Learning French

I go to France quite often and I’ve recently started to work for a French company which means frequent trips to Paris; as a result I’ve been making a big effort to learn the language.

It’s really really hard! I’ve written up some notes, which is what you’ll find here. No relation to software engineering at all.

I feel I should warn you — I’ve been learning for four months and my knowledge is patchy at best. This information probably contains mistakes…

Les Verbes (The Verbs)

French verbs are organised into three groups. These groups help us know how the verb is conjugated, which also depends on the pronoun it’s being used with.

Les Groupes (The Groups)

  1. 1ème Groupe: verbs ending in -er…sauf le verbe « aller » (except the verb aller — to go), which is in the 3rd group.
  2. 2ème Groupe: verbs ending in -ir (usually). Both second and 3ème groupe verbs end in -ir but as a rule of thumb, English verbs ending in -ish tend to be 2éme groupe.
  3. 3ème Groupe: verbs ending in -ir and -oir.

Around 80% of French verbs are in the first group; the second group is the second most common.

Present Tense Conjugations

There are an intimidating total of 82 conjugation patterns in French. Thankfully the most common are the 1st and 2nd group conjugations which have a consistent pattern. Irregular and semi-regular verbs belonging to the 3rd group are responsible for the bulk of those patterns.

1ème Groupe

Infinitive: Aimer (to love)

  • J’aime
  • Tu aimes
  • Il/Elle/On aime
  • Nous aimons
  • Vous aimez
  • Ils/Elles aiment

So for 1st group verbs, we drop the -er to get the stem (« le radical ») from the infinitive and add the termination, in bold above.

2ème Groupe

Infinitive: Finir (to finish)

  • Je finis
  • Tu finis
  • Il/Elle/On finit
  • Nous finissons
  • Vous finissez
  • Ils/Elles finissent

As with 1st group verbs, we get the stem by dropping the -ir from the infinitive and then applying the correct termination based on the pronoun.

Remember, some -ir verbs do not belong to this group.

3ème Groupe

Unfortunately, third-group verbs have no pattern; you must learn their conjugations individually. I’m told by native French speakers that this even catches them out sometimes.

Auxiliary Verbs

Auxiliary verbs help another verb form a tense. This will become especially important shortly…but for now, there are two auxiliary verbs in French — « avoir » (to have, “ah-vwar”) and « etre » (to be, “eh-truh”). These do not follow any conjugation patterns.

« Avoir » is used more frequently than « etre ».

« Etre » is used with 17 verbs: « aller » (to go), « arriver » (to arrive), « descendre » (to go down), « devenir » (to become), « entrer » (to enter), « monter » (to go up), « mourir » (to die), « naître » (to be born), « passer » (to pass), « partir » (to leave), « rentrer » (to re-enter), « rester » (to stay), « retourner » (to return), « revenir » (to come back), « sortir » (to go out), « tomber » (to fall), « venir » (to come).

Present Tense Etre Conjugations

  • Je suis
  • Tu es
  • Il/Elle/On est
  • Nous sommes
  • Vous êtes
  • Ils/Elles sont

Present Tense Avoir Conjugations

  • J’ai
  • Tu as
  • Il/Elle/On a
  • Nous avons
  • Vous avez
  • Ils/Elles ont


Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are used when describing an action someone does to themself (i.e. when using a reflexive verb). The reflexive pronoun goes between the subject and the verb:

  • Je me lave (I wash myself)
  • Ils s’habillent (they dress themselves/they get dressed)

The reflexive pronoun changes depending on who the subject is:

  • Je me
  • Tu te
  • Il/Elle/On se
  • Nous nous
  • Vous vous
  • Ils/Elles se


Use an article when:

  • The noun it refers to is used in general terms: « J’aime le chocolat » (“I love chocolate”).
  • When the noun refers to a concept: « Le temps, c’est de l’argent » (“Time is money”).
  • When the noun refers to a country or region: « La France ».

Au, à la, à l’ and aux

These are all ways of saying “to the” or “at the”. The one we use depends on the gender and number of the noun.

  • « Je travaille au cinema » — « cinema » is a masculine, singular noun.
  • « Il est resté à la maison» — « maison » is a feminine, singular noun.
  • « Je vais parler à l’ami de Sweep » — « ami » is a singular noun beginning with a vowel or “h”.
  • « J’habite aux États-Unis » — « États-Unis » is a plural noun.

Past Tenses

Passé Composé (Perfect Tense)

Passé Composé is used when talking about an action that occurred in the past.

To build a sentence in Passé Composé, you use one of the auxiliary verbs and the past participle of the verb that describe the action you did.

So: the pronoun + the present tense of « avoir » or « être » + the past participle.

The Past Participle

As with the conjugations above, forming the past participle is a case of following a pattern depending on the ending of the verb:

  • -er becomes é (« donner » becomes « donné »).
  • -ir becomes r (« finir » becomes « fini »).
  • -re becomes u (« attendre » becomes « attendu »).
  • « J’ai donné » (literally “I have given”).
  • « Tu as fini » (literally “you are done”).
  • « Ils ont attendu » (literally “they have waited”).

Using « être »

« Être » is used in two cases: for reflexive verbs and a select group of verbs mainly referring to physical actions. The latter are listed in the auxiliary verbs section above.

Regarding reflexive verbs, the formula is: pronoun + « être » + past participle of the verb.

Taking « habiller » (to get dressed) as an example:

  • « Je me suis habillé » (“I dressed myself”).
  • « Tu t’es habillé » (“you got dressed”).
  • « Il/elle s’est habillé(e) » (“he/she got dressed”).

…and so on.

L’imparfait (The Imperfect Tense)

L’imparfait is used when describing a situation in the past, to describe how something was, or to talk about a repeated action.

To build a sentence using l’imparfait we must do some more conjugation. When building the conjugation we do not use the infinitive as the stem, but rather the conjugated form of the verb when used with “we” in the present tense.

Pronoun *-er (1ème groupe) *-ir (2ème groupe) *-ir (3ème groupe) *-re (3ème groupe)
Je J’aimais Je finissais Je dormais Je vendais
Tu Tu aimais Tu finissais Tu dormais Tu vendais
Il/Elle/On Il/Elle/On aimait Il/Elle/On Finissait Il/Elle/On dormait Il/Elle/On vendait
Nous Nous aimions Nous finissions Nous dormions Il/Elle/On vendions
Vous Vous aimiez Vous finissiez Vous dormiez Vous vendiez
Ils/Elles Ils/Elles aimaient Ils/Elles finissaient Ils/Elles dormaient Ils/Elles vendaient

Conjugations in this tense are mercifully predictable. Here they are when using the auxillary verbs.

Pronoun Avoir Être
Je J’avais J’étais
Tu Tu avais Tu étais
Il/Elle/On Il/Elle/On avait Il/Elle/On était
Nous Nous avions Nous étions
Vous Vous aviez Vous étiez
Ils/Elles Ils/Elles avaient Ils/Elles étaient

Future Tenses

There are two future tenses in French — the near future (« le futur proche ») and the simple future (« le futur simple» ).

Le Futur Simple

« Le futur simple » indicates that an action will occur sometime in the future.

When using this tense, we add endings to the infinite of the verb (note: not the stem). The endings used depend upon the pronoun of the subject of the verb. Taking « parler » (to speak) as an example:

  • Je parlerai
  • Tu parleras
  • Il/Elle/On parlera
  • Nous parlerons
  • Vous parlerez
  • Ils/Elles parlerent

(Note that the « s », the « as », and the « t » of the « ont » are silent). There is also a strong « R » sound before the ending in the pronunciation of this tense. If there is an E before the R, the E will be silent in modern gilded French: « je parlerai » sounds like « je parlRai ».

Many irregular verbs have irregular stems in the future tense…there’s no trick to these; they need to be learnt. The ending is always the same, however.

Le Futur Proche

Also known as « le futur composé », this tense is used when talking about actions in the near future.

To build a sentence in le future proche, we take the present tense of « aller » followed by the infinitive of the verb we will do.

In the following examples we are saying that the subject is going to go.

  • Je vais aller.
  • Tu vas aller.
  • Il/Elle/On va aller.
  • Nous allons aller.
  • Vous allez aller.
  • Ils/Elles vont aller.

To negate these sentences we wrap the present tense of aller in the negation, for example: « je ne vais pas aller » — I am not going to go.

Which future tense?

Using « le futur proche » is more common in spoken French to describe events taking place in the near future.

Unlike English, « le futur proche » reinforces the idea that the speaker believes the action will happen.

« Le futur simple » is used in three cases:

  1. Hypothetical constructions (e.g. if the weather is nice, I will go for a bike ride).
  2. Big picture/grandiose plans with « quand » (“when”, e.g. when I grow up I will be an astronaut).
  3. Things that are planned for in the future but are not “in progress” (e.g. I am going to buy a house one day).

If one of those cases is unmet, use « le futur proche ».