The French present tense is the only tense you truly need to know to get by on a trip to France.
You can use it to talk about the present of course but the French sometimes use it to talk about future events as well.
And while it has the reputation of being illogical and hard to master, nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, you can master the present tense conjugation of most French verbs in a matter of weeks if you focus on learning the most common conjugation patterns first.
After reading this article, you’ll know exactly when to use the French present tense and how to quickly master it (oh and the free bonus at the end will help you make sure it doesn’t take forever).
When should you use the French present tense?
The French present tense is used much more often than its English counterpart. For example, you would use it to talk about:
- What’s happening and how you’re feeling
- Habits and facts
- What’s going to happen soon
To talk about what you’re doing and how you’re feeling
You can use the French present tense to talk about what’s happening as you’re speaking.
For example, you would use it to say you’re eating a jambon beurre (ham butter) sandwich or to describe anything happening as you speak.
This makes it the equivalent of the English present tense as well as of the present progressive (be + ing form).
Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? Je mange
What are you doing? I’m eating/ I eat
To talk about habits and facts
Naturally, you can also use the French present tense to talk about habits, facts, and universal truths. Just like in English.
Quel genre de musique est-ce que tu aimes ?
J’aime beaucoup la musique classique
What kind of music do you like?
I really like classical music
To talk about what’s about to happen
If you know an event is going to happen in a few hours, days or more rarely weeks, you can use the French present tense to talk about it.
In this case, you usually add words such as “demain” (tomorrow), “lundi” (Monday) or “la semaine prochaine” (next week).
Je retourne à Londres demain
I’m going back to London tomorrow
Let me let you in on a little secret now!
As a beginner, you can also use the French present tense to talk about events that are far in the future as long as you use a phrase such as “l’année prochaine” (next year) to add context.
While this isn’t grammatically correct, people won’t have any problem understanding you and this is an easy way to talk about the future if you don’t know how to conjugate the French future tense yet.
How to conjugate the French present tense?
Conjugating verbs in the French present tense is simply a matter of using the right ending.
Before you start learning the endings of French verbs, you need to know that there are two kinds of French verbs.
- regular verbs
- irregular verbs.
Regular verbs follow a pattern you can quickly learn.
Once you know the endings of the three different kinds of regular verbs, you can easily conjugate the large majority of French verbs which is why learning these regular patterns should be your number one priority.
French regular verbs come in three flavors:
- Verbs ending in ER
- Verbs ending in IR
- Verbs ending in RE
Now let’s see what patterns these verbs follow!
Regular verbs ending in ER
It’s estimated that 90% of French verbs end in ER.
If you know how to conjugate ER verbs, you will be able to conjugate most French verbs in the present tense.
Pretty awesome, right?
Note: one rebellious ER verb decided to be irregular: aller (to go).
This is a common French verb, so you have to learn to conjugate it separately. I apologize on behalf of the French population.
This may look like a lot of endings for just one tense but these forms are all pronounced the same way (except for “mangez” and “mangeons” so you only have three pronunciations to remember.
Je mange un gâteau
I’m eating a cake
Tu manges un gâteau
You (singular) are eating a cake
Il/elle/on mange un gâteau
He/she is eating a cake
Nous mangeons un gâteau
We are eating a cake
Vous mangez un gâteau
You (plural or polite form) are eating a cake
Ils/elles mangent un gâteau
They’re eating a cake
Regular verbs ending in IR
IR verbs are estimated to represent 5% of French verbs.
These are the patterns that regular IR verbs follow, but there are also some irregular IR verbs like “venir” (to come).
Je finis à 20 heures
I finish (work) at 8PM
Tu finis à 20 heures
You (singular) finish at 8PM
Il/elle/on finit à 20 heures
He/she finishes at 8PM
Nous finissons à 20 heures
We finish at 8PM
Vous finissez à 20 heures
You (plural or polite form) finish at 8PM
Ils/elles finissent à 20 heures
They finish at 8PM
Regular verbs ending in RE
Regular RE verbs follow the following pattern:
Je vends des fleurs
I sell flowers
Tu vends du chocolat
You sell chocolate
Il/elle/on vend des voitures
He sells cars
Nous vendons des vêtements
We sell clothes
Vous vendez des bougies ?
Do you sell candles?
Ils/elles vendent de tout
They sell a little bit of everything
The dreaded irregular verbs
Unlike regular verbs, irregular French verbs don’t follow the patterns mentioned above, so you have to learn the conjugation of each irregular verb individually.
However, you don’t have to learn how to conjugate every irregular verb there is. Learning the most common ones is largely enough when you begin learning French.
Like the 100 most common French words, these are verbs you will find in most conversations.
For example, “avoir” (to have) and “être” (to be) are said to be found in more than 20% of French sentences.
The following irregular verbs are the most common irregular French verbs and the irregular verbs I recommend you learn first.
|Tu as||You have|
|Il/elle/on a||He/she has|
|Nous avons||We have|
|Vous avez||You have|
|Ils/elles ont||They have|
|Je suis||I am|
|Tu es||You are|
|Il/elle/on est||He/she is|
|Nous sommes||We are|
|Vous êtes||You are|
|Ils/elles sont||They are|
|Je vais||I go|
|Tu vas||You go|
|Il/elle/on va||He/she goes|
|Nous allons||We go|
|Vous allez||You go|
|Ils/elles vont||They go|
|Je fais||I do|
|Tu fais||You do|
|Il/elle/on fait||He/she does|
|Nous faisons||We do|
|Vous faites||You do|
|Ils/elles font||They do|
|Je veux||I want|
|Tu veux||You want|
|Il/elle/on veut||He/she wants|
|Nous voulons||We want|
|Vous voulez||You want|
|Ils/elles veulent||They want|
|Je peux||I can|
|Tu peux||You can|
|Il/elle/on peut||He/she can|
|Nous pouvons||We can|
|Vous pouvez||You can|
|Ils/elles peuvent||They can|
How to memorize all these crazy conjugations?
Learning the French present tense is essential. But you don’t need to spend hours reciting conjugations tables to master it.
Here is what I recommend you do instead:
- Learn the regular patterns of ER, IR and RE verbs
- Learn the common irregular verbs listed on this page
- Regularly get exposure to the French language and you’ll naturally learn to conjugate the remaining verbs
To make this easier for you, I created a set of Anki flashcards you can use to quickly master the French present tense.
If you don’t know what Anki is, read the Ultimate Guide to Learning Vocabulary. It will show you how to use this free software to learn French fast.
Practice the present tense in the comment section below
Now that you know the theory, it’s time to practice.
Choose a verb and create a sentence with it in the comment section below this article!