In French, the verb is the most important element of a statement or question, because it gives so much information (person, number, gender, tense etc.). The infinitive ( l’infinitif ) is the unconjugated form of the verb, for example, to be is an English infinitive, the French equivalent is être. French infinitives are single words, they do not contain the element to.
Here are some infinitives : être (to be) ; avoir (to have) ; manger (to eat) ; regarder (to look) ; chanter (to sing) ; partir (to leave) ; voyager (to travel) ; travailler (to work) ; prendre (to take) ; tenir (to hold) ; parler (to speak) ; vouloir (to want) ; apercevoir (to glimpse) ; apprendre (to learn) etc.
Conjugations ( les conjugaisons ) are the verb forms that belong to particular subjects. For example, I am and he is are conjugations of the English infinitive to be, I and he are subject pronouns. Depending of the situation we use different forms of the same verb. For example, we can change the infinitive verb être (to be) and write : je suis (I am), j’étais (I was), je serai (I will be)…
When studying French, you must understand subject pronouns before you can begin learning how to conjugate verbs, because the forms of verbs change for each subject pronoun.
For example, here’s the conjugations of the verb chanter (to sing) in the present tense :
je chante I sing
tu chantes you sing
il/elle/on chante he/she/one sing
nous chantons we sing
vous chantez you sing
ils/elles chantent they sing
As in English, conjugated verbs are preceded by either a common noun (a person, animal, place, thing or idea), a proper noun (a name) or a subject pronoun. Subject pronouns are used in place of a noun, in English they correspond to I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they.
Here are the French subject pronouns :
Singular : Plural :
Je/J’ I Nous We
Tu You Vous You
Il He/It Ils They (m.)
Elle She/It Elles They (f.)
Je becomes J’ before a vowel sound or a h, for example : j’ai un frère (I have a brother) ; j’habite à Lyon (I live in Lyon). Also you have to know that, as the rest of the subject pronouns je/j’ is capitalized ( Je/J’ ) only when it begins a sentence, whereas the English I is always capitalized.
Tu vs Vous
Tu is the French equivalent for “You” in its singular form.
Vous is the French equivalent for “You” in its plural form. But also in French, we use vous to talk to just one person when we want to be polite or formal.
To learn more about the distinction between tu and vous click here !
Il (he) and Elle (she)
Remember that all French nouns have gender and number. Every noun is either masculine or feminine, and either singular or plural. The subject pronoun of a conjugated verb corresponds to the gender and number of the noun (a person or thing) that it replaces. So since we don’t have such a thing as “it” in French, il and elle can also refer to a thing not just a person :
la voiture est dans le garage the car is in the garage -> elle est dans le garage it is in the garage
le chien est dans le jardin the dog is in the garden -> il est dans le jardin it is in the garden
le voisin est gentil the neighbor is nice -> il est gentil he is nice
la voisine est gentille the neighbor is nice -> elle est gentille she is nice
On is used in French to convey the English indefinite subjects one, we, people and they :
Alors, on va au cinema ? Okay, so we go to the movie theater ?
En vacances, on est de bonne humeur. On holidays people are in a good mood
In modern speech, French people often replace nous by on :
Vous avez faim ? Are you hungry ?
Oui, nous avons faim or Oui, on a faim Yes, we are hungry
Remember, on always takes a il/elle verb form (third person, singular), although it refers to several persons :
il/elle/on mange he/she/we eat
il/elle/on chante he/she/we sing
il/elle/on part he/she/we go
Ils and Elles
In English they is used to talk about a group of persons (whether they are men or women) or a group of things. But in French we distinguish between the “masculine they” (Ils) and the “feminine they” (Elles) so depending on who or what you’re talking about you have to use ils or elles :
les hommes sont français = ils sont français the men are French = they are French
les femmes sont françaises = elles sont françaises the women are French = they are French
les arbres (m.) sont grands = ils sont grands the trees are tall = they are tall
les valises (f.) sont lourdes = elles sont lourdes the suitcases are heavy = they are heavy
Please note that a mixed-gender group always take the masculine form :
mon frère et ma sœur sont en Italie = ils sont en Italie my brother and my sister are in Italy = they are in Italy
j’ai un oncle et deux tantes, ils sont très gentils I have an uncle and two aunts, they are very nice
To learn more about the subject pronouns you can also watch this video :
Now that you know how subject pronouns work you can start learning about French conjugation by clicking here !