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The present tense: How to form and use it in French?

By: Céline Bateman-Paris Thu Mar 21 2024
French
Verbs, Indicative Mood

The French present tense is used to talk about what is happening now (among other things!) and it is formed using various sets of conjugation endings depending on the verb category and whether the verb is regular or irregular. French grammar has three categories of verbs in the present tense: verbes du premier groupe, du deuxième groupe, and du troisième groupe, which stand for first, second, and third group conjugations. The first group gathers all -er verbs, the second all regular -ir verbs, and the last one is for all the misfits!

Je parle un peu français.

I speak a little bit of French.

est la gare ?

Where is the train station?

The present tense is a useful tense to master, as you will need it as a base for many other tenses and moods, such as the French imperfect or the subjunctive present in French. If you want to know the essential rules of the French present tense, including endings, stem changes, and pronunciation, along with how to use and translate the present tense, then this article is for you!

À vos marques ! Prêts ? Partez !(Ready? Steady? Go!)

Table of Contents

    How to form the French present tense with ‘-er’ verbs?

    To form the present tense with French -er verbs (first group verbs), you will need to add the appropriate -er present tense conjugation endings to the verb stem. For regular -er verbs, the stem is the infinitive form without -er. Unlike in English, verb endings change for every subject pronoun in French. In the table below, you can find the present tense conjugation endings for -er verbs:

    Subject pronoun
    Endings

    je

    -e

    tu

    -es

    il, elle, on

    -e

    nous

    -ons

    vous

    -ez

    ils, elles

    -ent

    Pronunciation TIP

    The conjugated forms for je, tu, il, elle, on, ils, elles are all pronoounced the same!
    Their endings are silent:

    • je trouve

    • tu trouves

    • il trouve

    • elle trouve

    • on trouve

    • ils trouvent

    • elles trouvent

    /troov/

    The vous ending -ez is pronounced "ay":

    Vous mangez/ma(n)jay/

    Let’s try conjugating the joyful verb rigoler(to laugh) in the present tense:

    Infinitive
    Stem
    Present Tense

    rigoler

    to laugh

    rigol-

    • je rigole

    • tu rigoles

    • il, elle, on rigole

    • nous rigolons

    • vous rigolez

    • ils/elles rigolent

    You may think: “Hang on, what about aller?" While it does end in -er, it is not a regular verb! We’ll cover this later.

    Important

    Je turns into j' verbs starting with a vowel or most verbs with a mute h.

    J’aime le pain.

    I like bread.

    J’habite à la campagne.

    I live in the country.

    What are the ‘-er’ verb spelling changes in French?

    Generally, -er verbs in French are considered to be regular verbs; however, although the endings are regular, with some verbs you’ll need to add or alter an accent or even double a consonant for pronunciation purposes. These are called -er verb spelling changes. Usually, the stem is the same for je, tu, elle, on, ils, and elles, and differs for nous, vous. Let’s take a look at some cases!

    • -cer verbs:

      Nous commençons la réunion dans cinq minutes.

      We’ll start the meeting in five minutes.

      ↳ If you didn’t add a cedilla, it would sound like [koma(n)ko(n)] and we want it to continue sounding like an -s[koma(n)so(n)].
    • -eè verbs:

      Il achète les croissants et vous achetez le café.

      He buys the croissants and you buy coffee.

      ↳ For verbs like acheter(to buy), the accent change occurs for je, tu, il, elle, on, ils, and elles only for pronunciation purposes.
    Important

    For verbs which have different stems, remember that the conjugated forms for je, tu, il, elle, on, ils, elles sound the same and their pronunciation varies for nous, vous.

    Let's look at appeler(to call):

    j’appelle, tu appelles, il appelle, elle appelle, on appelle, ils appellent, elles appellent

    [apehl]

    nous appelons

    [apeuhlo(n)]

    vous appelez

    [apeuhlay]

    These are not the only spelling changes with -er verbs! For example, have you ever heard someone say nous mangeons(we eat)? Or maybe you’ve wondered where the accent change comes from on the verb éspérer(to hope) when you say, j'espère (I hope)? For a comprehensive review of all of the -er verb spelling changes in the French present tense, take a look at our helpful chart!

    Since -er verbs are now covered, let's go to -ir verbs, which are mainly regular.

    How to form the French present tense with ‘-ir’ verbs?

    To form the present tense with -ir verbs in French, you will need to learn the -ir verb conjugation endings. However, -ir verbs are a bit trickier than -er verbs in French, because some of them are regular (the second group verbs), while others are irregular (technically third group verbs). We’ll begin with the easier regular -ir verbs first.

    How to form the French present tense with regular ‘-ir’ verbs?

    To form most -ir verbs, or verbes du deuxième groupe, the stem is the infinitive without -ir + the -ir verb endings in the present tense. These endings are in the table below:

    Subject pronoun
    Endings

    je

    -is

    tu

    -is

    il, elle, on

    -it

    nous

    -issons

    vous

    -issez

    ils, elles

    -issent

    Let’s try conjugating a couple of regular verbs: finir(to finish) and choisir(to choose).

    Infinitive
    Stem
    Present tense

    finir

    to finish

    fin-

    • je finis

    • tu finis

    • Il, elle, on finit

    • nous finissons

    • vous finissez

    • ils/elles finissent

    choisir

    to choose

    chois-

    • je choisis

    • tu choisis

    • Il, elle, on choisit

    • nous choisissons

    • vous choisissez

    • ils/elles choisissent

    Pronunciation TIP

    For -ir verbs, the conjugated forms for je, tu, il, elle, on are pronounced the same! The final consonant is silent.

    • je finis

    • tu finis

    • il finit

    • elle finit

    • on finit

    [feenee]

    Remember, -ent is silent, too.

    ils finissent, elles finissent [ma(n)jay], [feeneesa(n)]

    How to form the French present tense with irregular ‘-ir’ verbs?

    You’ll also encounter irregular -ir verbs which are conjugated in two more different ways: one type which uses the -er verb endings and one which uses a new set of endings. They are therefore considered to be “third group verbs” in the French present tense. The good news is you already know how to conjugate the first kind! Let’s have a look!

    Irregular -ir endings
    (Type 1)
    ouvrir
    (to open)
    Irregular -ir endings
    (Type 2)
    partir
    (to leave)

    Same stems as for -er verbs!

    Stem = ouvr-

    For the singular forms, you omit the final consonant of the stem, but you use it for the plural forms.

    Singular stem = par-

    Plural stem = part-

    -e

    j'ouvre

    -s

    je pars

    -es

    tu ouvres

    -s

    tu pars

    -e

    il, elle, on ouvre

    -t

    il, elle, on part

    -ons

    nous ouvrons

    -t

    nous partons

    -ez

    vous ouvrez

    -t

    vous partez

    -ent

    ils, elles ouvrent

    -ent

    ils, elles partent

    To see more examples of the two types of irregular -ir verbs in the French present tense, take a look at our conjugation chart!

    How to form the French present tense with ‘-oir’ verbs?

    To form the present tense with another type of irregular -ir verbs which belong to the third group of conjugations (-oir verbs), you will also use two categories of endings. For both, the stem changes for je, tu, il, elle, ils, elles. For nous and vous the conjugation is almost regular, as you simply need to add the -er endings -ons and -ez to the verb.

    -oir endings
    (Type 1)
    devoir
    (to have to)
    -oir endings
    (Type 2)
    pouvoir
    (to be able to)

    -s

    je dois

    -x

    je peux

    -s

    tu dois

    -x

    tu peux

    -t

    il, elle, on doit

    -t

    il, elle, on peut

    -ons

    nous devons

    -ons

    nous pouvons

    -ez

    vous devez

    -ez

    vous pouvez

    -ent

    ils, elles doivent

    -ent

    ils, elles peuvent

    Tip

    Just because a verb ends in -voir does not mean it is conjugated like the verb voir!

    Again, you can find more examples of verbs like devoir and pouvoir and similar irregular -ir verbs in the French present tense in our conjugation chart!

    By now, we’ve seen many irregular -ir verbs. You may be thinking, “What about venir, isn't it je viens?" Well, venir(to come) and tenir(to hold) are yet another example of irregular -ir verbs that are a part of this third group! Fasten your seatbelt and let’s dive further into third group verbs!

    How to form the French present tense with more third group and irregular verbs?

    To form the French present tense with other third group verbs and irregular verbs, you’ll again need to memorize some new conjugation endings for -re verbs and irregular verbs (like venir and tenir from above). For verbes du troisième groupe, you need to keep in mind that time and practice will help, and you can always use the French present progressive être en train de as a cop out! We’ve already covered the irregular -ir verbs that are a part of this third group. Here, I will give you rules and tips for the most useful third group -re verbs and the top totally irregular verbs.

    How to form the French present tense with regular ‘-re’ verbs?

    Many -re verbs in French have somewhat regular endings, so to form the present tense for these verbs, you will generally add the following endings:

    Subject pronoun
    Endings

    je

    -s

    tu

    -s

    il, elle , on

    🚫 / -t

    nous

    -ons

    vous

    -ez

    ils, elles

    -ent

    The tricky part of conjugating -re verbs is not choosing the proper endings as much as using the appropriate stem before adding the endings above. Some -re verbs will always use the same stem (like perdre in the table below). Other -re verbs have a stem change between the singular and plural forms. For the singular forms, to find the stem you just need to take off -re (and sometimes the final consonant before -re, as well) and then you can add the endings. But, sometimes, for the plural forms, you'll need to add a consonant (or two) before adding the endings above.

    Let’s pick three verbs: perdre(to lose), which is regular and has one stem, and traduire(to translate) and écrire(to write), which present an irregularity for the plural stems and need a consonant added.

    Infinitive
    Stem
    Present tense

    perdre

    to lose

    perd-

    • je perds

    • tu perds

    • il, elle, on perd

    • nous perdons

    • vous perdez

    • ils/elles perdent

    traduire

    to translate

    Singular stem = tradui-

    • je traduis

    • tu traduis

    • il, elle, on traduit

    Plural stem = traduis-

    (For the plural forms, add -s before the endings)

    • nous traduisons

    • vous traduisez

    • ils/elles traduisons

    écrire

    to write

    Singular stem = écri-

    • j’écris

    • tu écris

    • il, elle, on écrit

    Plural stem = écriv-

    (For the plural forms, add-v before the endings)

    • nous écrivons

    • vous écrivez

    • ils/elles écrivent

    Pronunciation TIP

    For -re verbs, the conjugated forms for je, tu, il, elle, on are pronounced the same! The final consonants are silent.

    • je perds

    • tu perds

    • il perd

    • elle perd

    • on perd

    [pehr]

    Remember the ending for ils, elles is silent but the consonant before is pronounced.

    ils répondent, elles répondent [raypo(n)d]

    For more examples of the "regular" -re verbs in the French present tense, take a look at the conjugation chart.

    How to form the French present tense with ‘-tre’ and ‘-aître’ verbs?

    To form the present tense of -re verbs ending with -tre and -aitre, you will drop -tre to get the stem and add the endings. Note that the endings for -tre and -aitre verbs are slightly different, because -aitre will take a -t in the third person singular. For the plural forms of verbs like mettre, the stem will change and you’ll need to double the final consonant of the singular stem. Verbs like connaître will also change stems; in the plural forms, the singular stem will add an -ss. Tehse groups vary a lot and practice will help.

    Endings for -tre
    verbs
    mettre
    (to put)
    Singular stem = met-Plural stem = mett-
    Endings for -aitre verbs
    connaître
    (to know)
    Singular stem = connai-
    Plural stem = connaiss-

    -s

    je mets

    -s

    je connais

    -s

    tu mets

    -s

    tu connais

    - 🚫

    il, elle, on met

    -t

    il, elle, on connaît

    → Have you noticed the î ?

    -ons

    nous mettons

    -ons

    nous connaissons

    -ez

    vous mettez

    -ez

    vous connaissez

    -ent

    ils, elles mettent

    -ent

    ils, elles connaissent

    Find more examples of -tre and -aitre verbs in the French present tense in our chart!

    How to form the French present tense with ‘-indre’ verbs?

    To form the present tense for verbs ending in -indre, which are another type of irregular -re verb, you will again have a different set of stems for singular and plural. For these verbs, you’ll take off -dre for the singular stem, but you’ll need to modify the singular stem with the consonants -gn to form the plural stem. Then, you’ll add the -re verb endings:

    Endings
    peindre
    (to paint)
    Singular stem = pein-
    Plural stem = peign-

    -s

    je peins

    -s

    tu peins

    -t

    il, elle, on peint

    -ons

    nous peignons

    payny-o(n)

    -ez

    vous peignez

    payny-ay

    -ent

    ils, elles peignent

    pehnyuh

    Learn more -indre verbs in the French present tense in our conjugation table!

    What are the top irregular verbs in French?

    There are several important verbs in French that have totally irregular forms in the present tense. We’ve compiled a list of eleven very useful irregular verbs in the French present tense that you’ll use 20 times a day! Before you do, try to guess which ones I selected and conjugate them!

    Also, here is a list of essential verbs in French. If you can conjugate them all in the present tense, you are good to go! Now that we’ve covered how to form the present tense in French, let’s look at when you may want to use it.

    When to use the present tense in French?

    Use the present tense in French to describe states of being, recurring actions, facts, and current (or even future and past) events. The good news is that when you would use the simple present in English, you are likely to use the present indicative in French. Let’s look at these uses.

    • States of being, describing living and non-living beings

      Damien est sympa. Il a beaucoup d’amis.

      Damien is nice. He has a lot of friends.

      Le ville est pittoresque.

      The town is quaint.

    • Recurring actions

      Je fais du yoga tous les jeudis.

      I do yoga every Thursday.

    • Facts which are always true

      Les chauve-souris chassent la nuit.

      Bats hunt at night.

    • Current and even some future and past events!

      Aujourd’hui, je travaille au bureau.

      Today, I work at the office.

      (lit.) Today, I am working at the office.

    However, you can also use the present tense to describe events in the past or even in the future!

    • PAST:

      Et là, je sors et je le vois ; je lui dis : Qu’est-ce que tu fais ?!

      And then, I went out, saw him, and asked: “What are you doing?!”

      ↳ Using the present here to tell about a past event gives a sense of suspense; it is as if the actions are happening as you speak.
    • FUTURE:

      Demain, je range la maison.

      Tomorrow, I am tidying up the house.

      ↳ Using the present here gives a sense of urgency.

    As you can see from these two examples above, the French present tense can often be translated slightly differently in English (such as in the past or future tense)! Indeed, there are other situations when you’ll need the present tense in French, where you would use different tenses in English. For instance, Je lis can mean "I read," "I'm reading," or even "I do read" in English. Let’s review how to translate the French present tense into English.

    How to translate the French present tense to English?

    To translate the French present tense in English, you’ll need to understand all of the different places the present tense can be used in French. When you start learning more about grammar, you sometimes realize subtle and gigantic differences between languages! Here, we’ll compare the linguistic differences between English and French by studying the various ways the French present tense can be translated in English.

    When to translate the French present tense as the present progressive (be + “-ing”)?

    If you want to express some kind of immediacy or explain what you are in the process of doing, you can use the French present tense or a progressive construction. French people don’t always stress the fact that something is being done at that particular moment:

    Qu’est-ce qu’il fait ? Il cuisine.

    What is he doing? He is cooking.

    You may wonder: how can I show the difference between “I work” and “I am working” in French, if both are translated as Je travaille? Well, you can add indications of time such as en ce moment(right now), (here), or maintenant(now).

    Il dort en ce moment.

    He’s sleeping.

    If you want to stress the progressive aspect of an action, you can use the expression de + infinitive (in the process of).

    Il est en train de regarder un film.

    He is watching a film.

    Tip

    The present progressive is an amazing cop out when you can’t remember the conjugation of an irregular verb!

    When to translate the French present tense as the present perfect?

    When you want to talk about an action that began in the past but is still ongoing, you can use the French present tense and translate it as the present perfect in English. Over the years, a common mistake I hear is to translate “I’ve learned French for two years” into J’ai appris le français pour deux ans.

    Two things:

    • “I’ve learned” → j’apprends because you are still learning French, so it is considered a current action, hence the use of the present tense.

    • "For" → depuis because it is linked to the present. Depuis is a preposition of time in French.

      J’apprends le français depuis deux ans.

      I have been learning French for two years.

      Il habite à Toulouse depuis cinq mois.

      He has lived in Toulouse for five months.

    Important

    Do not use the French passé composé when an action is ongoing! This past tense indicates an action is finished, so it will not mean the same thing. Notice the preposition will also change:

    J’ai travaillé à Boston pendant six mois.

    I worked in Boston for six months.

    ↳ Not anymore

    Je travaille à Boston depuis six mois.

    I have worked in Boston for six months.

    ↳ I still do

    The same logic applies to the continuous present perfect.

    Elle joue du piano depuis trois heures !

    She has been playing the piano for three hours!

    When to translate the French present tense as the future tense?

    You can also use the present tense in French to talk about things that will happen very soon and which may be translated using the future tense in English. Using the present tense for future actions in French is a way to make the events sound imminent.

    Demain, je commence mon régime !

    Tomorrow I’ll start my diet!

    ↳ Because you are conveying a sense of urgency, you sound more motivated; it does not sound like an empty promise!

    Cet été, j’apprends le grec !

    I’ll learn Greek this summer!

    How to express the emphatic present in French?

    To express the emphatic present (such as “I do know!” in English), you will once again use the present tense in French. “Do” does not have an equivalent in French, so you will simply use the present indicative, perhaps with added emphatic phrases like mais si(but I do) to contradict a negative statement, or en effet(indeed) and c’est vrai que(it's true that) to emphasize an idea by acknowledging it.

    • Tu ne comprends pas.

      You don't understand.

    • Mais si (je comprends) !

      I do understand!

    C’est vrai que je m’énerve vite.

    I do lose my temper quite quickly.

    Right! Now that you know when to use the present tense and all its alternatives in English, let’s review how to use the present tense with negation, reflexive verbs, and questions before we wrap up!

    How to use the French present tense with negation, reflexives, and questions?

    Sometimes, sentences using the French present tense are complicated a bit with added elements like negation, reflexive verbs, or question words. We’ll take a quick look at each!

    • French negation with the present tense

      Negation phrases like ne...pas go before and after the verb in the present tense.

      Je ne parle pas portugais.

      I don't speak Portuguese.

      Elle ne regarde jamais la télé.

      She never watches TV.

    • French reflexive verbs in the present tense

      A reflexive verb has a reflexive pronoun because the person is doing the action to themselves. Reflexive pronouns are the equivalent of words in English like “myself.” The same verb can be both reflexive and not. Let’s take réveiller (to wake) as an example: you can both wake somebody else up and wake yourself up.

      Il réveille ses enfants.

      He wakes up his children.

      In the present tense, the reflexive pronoun goes before the conjugated verb:

      Il se réveille tôt.

      He wakes up early.

    • Forming questions in French in the present tense

      Now let’s see how to express the present tense “Do you…?” in French! There are three ways of asking questions in French, from informal to very formal. The words may be shuffled around, but the use of present indicative remains unchanged. Here are some examples in order of formality (from informal to formal):

      Tu veux du café ?
      Est-ce que tu veux du café ?
      Veux-tu du café ?

      Do you want coffee?

      There you are, the uses of present indicative have no more secrets for you! Below you’ll find the main rules to remember. À bientôt !

    In brief: A few rules to remember

    When using the present tense in French, keep the following rules in mind:

    • French verbs are conjugated for every personal pronoun and have different endings for each.

      • For most -er verbs, remove -er and add the endings e, es, e, ons, ez, ent.

      • For most -ir verbs, remove -ir and add the endings is, is, it, issons, issez, issent.

      • For most -re verbs, remove -ir and add the endings s, s, 🚫 , ons, ez, ent.

      • There are many irregular verbs, some of which have patterns you can memorize to help you!

    • List item content

    • Generally, the present indicative in French = simple present in English.

    • However, sometimes English will use different tenses, whereas the present is still used in French. This makes French easier because you have fewer tenses to remember!

      • When you want to create suspense or a sense of urgency, you can use the present tense for close past and close future actions.

      • The English “do” to emphasize or ask questions corresponds to the French present indicative, even though in French we do not explicitly include the word “do,” as it appears in English.

      • When you have been doing something for a while and are still doing it (the present perfect in English) → use the present tense in French with depuis.

      • When you want to insist on the fact that an action is happening right now (the present progressive in English) → use être en train de + infinitive, which is the equivalent of "be + [verb] + -ing" in English.

      • For reflexive verbs, the reflexive pronoun goes before the conjugated verb, and the negations ne … pas(not), ne … jamais(never) go before and after the verb.

    Now it’s time to practice the French present tense! Let's go!

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