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The Weird and Wonderful World of Verbs

French verbs take on many endings, which can be a challenge to a new learner. Not to mention that some irregular verbs bear little resemblance to their original infinitive forms when conjugated. And a small group of verbs have unique characteristics that may surprise you. So let’s take a tour of these weird and wonderful things called verbs.

 

Did you know that the shortest conjugated verb in French is only one letter long, a, as in il/elle a (he/she has)?

 

Et il a des révélations à lui faire.

And he has some revelations to make to him.

Caption 2, Le Jour où tout a basculé À la recherche de mon père - Part 9

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Speaking of short verbs, a few irregular past participles ending in -u are extremely short and depart from their infinitive forms. And to make matters worse, they look very similar. The past participles of savoir, croire, pouvoir, boire, voir, and devoir are su, cru, pu, bu, vu, and  (known, believed, was able to, drank, must have):

 

Ce que j'ai pu constater...

What I was able to observe...

Caption 23, Alphabétisation des filles au Sénégal

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Just a quick reminder that past participles sometimes have to agree in gender and number with their objects, which means they take on additional endings. In the following example, vu becomes vus to agree with the masculine plural object, les gens​:

 

...et les gens qu'elles avaient vus là-bas.

...and the people they had seen there.

Caption 21, Contes de fées La petite sirène - Part 1

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Verbs ending in -ut or -it, as in fut (was) and fit (did), are often the mark of the passé simple or past historic, which is a tense used in fairy tales and other literary or historical works:

 

La première chose qu'elle vit fut un grand bateau.

The first thing she saw was a large boat.

Caption 25, Contes de fées La petite sirène - Part 1

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Although the past historic is little used, you may come across it from time to time, so it is worth familiarizing yourself with its endings at least. Be aware, though, that some verbs in the past historic look the same as other verbs in the present tense. For example, elle vit (she saw) is a past historic form of voir, but elle vit (she lives) is also a present tense form of vivre:

 

Mais heureusement ton frère, bon, qui vit à Montréal...

But luckily your brother, well, who lives in Montreal...

Caption 36, Elisa et sa maman La technologie

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And sometimes, a verb conjugated in the same tense can have two different meanings, as in je suis (I am/I follow), which is the first-person singular present of both être (to be) and suivre (to follow). Usually, context is enough to guide you, but it could also be a trick question in an exam! In the video below, the poor koala is having an identity crisis:

 

Quoi? Je ne suis pas un koala? Mais alors, qui suis-je?

What? I'm not a koala? But then, who am I?

Caption 8, Les zooriginaux 3 Qui suis-je? - Part 1

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And here, you have both meanings of suis within the same caption:

 

Je suis bien d'accord, ils ne servent à rien. Allez, suis-moi.

I totally agree, they are of no use. Come on, follow me.

Caption 14, Les zooriginaux 2 Tel père tel fils - Part 4

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Speaking of present-tense tricks, the verbs vaincre (to defeat, vanquish) and convaincre (to convince) are the only verbs in the French language that have endings in -c and -csje convaincs (I convince), tu convaincs (you convince), il convainc (he convinces). This little nugget of knowledge might come in handy while playing Scrabble, but not so much in conversation.

 

The past participles of vaincre and convaincre are more straightforward: vaincu, convaincu:

 

Alors, te voici convaincu? Ne cherche pas ailleurs!

So, are you convinced? Don't look elsewhere!

Caption 10, Il était une fois: L’Espace 3. La planète verte - Part 4

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One verb that draws attention to itself not for its unique present-tense ending but for its unusual infinitive form is the verb se fiche (to not give a damn). Normally it should come with an -r at the end, like all infinitives, but many grammarians, including those at Larousse, make a case for se fiche as the infinitive. In any event, it makes for a vigorous debate among scholars and grammarians. As for most people, ils s’en fichent (they could care less) and use the more regular infinitive version, se ficher

 

Se fiche is most often a conjugated form of the present tense. In the following example, it takes on a different meaning: "kid" or "get a rise out of":

 

On se fiche de nous ou quoi?

Are you kidding us or what?

Caption 5, Actus Quartier Devant la SNCF

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Finally, some verb tenses have very exotic endings, even to the average French speaker! Endings such as -inssent, -assent, and -ussent, as in qu’ils vinssent/fassent/fussent (that they came/did/were) belong to the imperfect subjunctive, a tense that's hardly ever used. Most French speakers use the present subjunctive even when referring to the past: 

 

Je voulais que tu viennes.

I wanted you to come.

 

Very few would use the imperfect subjunctive, unless perhaps for a humorous effect: 

 

Je voulais que tu vinsses.

I wanted you to come.

 

While the imperfect subjunctive is a literary verb form, the present subjunctive is not, and is often used in casual conversation. For example, you will need the present subjunctive to say something as simple as “I’ve got to go":

 

Merci de m'avoir regardée sur Yabla. Maintenant faut que j'y aille.

Thanks for watching me on Yabla. I gotta go now.

Caption 39, B-Girl Frak Limoges

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Vaille que vaille (come what may), don’t hesitate to explore more wondrous verb oddities in your Yabla wanderings by taking full advantage of our videos and lessons. Thank you for reading. Maintenant il faut que nous y allions! Au revoir!

 
Grammar

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