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Morphology of French Verbs and Nouns




French tenses become more manageable if you think of them in two groups. The first group consists of the five 'simple' tenses: present je parle I speak; future je parlerai I shall speak; conditional je parlerais I would speak; imperfect je parlais I was speaking; past je parlai I spoke. Alongside these is a second group of five 'perfective' tenses:

              Simple              Perfective
              ------              ----------
Present       je parle            j'ai parlé
              I speak             I have spoken

Future        je parlerai         j'aurai parlé
              I shall speak       I shall have spoken

Conditional   je parlerais        j'aurais parlé
              I would speak       I would have spoken

Imperfect     je parlais          j'avais parlé
              I spoke             I had spoken

Past          je parlai           j'eus parlé
              I spoke             I had spoken

Simple and perfective are 'aspects'. English has the same two aspects, used in much the same way as in French: simple je mange I eat, perfective j'ai mangé I have eaten. English also has a 'progressive' aspect I am eating, which French lacks - the simple aspect does duty for this in French. French has a third aspect, the 'double perfective' j'ai eu parlé I spoke or I had spoken, which is not used in the written language and is not dealt with in the Language Engine.

It will be seen that there are two perfective tenses referring to prior time - the perfective imperfect and the perfective past. The perfective imperfect is the one in everyday use. The perfective past is used only in particular constructions in literary French.

Forming the Perfective

The perfective tenses are formed with the corresponding simple tense of avoir to have or être to be, followed by the past participle - so the perfective present consists of the present of avoir or être and the past participle, the perfective future consists of the future of avoir or être and the past participle, and so on. The Language Engine achieves this by replacing the main verb (the 'Headword') with avoir or être, then constructing the appropriate form, then restoring the main verb to make the past participle.

The use of avoir or être is determined by the main verb. If the verb is reflexive, être is used; être is also used with a dozen or so common verbs of motion, flagged accordingly in the Language Engine.

Agreement of Past Participle

In the perfective, the past participle agrees in number and gender with any preceding direct object. (This means that if the object is feminine or plural or both, the past participle must take a feminine or plural ending, or both.) Reflexive verbs almost all include a direct object pronoun, which will come before the participle, so in those instances the participle will agree. With a few reflexive verbs, however, the object is indirect rather than direct, so the participle will not agree.

If the verb is not reflexive but the perfective is formed with être, the past participle agrees with the subject.


The tenses shown above are those of the 'indicative mood': the two other moods are the 'subjunctive' and the 'imperative', and each of them has a set of tenses. But life is not as grim as this would suggest, because the subjunctive has only two tenses as against five in the indicative, and the imperative has only one tense and no perfective aspect. Moreover the subjunctive past is restricted to literature, and virtually never used in the spoken language.

                      Simple              Perfective
                      ------              ----------
Subjunctive Present   que je parle        que j'aie parlé
                      I should speak      I should have spoken

Subjunctive Past      que je parlasse     que j'eusse parlé
                      I should speak      I should have spoken

Imperative Present    parle!              -

The indicative mood is used to make statements, the subjunctive to express 'might-have-beens' or events existing only in the mind of the speaker, and the imperative to give instructions. English has the same three moods: 'The sun's shining' (indicative), 'I wish the sun were shining' ('were', subjunctive), 'Shine!' (imperative, instruction to the sun).

In the Language Engine, subjunctives are given with 'would' or 'should' in English. This is a rough-and-ready solution, serving mainly as a reminder that a form other than the indicative is called for. The English translation of a French subjunctive depends very much on the context, there being no single version that will serve in all cases. The convention is to show subjunctives in French with a preceding que, since this word is almost always present when the subjunctive is used.

Names of the Tenses

A problem for learners of French is that different writers use different names for the same tense. This is confusing if - as is likely to be the case - you use more than one reference-work. So it may be helpful to bear the following points in mind:

The Language Engine gives each form a three-word name denoting its aspect, mood and tense ('simple indicative past', 'perfective indicative present'). These names are clumsy, but logical and unambiguous.

Here are some other variations of terminology:

Reflexive Verbs

Reflexive verbs are those which have an object-pronoun, referring back to the subject: se taire to be silent, s'ennuyer to be bored. The object- pronoun can represent either a direct object, one which suffers directly the action of the verb, or an indirect object, where the action of the verb is carried out on that person's behalf, rather than affecting them directly: je m'ennuie I bore myself, I am bored (direct object), but je me brosse les cheveux I brush to myself the hair, I brush my hair, where hair is the direct object (it gets brushed) and myself is an indirect object. You need to know whether the object is direct or indirect when forming the perfective tenses, in order to know whether the past participle should agree or not.

Reflexive Imperatives

The imperative of a reflexive verb uses the 'strong' form of the object pronoun instead of the 'weak' form, and the pronoun is joined to the end of the verb with a hyphen instead of being placed in front of it: vous vous abstenez you abstain but abstenez-vous! keep off the stuff!

Defective Verbs

A defective verb is one which lacks certain forms - for example the weather-words neiger to snow, pleuvoir to rain, which have only 3rd-person singular forms. One or two other verbs follow the same pattern.


French is normally thought of as having six persons in each tense, three singular and three plural ('I', 'you', 'he/she/it' and 'we', 'you', 'they' in English). In the perfective tenses, however, in order to demonstrate agreement of the past participle, the Language Engine uses double this number, with a masculine and a feminine form of the verb for each person. If the verb does not use être the two forms are of course the same. In the simple tenses, the Language Engine uses only the one gender.


A single individual whom one knows well is addressed using the 2nd-person singular (tu); more than one person, or one person whom one does not know well, is addressed with the 2nd- person plural (vous). The Language Engine doesn't of course know whether you know the person well or not, so it always specifies singular or plural when it calls for a 'you' form, and expects you to use tu when it specifies the singular and vous when it specifies the plural.

When the person is vous and past-participle agreement is in force, the participle is made plural if vous refers to more than one person, but remains singular if it refers to one individual. Since the Language Engine can't know who is being addressed, it ignores this distinction, and treats all occurrences of vous as plural.


French verbs have been classified into conjugations in different ways by different grammarians. The Language Engine groups them into three conjugations according to the ending of the infinitive, and then divides Conjugation Two into three sub- groups, of which one (TwoC) takes Conjugation One endings. There would also be an argument for treating tenir, venir, mettre and prendre and their compounds as a separate group, but the Language Engine does not do this.

Arranging the verbs in conjugations does not go far towards explaining their behaviour, however. Because French has a long history of linguistic change (it has moved further from Latin than any other Romance language), its verbs have developed a large number of unusual forms. As a result, any systematic account tends to fragment into too much detail to be useful. What follows describes the main phenomena in general terms.

Different Stems

It is useful to think of the French verb as having a different stem for each group of tenses. This simplifies many apparent irregularities. For example, the future and conditional for any given verb are always formed on the same stem. By calling this the future stem, the Language Engine reduces the future and conditional of voir (for example) from 12 irregular forms (6 persons in 2 tenses) to one, the irregular future stem verr. Similarly, the past tense and the past participle are both formed on the same past stem.

The Language Engine recognises a present indicative stem, a present subjunctive stem, a future stem, and a past stem. The present subjunctive stem and the present indicative stem are almost always the same, but differ in half-a-dozen common verbs. Recognising a subjunctive stem makes their subjunctives easier to remember.

Twisted Stem-Vowels

Verbs in Conjugations Two and Three change the vowel in their stem in certain persons and tenses, giving it a twist that makes the language look as though it has been developed by generations of toffee-chewers. Typical changes are venir - je viens and pouvoir - je peux.

Verbs in Conjugation One that have an unaccented e in their stem (such as mener or appeler) create a problem, in that when that syllable is the last syllable it must carry the stress, but an unaccented e cannot carry the stress. So either the unaccented e changes to è or the following consonant is doubled: je mène, j'appelle.

Verbs in Conjugation One that have é in this position (e.g. espérer) also create problems, not for reasons of stress but because the pronunciation has changed over time from é to è. The spelling therefore changes to reflect this: j'espère. This change takes place in the future as well (j'espèrerai), but has only been officially permitted since 1976.

Stems with twisted vowels are not used in all persons. When the ending is a sounded syllable, the stem is unchanged: je viens, tu viens, il vient, nous venons, vous venez, ils viennent

Final Clusters

In Conjugations Two and Three, adding the ending s or t to the stem leaves a notional cluster of consonants at the end of the word: *je doivs, *je parts. (The asterisk indicates that these forms are not in fact found.) Consonants in these final clusters are removed, or modified in various ways. Note that the results can still contain more consonants than are pronounced, and are not consistent: *je doivs becomes je dois, even though the final s is still not pronounced. The behaviour of final d and t (il craint, il rend, je mets, je pars) is particularly messy.

If the ending begins with a vowel, the final consonant-cluster remains unchanged: je dors, tu dors, il dort, nous dormons, vous dormez, ils dorment.

Spelling Changes

The letter c is pronounced /s/ befoe e and i, but /k/ before a, o and u). So commencer, for example, will require a ç in nous commençons, to retain the /s/ sound of the c. Similarly g in a word such as manger changes to ge in nous mangeons.

Words whose stem ends in oy or uy change the y to i before an unaccented e: nettoyer - je nettoie. With words containing ay this change is optional, but the Language Engine always makes it. The change does not take place with stems ending in ey (such as grasseyer).

Changes to the Ending

There is no reliable way of knowing which verbs have the ending i in their past tense and past participle, and which have u: suivre - j'ai suivi but lire - j'ai lu. The Language Engine handles this difficulty by assuming that one or the other - i or u - is standard in a given conjugation, and flagging in its Dictionary (with 'SwapIandU') those verbs that have the 'wrong' ending.

Other adjustments which are made to the ending are to alter final us to ux (e.g. je peux), to rationalise the use of diaereses and circumflexes, and to deal with final d and t.


Nouns in French are much less complicated than verbs. They have only two forms: singular and plural. The overwhelming majority form their plural by adding s (those ending in u add x, and those ending in al change the al to aux). A few words are plural only, or do not change in the plural.

Some complications arise with the plural of compound nouns such as lave-vaisselle dish-washer - do both parts change in the plural, or just one, or neither? If the word is hyphenated, the Language Engine uses a 'DoublePlural' flag to mark those where both parts change; if the noun is followed by a separate qualifier (e.g. bloc sanitaire), the Language Engine uses a 'QualAgrees' flag to show whether the qualifier changes. It would alternatively be possible to formulate rules for plural forms based on whether the elements of the compound noun were adjectives, verbs or nouns, but such rules would be complicated.


You need to know the gender of a French noun because it affects the form of the determiner that goes with it. To some extent the gender can be predicted from the ending of the noun - words ending in aison or tié are usually feminine, these being the characteristic endings of abstract nouns; words ending in eur are feminine if the word denotes an abstract quality, masculine if it denotes an agent. But there are many exceptions.

Prevocalic Determiners

Some determiners take a different form (the 'prevocalic' form) when the next word starts with a vowel: le bébé but l'enfant. These prevocalic forms muddy distinctions of gender. The prevocalic form of mon, son, ton, for example, is the same as the masculine, so we have mon ami (masc.), ma mère (fem.), but mon amie (fem.). Conversely the prevocalic form of ce resembles the feminine: cette amie (fem.), cette mère, but cet ami (masc.).

Fortunately there are only a few prevocalic forms. There are none in the plural, none for un or une, and none for notre, votre, or leur.

'Of the, Some'

The formation de + le + noun means both of the x and some x in French: du fromage means both of the cheese and some cheese, an unspecified amount of cheese. Which meaning is intended can only be established from the context. If the noun is 'countable', however, some is unlikely or impossible: given that an unspecified amount of village is an incoherent notion, du village must mean of the village.

Since the Language Engine is concerned preponderantly with form rather than meaning, it doesn't differentiate between these two usages.

Nonexistent Forms

It is not always clear in English whether a given noun actually has a plural form: information exists, but does informations? The converse also applies: congratulations exists, but congratulation perhaps not. Similar questions arise in French. Moreover French and English do not march in step: ses fiançailles her engagement is plural in French with no singular, but singular in English.

Again, being concerned with form rather than meaning, the Language Engine takes a robustly tolerant line, and marks very few singulars or plurals as nonexistent, whether in French or English. It allows plurals of countries, for example: two Scotlands. The results may sometimes be thought of as going beyond normal usage, but their purpose is always to illustrate the form.

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