The essential guide to French stem-changing verbs

Stem-changing verbs are regular verbs whose root (radical)’s spelling changes in certain conjugations and with certain subjects.

Stem-changing verbs end in -yer; or in é +consonant + -er; or with e + consonant + -er. Verbs ending in    -eter or in -eler also change stems.

Despite the fact that they don’t exactly play by the rules, stem-changing verbs are considered regular verbs, since their endings follow the same rules as regular -er verbs.  They just want to change things up more.

Let’s learn the how’s and why’s of stem-changing verbs.

What are stem-changing verbs?

Stem- changing verbs are regular verbs that, for one reason or another, have to slightly change their spelling when they’re conjugated in certain tenses and with certain subjects.

Stem-changing verbs can be categorized into four groups:

  • Regular verbs that end in -yer
  • Regular verbs that end in é +consonant + -er
  • Most regular verbs that end with e + consonant + -er
  • Most regular verbs that end in -eter or -eler

When do you change the stem of stem changing verbs?

The spelling of stem-changing verbs doesn’t apply to all subjects and tenses, unfortunately. That would be too easy.

But there are some tricks to help you remember when to change them.

Stem-changing verbs’ stems change for the following subjects:

  • first-person singular (je)
  • second-person singular/informal (tu)
  • third-person singular (il/elle/on)
  • third-person plural (ils/elles)

Of course, this applies to any “stand-in” for these pronouns (names, things, etc.), as well.

For the first-person plural (nous)and the second-person plural/formal (vous), the stem does not change.

For example, let’s look at how to conjugate envoyer (to send) in the present simple tense:

j’envoienous envoyons
tu envoiesvous envoyez
il/elle/on envoieils/elles envoient

As you can see, all that hard work at memorizing how to conjugate regular verbs wasn’t lost; the stem might change, but the regular -er verb endings still apply.

Looking at this conjugation, we can also find a tip for how to remember which subjects get a stem change. If you made a sort of circle around all of the times when the stem changes, you’d have a shape similar to a boot or shoe, like so:

We see the same verb chart as before, showing the present simple tense conjugation of envoyer. But this time, there is a shape that circles the verb stems that have changed. It looks vaguely like a shoe, and would look more like a shoe if I could draw better!
I apologize for my subpar MS Paint skills….

That’s why stem-changing verbs are sometimes called boot verbs or shoe verbs for us English-language learners of French.

In what tenses do verb stems change?

An old-fashioned silver alarm clock with two ringers at the top sits on a table. In the background it looks as though there are fairy lights.

You don’t systematically change the stem of a stem-changing verb. You only do it when using certain tenses.

All stem-changing verbs’ stems change in the following tenses:

  • present
  • imperative
  • subjunctive (present subjunctive only)

(Remember that verbs with nous or vous as the subject never change their stem.)

Additionally, most stem-changing verbs’ stems change in the following tenses:

  • future (only future simple)
  • conditional (only present conditional)

(Remember that verbs with nous or vous as the subject never change their stem.)

Note that for regular verbs that end in é +consonant + -er, changing the stem in the future and conditional tenses is optional.

There is at least some method to this madness.

As a general rule, verb stems don’t change for tenses that are formed with or use the participle (example: passé composé), or that are based on a present-tense conjugation that doesn’t change its stem (example: passé imparfait (which is based on a verb’s present-tense nous conjugation)).  

The four types of stem-changing verbs

Let’s take a closer look at the four types of stem-changing verbs.

1. Regular verbs that end in -yer

How they change: “y” becomes “i”.

Examples

1.Infinitive: envoyer: Envoie-moi un mél. (Send me an email.)

2. Infinitive: s’ennuyer: Tu ne t’ennuies pas trop ? (You aren’t getting bored?)

3. Infinitive: nettoyer: Il veut que ses colocs nettoient la salle des bains pour une fois. (He wants his roommates to clean the bathroom for once.)

Exceptions: -ayer verbs can follow the usual stem-change, or they can keep their “y” in all tenses and with all subjects; either one is correct.

Here’s an example with the -ayer verb payer:

Elle paie la baby-sitter 10 euros de l’heure. (She pays the babysitter 10 euros an hour)

OR

Elle paye la baby-sitter 10 euros de l’heure.

Either one is correct, although based on some research, as well as personal experience, most people tend to make the stem change.

Common -yer verbs

payer (to pay); envoyer (to send); balayer (to sweep); ennuyer/s’ennuyer (to annoy or bore/to get bored); vousvoyer (to use vous with someone); tutoyer (to use tu with someone); nettoyer (to clean); appuyer (to push/press/lean); employer (to use, to employ); essayer (to try)

2. Regular verbs that end in é +consonant + -er

How they change: the é changes to è

Note that changing these verbs’ stems in the conditional or future tense is optional.

Examples

1. Infinitive: espérer: J’espère que tu viendras. (I hope that you’ll come)

2. Infinitive: considérer: Il considère que son chat est le plus beau au monde. (He considers his cat to be the most beautiful one in the world.)

3. Infinitive: s’inquiéter: Ne t’inquiète pas. (Don’t worry.)

Common é +consonant + -er verbs

Note that some of these infinitives have additional é’s – these are related to pronunciation and do not change when the final é does.

compléter (to complete); considérer (to consider); espérer (to hope); inquiéter/s’inquiéter (to worry/to be worried); préférer (to prefer); posséder (to possess,own); répéter(to repeat, to rehearse); suggérer (to suggest); gérer (to manage); révéler (to reveal)

3. Most verbs that end with e + consonant + -er

How they change: the e before the consonant + er ending becomes è

Examples

1. Infinitive: acheter: Comme il adore le chocolat, il en achète régulièrement. (Since he loves chocolate, he buys it often.)

2. Infinitive: amener: Il faut que tu m’amènes avec toi la prochaine fois ! (You must take me with you next time!)

3. Infinitive : se promener: On se promènera après le dîner. (We’ll take a walk after dinner.)

Common verbs that end with e + consonant + -er

acheter  (to buy) (Note that this verb is included in this verb group, not the -ter group, due to pronunciation);amener (to bring); emmener (to take someone/something somewhere); mener (to lead); enlever (to take, remove, snatch, kidnap);harceler (to bother, harass, bully); lever/se lever (to raise/to rise, to stand up);peser (to weigh); promener/se promener (to walk, to take a walk)

4. Most verbs that end in -eter or -eler

How they change: the “t” or “l” is doubled.

Examples

1. Infinitive: épeler: Épelle-moi le mot « constitutionnel ». (Spell the word ‘constitutional’ for me.)

2. Infinitive: rejeter: Ce n’est pas la peine de lui demander de sortir avec toi ; elle rejette chaque mec qui s’approche d’elle. (There’s no point in asking her to go out with you; she rejects every guy who approaches her.)

3. Infinitive: appeler: Je t’appellerai ce soir. (I’ll call you tonight.)

As you can see from this last example, if an -eter or -eler verb has another double letter, that pair remains doubled regardless of the stem change.

Common -eter or -eler verbs

appeler/s’appeler (to call/to call oneself); épeler (to spell); rappeler/se rappeler (to remind/to remember); renouveler (to renew); jeter (to throw); projeter (to plan, to project);rejeter (to reject); ensorceler (to enchant, to cast a spell on someone).

….Okay, that last one may not be terribly common in everyday life, but it’s one of my favorite French verbs!

Why do stem-changing verbs exist?

An owl sits on a branch in a forest and cocks his head towards the viewer, looking like the very definition of curiosity.

Verb stem changes are annoying but not totally arbitrary.

For instance, verbs that end with é +consonant + -er and most verbs that end with e  + consonant + -er actually change pronunciation when their stems change. In these cases, the accents that are added or removed from them are simply used to reflect this change.

For example, the stem of the verb acheter is pronounced differently when it’s conjugated, say, in the first-person present tense: j’achète.

On the other hand, the pronunciation of verb stems that end in -eter or -eler or that end in -yer doesn’t  change. In this case, it seems to come down to aesthetic preference of some kind. It’s a phenomenon we see in other areas of the French language, as well.

Some good news about stem-changing verbs

One thing I can promise you  is that there will come a time when you won’t even really notice these verbs. For instance, you’ll instinctively know that a -yer verb’s y will change to i in certain cases.

The other really good news is that while the spelling of verbs that end in -yer or -eter or -eler  changes, their pronunciation doesn’t. So when you’re speaking French, you won’t have to worry about that.

After all, whether I say Comment t’appelles-tu ? or Comment vous apellez-vous ?, you can’t hear that that stem is spelled differently, right?


I hope this article has been helpful, and if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, it’s going to be okay. In my experience, there’s another reason why “shoe verbs” is a fitting moniker for stem-changing verbs. Using them is like tying your shoes: difficult to learn, but once you’ve got it down, you’ll be able to do it without much thought.

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.