French Tenses for Beginners: Discussing the Past, Future, & Present

It’s Grammar <3 Season!

In this guide you’ll learn how to talk about all three by just learning how to conjugate three verbs (one conjugation for each tense) so that you can avoid memorizing all those pesky verb tables. In addition to this “hack”, you’ll also learn how to conjugate regular verbs in the present tense and get an introduction to reflexive verbs.

In the second post of this series, I’ll talk about passé composé, my favorite tense in French and the third and final post will cover the remaining tenses. You can also read Kerstin’s partner post on 3 grammar tricks for learning French.

On y va! Let’s go!

The Present Tense in French

Le présent, or the present tense, is the tense used to express current actions, habitual actions, absolute truths, actions which will occur immediately and it has three equivalents in English. For example:

Je parle could mean:

  • I speak
  • I am speaking
  • I do speak

Using “être + en train de” to emphasize that you are in the midst of doing something is an easy way to distinguish between “I speak” or “Je parle” and “I am speaking” or “Je suis en train de parler”. And that will be our focus for today.

If you want to skip learning a ton of verb conjugations and just talk about what you are in the process of doing, you can do so quite effectively by learning how to conjugate être (to be) and the infinitives of the verbs that you think you’ll need to use. The formula for this would be:

Subject + to be + in the process of + whatever you’re in doing

Subject + être (conjugated to fit the subject) + en train de + infinitive verb (a verb in its original form, not conjugated)

Conjugating Être

PronounÊtreTranslation
JesuisI am
Tuesyou are
Il/Elle/Onesthe/she/it is
Noussommeswe are
Vousêtesyou are
Ils/Ellessontthey are

Some examples of this might be:

Je suis en train de voyager. I are in the middle of traveling.
Vous êtes en train de manger. You are in the process of eating.
Elle est en train d’acheter un stylo. She is in the middle of buying a pen.

Learning to Conjugate Regular Verbs in the Present Tense

French verbs are broken up into regular and irregular verbs. Regular verbs are again broken up into three groups: -er, -re, and -ir. The nice thing about regular verbs is that they follow rules, and so, once you get the patterns down, it’s easy to learn the conjugations for new verbs.

When the verb keeps its ending, it is in its infinitive form. Examples of infinitives would be: manger (to eat), vendre (to sell), and choisir (to choose). It’s the presence of the word “to” in English that helps us understand what we refer to as the infinitive. When a verb is conjugated, it drops its ending (the -er, -re, or -ir) and the stem (the remaining part of the word) is given a new ending based on the subject.

-ER Verbs

PronounEndingAider (to help)TranslationAimer (to like)Translation
je-eaideI helpaimeI like
tu-esaidesyou helpaimesyou like
il/elle/on-eaidehe/she/it helpsaimehe/she/it likes
nous-onsaidonswe helpaimonswe like
vous-ezaidezyou helpaimezyou like
ils/elles-entaidentthey helpaimentthey like

-IR Verbs

PronounEndingChoisir (to choose)TranslationFinir (to finish)Translation
je-ischoisisI choosefinisI finish
tu-ischoisisyou choosefinisyou finish
il/elle/on-itchoisithe/she/it choosesfinithe/she/it finishes
nous-issonschoisissonswe choosefinissonswe finish
vous-issezchoisissezyou choosefinissezyou finish
ils/elles-issentchoisissentthey choosefinissentthey finish

-RE Verbs

PronounEndingRépondre (to respond)TranslationInterrompre (to interrupt)Translation
je-srépondsI respondinterrompsI interrupt
tu-srépondsyou respondinterrompsyou interrupt
il/elle/onrépondhe/she/it respondsinterrompt*he/she/it interrupts
nous-onsrépondonswe respondinterromponswe interrupt
vous-erépondezyou respondinterrompezyou interrupt
ils/elles-entrépondentthey respondinterrompentthey respond

*an exception in the spelling/conjugation

Common Irregular Verbs

It is worth saying, however, that there are always exceptions. Not all verbs that end in -er, -re, and -ir are regular. For example, aller, dire, and venir are not regular verbs but their endings might lead you to believe that they are.

Être to beAller to goVenir to come
Avoir to haveFaire to do, to makePouvoir to be able to
Vouloir to wantSavoir to know how toDire to say
Mettre to putVoir to see 

Reflexive Verbs

Before I move on to expressing things that have happened in the past or that will happen in the future, there’s one more group that is worth mentioning: reflexive verbs.

Reflexive verbs are identified by their need for a reflexive pronoun because they show that an action is performed upon itself/the subject. Some verbs are always reflexive while others always require the reflexive pronoun.

The reflexive pronoun agrees with the subject, so it’s important to remember to change it based on the subject of the sentence. The pronoun proceeds the verb. Examples are s’appeler (to call), se lever (to get up), and se dépêcher (to hurry).

Conjugating Reflexive Verbs

Pronoun(Se) Reflexive PronounCoucher (to go to bed)Translation(Se) Reflexive PronounRaser (to shave)Translation
JemecoucheI go to bedmeraseI shave
Tutecouchesyou go to bedteraseyou shave
Il/Elle/Onsecouchehe/she/it goes to bedserasehe/she/it shaves
Nousnouscouchonswe go to bednousrasonswe shave
Vousvouscouchezyou go to bedvousrasezyou shave
Ils/Ellesse couchentthey go to bedserasentthey shave

Future

There are a few different ways to discuss the future in French, but they would each require you to learn an entirely new set of conjugations for each verb (which you might eventually need to do), but for now, especially at the beginning stage, there’s an easy shortcut you can use to express the near future using verbs and conjugations you likely already know. In fact, we even use this shortcut in English whenever we say “I’m going to do something”. It’s:

Subject + to go + thing that will be done in the future

Subject + aller (conjugated to match the subject) + infinitive verb


In order to create this, we just need to know how to conjugate one verb in present tense – to go or “aller”.

Conjugating Aller

PronounAllerTranslation
JevaisI go/I am going
Tuvasyou go/you are going
Il/Elle/Onvahe/she/it goes or he/she/it is going
Nousallonswe go/we are going
Vousallezyou go/you are going
Ils/Ellesvontthey go/they are going

We can now express things we are going to do in the future. For example:

Je vais voyager. I am going to travel.
Vous allez manger. You are going to eat.
Elle va acheter un stylo. She is going to buy a pen.

The Past

Much like the future tense, there’s a pretty simple hack that you can use to avoid using any of the actual French tenses (imparfait, passé simple, passé composé, and past conditional) and I’ll introduce this before I talk a bit about passé composé in the second post in this series, one of the tenses that I think can be the most confusing.

The shortcut for discussing something that immediately happened in the past is similar to saying someone has just done something in English. The formula is:

Subject + to come + from + the thing that was recently done

Subject + venir (conjugated to match the subject) + de + infinitive verb

Once again, to create this, we only need to be able to conjugate one verb, in this case, to come or “venir”.

Conjugating Venir

PronounVenirTranslation
JeviensI come
Tuviensyou come
Il/Elle/Onvienthe/she/it comes
Nousvenonswe come
Vousvenezyou come
Ils/Ellesviennentthey come

And now we can express things that we have recently done in the past. For example:

Je viens de voyager. I just traveled.
Vous venez de manger. You just ate.
Elle vient d’acheter un stylo. She just bought a pen.

BONUS: Expressing a Desire to Do Something Or Uncertainty Using “Vouloir” 

Alright, I’ve actually got one more in store for you today, and that’s expressing a desire for something or uncertainty using vouloir (to want). Using this construction, we can actually discuss things we would like to do but might not be able to do. 

Subject + to want + thing that you want, but + reason it cannot be done

Subject + vouloir + infinitive verb, mais + reason it cannot be done

Of course, the second half of the sentence can be modified to express something else, but we’ll stick with this model for now. So now let’s talk about conjugating vouloir.

PronounVouloirTranslation
JeveuxI want
Tuveuxyou want
Il/Elle/Onveuthe/she/it wants
Nousvoulonswe want
Vousvoulezyou want
Ils/Ellesveulentthey want

And now a few examples:

Je veux voyager, mais je suis en train de faire un projet. I want to travel, but I am in the middle of a project.
Vous voulez manger avec moi, mais vous venez de dîner. You want to eat with me, but you just ate dinner.
Elle veut acheter un stylo, mais elle va acheter un crayon. She wants to buy a pen, but she is going to buy a pencil.

As you can see, you can combine some of what you previously learnt in this lesson with this latest construction.

And that’s it for today. Now you have an easy way to talk about the present, the future, and the past in French! If you’d like to leave me a few practice sentence in the comments, you’re more than welcome to do so.

If you liked this post, there are two more that I plan on sharing real soon. But if you’re impatient for some more French grammar tips, then you’ll love Kerstin Hammes course Easy French Grammar for Beginners. The course includes a ton of straightforward tips on French grammar for beginners and you can get 30% off the course by signing up here

For those of you interested in German, she also has a fantastic grammar course available which you can also get access to at the 30% discount here

Tips for Language Learning | Eurolinguiste

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Published on: March 7, 2016

Filed Under: Language Resources

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