Tuesday, June 30, 2015

French Grammar: Mastering the French Present Tense

According to Trudie Maria Booth (French Verb Tenses, 2008), "The verb is the most important part of the sentence. It expresses an action or state of the subject and indicates the time and mood of an occurrence. In order to be able to to communicate in a language, you must know how its verb tenses and moods are formed and how they are used." Veronique Mazet (Correct Your French Blunders, 2007:137) is of the opinion that, "The verb is crucial in determining the construction of a sentence and the placement of all its components. When you write a French sentence, focus on the verb." In order to master the French verbs, one would, first of all, need to master the art of conjugation. This is crucial if one wants to communicate effectively in French. Here I would like to share what I know about the French present tense with my readers. I hope that they will find this article useful.

In French, the subject must agree with the verb. Verbs are said to have three persons: the speaker, the person spoken to, and the third person, referring neither to the speaker nor the person spoken to. The subject pronouns in French are therefore as follows:

First person ------je (singular), nous (plural)
Second person ------ tu, vous (singular), vous (plural)
Third person ------il/elle/on (singular), ils/elles (plural)

There are two ways of saying you in French. Use tu to talk to friends, family members, children and animals. Use vous when you are addressing a stranger, someone you don't know well, or to maintain a certain degree of distance or respect. The pronoun on takes on different meanings. It may mean one, we or they depending on how it is used.

Since French has no subject pronoun for 'it', all nouns, whether animate or inanimate are referred to as either il or elle whilst ils refers to masculine plural nouns and elles refers to feminine plural nouns.

The following is the present tense conjugation of the verb, demander (meaning to ask). It is formed by dropping the -er ending of the infinitive and adding -e, -es, -e, -ons, -ez, and -ent to the stem of the verb. This is the rule for the formation of regular -er verbs.

demander (to ask)
je demande ------I ask, I am asking, I do ask
tu demandes ------you (familiar singular) ask, you are asking, you do ask
il demande ------he asks, he is asking, he does ask
elle demande ------she asks, she is asking, she does ask
on demande ------one asks, one is asking, one does ask
nous demandons ------we ask, we are asking, we do ask
vous demandez ------you (formal singular and plural, familiar plural) ask, you are asking, you do ask
ils demandent ------they ask, they are asking, they do ask
elles demandent ------they ask, they are asking, they do ask

French verb endings change depending on who you are talking about. In English, it is necessary to add -ing to the verb. In French, both the present tense and present continuous tense of the infinitive 'demander' are the same.

It should be noted that there are also a number of regular -er ending verbs that show slight spelling changes in their present tense forms. For instance, the verb 'appeler' (to call) doubles the last consonant of its stem in all persons except nous and vous. The following is the present tense conjugation of the verb appeler (to call):
j'appelle, tu appelles, il/elle/on appelle, nous appelons, vous appelez and ils/elles appellent.

For verbs ending in -yer, the y is changed into i in all persons except nous and vous. They can also keep the y throughout the conjugation. For isntance, let's look at the present tense conjugation of the verb payer (to pay):
je paie (je paye), tu paies (tu payes), il/elle/on paie (il paye), nous payons, vous payez, and ils/elles paient (ils payent).

Verbs ending in -oyer or in -uyer must change the y into an i in all persons except nous and vous. For example:
nettoyer (to clean)
je nettoie, tu nettoies, il/elle/on nettoie, nous nettoyons, vous nettoyez, ils/elles nettoient.
ennuyer (to bore)
j'ennuie, tu ennuies, il/elle/on ennuie, nous ennuyons, vous ennuyez and ils/elles ennuient.

Verbs ending in -ger and -cer show spelling changes only in the nous form.
For verbs ending in -ger e is added after the letter g in the nous form of the present tense.
manger (to eat)
je mange, tu manges, il/elle/on mange, nous mangeons, vous mangez, ils/elles mangent

For verbs ending in -cer a cedille is added to the c in the nous form of the present tense.

In the conjugation of regular -ir verbs, we have to add the following endings to the stem:
-is, -is, -it, -issons, -issez, -issent. Here is a model conjugation:
finir (to finish)
je finis, tu finis, il/elle/on finit, nous finissons, vous finissez, ils/elles finissent

In the conjugation of regular -re verbs, we have to add the following endings to the stem:
-s, -s, - (no ending), -ons, -ez, -ent. Here is a model conjugation:
attendre (to wait)
j'attends, tu attends, il/elle/on attend, nous attendons, vous attendez, ils/elles attendent

As for the present tense of the irregular verbs, they are even harder to conjugate because they don't have a consistent stem throughout their conjugation but luckily most of them have similar endings, making them a little easier to remember. The following is the present tense conjugation of three of these irregular verbs:

aller (to go)
je vais, tu vas, il/elle/on va, nous allons, vous allez, ils/elles vont
avoir (to have)
j'ai, tu as, il/elle/on a, nous avons, vous avez, ils/elles ont
etre (to be)
je suis, tu es, il/elle/on est, nous sommes, vous etes, ils/elles sont

But how are we going to remember all those verbs without a consistent stem and ending? According to Zoe Erotopoulos (French Verbs for Dummies, 2006:43), "The only suggestion I can make is that you study each one and practice using it; I'm sure each will become second nature to you in no time. A good way to make these verbs your own is to practice saying them out loud and to try to build up a certain rhythm. You may even try making a song out of the conjugations, using your favourite melody."

French verbs show a great multiplicity of forms. Learning French is therefore very challenging. Difficult though it may be, mastery of this language is a great accomplishment.