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THE PRESENT TENSE (le présent)

Let's start with the French present tense. Unlike in English, where there are three different forms of present tenses (the simple past: 'the cat chases mice', the present continuous: 'the cat is chasing mice' and the emphatic form: 'the cat does chase mice'), French only counts one form which can be used to express the meaning of the three English present tenses (le chat chasse les souris).

You should also note that in some cases the French present tense can be translated with the English present perfect. For example: J'habite ici depuis 8 ans (= I have lived here for 8 years).


Click here to have a look at some generalities about verb formation in English and French.

Before having a closer look at the formation of verbs in general, here is the conjugation of the two most important ones, also called auxiliaries: être (to be) and avoir (to have).


Click here to find out more about je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils, elles

Please mind the forms that are indicated in blue. They correspond to the ones that you are most likely to come across in a written format (the other forms cannot be excluded altogether but they are far less likely to occur). In practical terms, this means that you do not need to memorise all of them but that you should simply focus on those most useful to you (if you are reading correspondences or diaries, you might need all of them).

The table below shows the conjugation for regular verbs with an example from each group (chercher = to search/look for, réussir = to succeed, vendre = to sell). The first and second groups will hardly have any exceptions but the third group presents a higher degree of variation.


For an illustration of the number of variations, simply consult the verb tables at the end of any good French textbook (you should find one quite easily in your University library). You should find pages of irregular verbs tables. Below are only a few of the most common ones to show the irregular patterns that exist within French verbs (faire = to do/make, dire = to say, pouvoir = to be able to/can, venir = to come).


Despite the apparent complexity of the French verb system, we should nonetheless point out that "a fault of the usual method of verb teaching is that it seems to take delight in emphasizing irregularity and in minimizing regularity" (H. W. Church, 1921:250). There is indeed another way of presenting the formation of the present tense, which focuses primarily on a recurring pattern. The table below presents you with an overview of the endings you can expect to come across in the present tense:


Activity: Have a careful look at the following sentences and try to spot the verb in each of them. For those of you who'd like a bit of a challenge, see if you can translate the whole sentences (the vocabulary will include mostly cognates or false cognates previously mentioned).


Les policiers français ont une excellente réputation en Europe.

The verb is 'ont'.

French policemen have an excellent reputation in Europe.

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Les juges attendent les nouvelles décisions du ministre de la justice.

The verb is 'attendent'.

The judges are waiting for the new decisions of the minister of justice.

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Un avertissement est publié dans les journaux nationaux.

The verb is 'est'.

A warning is published in the national newspapers.

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Un revendeur de drogues blesse deux gendarmes.

The verb is 'blesse'.

A drug dealer hurts 2 policemen.

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Le prix du pain continue d'augmenter.

The verb is 'continue'.

The price of bread continues to rise.

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Le président égyptien promet un procès juste.

The verb is 'promet'.

The Egyptian president promises a fair trial.

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Les libraires invitent les lecteurs à la journée "découverte des nouveaux auteurs".

The verb is 'invitent'.

Booksellers invite readers to the "Discover a New Author's Day".

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Please remember that the ending of a verb does not only help you identify the tense used in the sentence but that it also helps you identify the subject of the action. For instance, the sentences below present an interesting and not uncommon feature that you will find a lot in written French, i.e. an inversion from the usual subject-verb order into a verb-subject order.

L'homme que regardent les enfants parle anglais.

If you look at the ending of 'regardent', it clearly tells you that its subject is plural and therefore it cannot be 'l'homme'. It therefore has to be 'les enfants', which is the only element in the plural. Similarly, the ending of 'parle' suggests that its subject is singular and that therefore it cannot be 'les enfant'. The sentence would translate as 'The man the children are looking at speaks English'.