be looking

Assimil also aims to point out that French reduces the number of tenses, combining two in english into one, as above.

Futur Proche (Near Future | aux.)

The Future Proche, also called The Future Composé, is used to describe actions in the near future. The construction of the future proche is similar to the passé composé, in that we are combining a conjugated auxiliary (Aller) with a verb infinitive.

EnglishFrench
I am going to walkJe vais marcher
We are going dancingNous allons danser
He will eatIl va manger

Futur Simple (Simple Future)

The futur simple corresponds to using "I will ---" in English. It allows one to say things in French such as "I will be able to..." or "I will walk".

This future tense is "created" by adding conjugations of the present tense suffixes of avoir (-ai, -as, -a, -ons, -ez, -ont) to the infinitive of a verb. In this way, it is called "Simple" in that there is no auxiliary.

Person-er verbs-ir verbs (finir)-re verbs (vendre)
1st person singular (I)j’aimeraije finiraije vendrai
2nd person singular (you)tu aimerastu finirastu vendras
3rd person singular (he/she/it)il/elle/on aimerail/elle/on finirail/elle/on vendra
1st person plural (we)nous aimeronsnous finironsnous vendrons
2nd person plural (you)vous aimerezvous finirezvous vendrez
3rd person plural (they)ils/elles aimerontils/elles finirontils/elles vendront

As usual, look out for exceptions such as:

PronounInfinitiveWith Avoir endingEnglish
IlsallerIls irontthey will go
NousavoirNous Auronsthey will have
NousfaireNous FaironsThey will do/make
TuetreSerasYou will be
IlpouvoirpourraHe will be able to