Monday, October 31, 2011

conjugation, and the most basic irregular verbs in French

European languages usually come with a cluster of crucial irregular verbs that are essential for the conveyance of information. This includes English, which is, after all, a European language. Think about the verb to be, which doesn't conjugate in a regular manner:

I am
You are
He/She/It/One is
We are
You (all) are
They are

Compare that to some typical regular verbs in English, such as to walk and to talk:

I walk, I talk
You walk, You talk
He walks, He talks
We walk, We talk
You (all) walk, You (all) talk
They walk, They talk

Notice that regular verbs in English barely change form at all: only the third-person singular form (he, she, it, one) adds an "s." By contrast, an irregular verb like to be has three different forms.

The same holds true for French: irregular verbs have their own idiosyncratic conjugations. But before I go any further, we need to talk about what conjugation is and how it works.

To conjugate a verb means to put a form of the verb together with a subject (conjugate comes from two Latin roots that, together, mean conjoin). The subject pronoun "he," for example, needs to be paired up with the appropriate form of a given verb: He has. The unconjugated form of a verb is called the infinitive. For example:

to have
to be
to do
to think
to walk
to barf

The bare infinitive is the infinitive form without the to particle. In French, where the infinitive is often seen by how a verb ends, there is no bare infinitive, but once you take away the infinitive's ending, you're left with an infinitive stem. Examples:

INFINITIVE: parler (to speak)
STEM: parl-

INFINITIVE: choisir (to choose)
STEM: chois-

INFINITIVE: vendre (to sell)
STEM: vend-

The above verbs-- parler, choisir, and vendre-- are all regular verbs. Irregular verbs, by contrast, don't always map out so neatly. Here's the verb to be in French:

être (to be)
Je suis (I am)
Tu es (You are)
Il est/Elle est/On est (He/She/It/One is)
Nous sommes (We are)
Vous êtes (You are)
Ils sont/Elles sont (They are)

There's no verb chart in the world that can help you here; you simply have to memorize the conjugation!

Along with to be, then, here are some basic irregular French verbs that are essential if you're to express almost anything in the language:

avoir (to have)
aller (to go)
savoir (to know, or to know how to)
vouloir (to want or wish)
pouvoir (to be able to)
devoir (should, must)

Let's conjugate them, shall we?

While there are many, many irregular verbs in French, it's best to start off with this set. In my upcoming posts, I'll be writing about (1) why verb conjugation charts are ordered the way they are, and (2) how to use the irregular verbs mentioned here. In the meantime, a quick re-listing of the Magnificent Seven irregular French verbs:

être (to be)
avoir (to have)
aller (to go)
savoir (to know, or to know how to)
vouloir (to want or wish)
pouvoir (to be able to)
devoir (should, must)

Remember: by definition, irregular verbs follow no rules. The only way to master them is to go old-school and memorize them.


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