I can remember how, simply by walking, I mastered French conjugation. One footfall stood for the pronoun and the other, the verb: je suis, tu est, il et...

I was but a little thing when my family moved to France. Not knowing the first French word but destined to attend French school in just a month, it was imperative that we master at least the basic French verbs and how to conjugate them. Hence, every activity included some aspect of learning French.

Hopefully, you're not under such pressure.

You've probably had plenty of time to get acquainted with French verbs and their tenses. In fact, as you're preparing to sit GCSE French, you've likely been practising French for years - and not just simple verb conjugation, either. Hopefully, you're well-versed in:

Tense/Aspect/MoodConstruction
Perfect tense: used to describe completed actionsAuxiliary verb + past participle
Imperfect tense: used to describe things that happened regularlyverb root + imperfect endings
Pluperfect tense: used to describe the distant pastImperfect of avoir or être + past participle form of main verb
Conditional tense: what might or would happen a future time + verb root + imperfect endings
The Imperative communicates demands, requests, suggestions and instructions1. Use present tense with no pronoun
2. Use present tense with a hyphenated (stressed) pronoun after the verb
Negations: ne (verb) pas
ne (verb) jamais
ne (verb) rien
ne (verb) que
ne (verb) personne
ne (verb) ni... ni

If this table doesn't make things perfectly clear just yet, read on. We're about to make French verbs so much easier to use and understand.

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Know the Auxiliary Verbs

Like English, the French language has a handful of auxiliary verbs but - again, as in English, only two are frequently used. Avoir and être, 'to have' and 'to be', respectively, spend a lot of time supporting the sentence's action verb, which is usually written in past tense.

Note that, although there are some similarities between French and English auxiliary verbs, they are not used in the same way.

For instance, while an English speaker might say 'I am done with my homework', a French speaker would say 'I have finished my homework.' (J'ai fini mes devoirs). Translating the English version of that sentence would yield a frightening disclosure: Je suis fini(e) generally means 'I'm done for.'. Not the outcome you would want from a simple homework assignment!

Using do and have in French in very different
Don't let your French verb review do you in; just finish it! Photo credit: thetorpedodog on Visualhunt.com

Another, less dramatic example of the difference between French and English uses of 'to have' and 'to be': when describing your age. In French, you would say 'I have 15 years.' (J'ai quinze ans.). In English, your age becomes a part of your identity: 'I am 15 (years old)'.

Many qualities make up a person's identity: their name (Je suis Marie), their social status (Je suis étudiante) and their current mood (Je suis ravie), but never make your age a part of your ID. In French, 'Je suis quinze ans' simply doesn't fly.

We could cite a few more humorous examples of French auxiliary verb misuse - I am hunger/I have hunger, for one, but it's time to move on, to explore modal verbs: pouvoir, devoir, vouloir.

When used as a verb, 'pouvoir' conveys the ability to do something; it means 'can'. It's the verb you'd use to say 'I can go to the cinema because I finished my homework.' (Je peux aller au ciné car j'ai fini mes devoirs.) Note that 'pouvoir' is also a noun, meaning power.

Do you have pouvoir on your GCSE French vocabulary list?

You might understand 'devoir's meaning from earlier usage (as homework); it means duty - something you have to or must do. For instance, if your friend hurt herself while rollerskating, you might say 'Elle doit aller à l’hôpital!' (she has to go to the hospital).

Finally, vouloir accords with desire. If you want something, you would say 'Je veux... ' or, more civilly: 'Je voudrais' (I would like).

'Je voudrais en savoir plus sur l’examen de français GCSE' (I would like to know more about the GCSE French exam), for example.

Get Familiar with the Most Oft-Used Tenses

You'll find avoir, être and faire liberally sprinkled throughout your GCSE French papers, all in a variety of tenses and moods.

Note that faire - to do, is often used in contexts different than the ones typically used in English. We might say 'I do the dishes' or 'She did her hair' but you'll never hear a native English speaker say 'Je fais le cheval' (lit. 'I do the horse', meaning 'I ride horses') or 'Elle fait les magasins.' (lit. 'She does the stores', meaning 'She goes shopping.').

Particularities aside, what tenses are most often used in French?

  • Present tense
  • present participle tense
  • Perfect tense
  • Imperfect tense
  • Pluperfect tense
  • Future tense
  • Conditional

Of these, the imperfect and pluperfect tenses stand out; the rest are used pretty much as the equivalent English tenses are used. For instance, we use the present tense only to relate things that are generally true (I am a student), or we include a time reference to indicate the action is regular and ongoing (I go to school every day.).

The imperfect tense could be considered similar to the English simple past tense because it relates to things that happened in the past: 'Il y avait une foule dans les rues!'. You can also use this tense to describe things that used to be constant, as long as you use a time reference: 'Quand j'étais petit, j'étais si mignon!'

Always use pluperfect when delivering second-hand information
To relay second-hand information, always use the pluperfect tense. Photo credit: Ktoine on Visualhunt.com

The pluperfect tense is a bit more complex. You would use it to talk about things that happened in the distant past (J'avais déjà choisi mes amis quand... ) or to relay second-hand information (Elle m'avait dit que...).

To build either of these grammatical constructions, you have to know the imperfect forms of auxiliary verbs and affix the proper ending to the root of the action verb in question.

In general, verb infinitives have one of three endings: -er, -ir, and -re, and each has its specific imperfect endings. You might get some GCSE reading practice by researching them and making yourself a handy chart.

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What to Know About Reflexive Verbs

When introducing yourself, would you say 'I call myself Mary.'? If you were speaking French, you would. Indeed, 'Je m'appelle Marie' is one of the easiest ways to make sense of reflexive verb usage in French.

Any action you take upon yourself calls for a reflexive verb construction. If you seat yourself on the couch, you would say 'Je m'assois sur the divan.' If you're combing your hair, you would say 'Je me peigne les cheveux.' and so on. You could even beg your mate to not be angry with you: 'Ne m'en veux pas!'

The infinitive form of reflexive verbs is se + infinitive of the action verb. To use them correctly, you have to know how to conjugate them: the 'se' changes to reflect the desired pronoun. If you're doing the action onto yourself, change 'se' to 'me'; if everyone takes part, 'se' becomes 'nous' - 'Nous nous nourrirons ensemble'.

You might chant the timeless French children's song 'Je te tiens, tu me tiens par la barbichette  / Je te tiens, tu me tiens et tu n'en fais rien!' - not only as a good way to cement correct reflexive verb use, but to give you speaking practice ahead of your GCSE French speaking test.

All About Impersonal Verb Usage

Have you ever given impersonal verb usage in English any thought? It's raining. It's hard to see how French verbs can be so difficult. It's better to have love and lost...

These types of sentences do not relate to a specific subject; they are generalities. And, admittedly, this construction is far more common in French than in English.

The most frequent usage calls for an auxiliary verb - avoir, être or faire, used in the third person singular and preceded by 'il'. And then, simply state the condition: Il fait froid, for example. Or Il faut se laver les mains - a highly appropriate phrase in these times.

Note that, if you're using avoir, you will have to also use 'y': Il y a du vent ce soir (there's some wind tonight).

As this type of verb usage is far more common in French, you'll see far more examples of it throughout your GCSE French revision. Make note that there doesn't always have to be an auxiliary verb involved. For instance, 'Il pleut' (it rains) delivers enough information without the extra verb - but you can't say 'Il chaud'. That doesn't make any sense. You have to follow 'il' with a verb.

Some phrases are more complex. Il vaut mieux (lit. 'It value more') conveys the idea that whatever follows that phrase must have more benefit than any other condition.

To prove that point, we'll translate an earlier quote: Il vaut mieux d'avoir aimé et perdu que de n'avoir jamais aimé du tout.

You can get by with informal questions at your fab bistro
You can get by with a verb-subject reversal at your fav bistro but you'll have to be more formal elsewhere. Photo credit: avlxyz on Visualhunt.com

How to Ask Questions in French

How many ways can you think of to ask a question? In our native language, there are two: reversing the subject and verb, or simply finishing the statement with a rising tone. There are other ways to formulate queries but they are pretty archaic: 'Could it be that you have hunger?', as an example.

That old, formal pattern is the closest word-for-word translation of the most common way to ask questions in French: Est-ce que tu as faim?

If you were speaking French in an official capacity - say in a government office or on your GCSE French exam, more often than not, this formal version would prevail. But if you're just talking with your mates, you could get by with the standard subject-verb reversal, albeit with a hyphen in between: As-tu faim?

Though difficult to demonstrate in writing, maybe we can show you how a rising final tone can also convey a question: 'You have hunger, yes?' Now, translate that into French, word for word, and substitute no for yes: 'Tu as faim, non?' - and, there, you have a grammatically correct question in French.

You may even drop then 'non' at the end.

Like so many other languages, French is full of irregular verbs but, once you nail the pattern - the ends, the gendered pronouns and accords and the archaic phraseology, mastering French verbs is not that difficult.

And, once you do, you'll be ready to write your response to the 150-word question...

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.