How to tackle six of the trickiest French verbs

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How to tackle six of the trickiest French verbs
Puzzled by the French language? Don't be. Photo: David Goehring/Flickr

French verbs can seem impossible to master, but don't despair, writes French language expert Laura K Lawless.


Let's face it, between all those conjugations and unfamiliar tenses, French verbs can be a pain in the derrière for beginners. On top of that, some of them are just plain weird with changes in meaning and overlapping English translations. Here are some verbs that leave French students scratching their heads.

1. Having it all

Avoir means "to have," except when it means "to be." Huh? The dictionary tells you that "have" is avoir, and most of the time that's correct. But there are more than a dozen expressions in which avoir is actually equivalent to "be," including avoir faim (to be hungry), avoir soif (to be thirsty), avoir chaud (to be hot), and avoir froid (to be cold).

Pro tip: in these expressions, the words faimsoifchaud, and froid are nouns rather than adjectives, so it helps to think of their literal meanings: I have hunger, I have thirst, etc.

To be hungry - or to have hunger? Photo: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

2. To be or not to be?

Speaking of avoir and être, as auxiliary ('helping') verbs, they sometimes change the meaning of the passé composé. For example, je suis descendu means "I went downstairs," but j'ai descendu means "I took (something) down." Same thing with monter (to go upstairs / to take something up), sortir (to go out / to take something out), and entrer (to go in / to take something in).

Pro tip: avoir is needed when the verb is transitive (has a direct object), être is required when it's intransitive.

To be or not to be? Photo: Barry Solow/Flickr 

3. The most 'necessary' verb

Falloir is an incredibly common and useful verb, though you probably know it better in its conjugated form. Il faut literally means "it is necessary," but that's a bit stilted in English, so we generally say "(someone) has / needs to" instead. To express the "someone," you can either use an indirect object pronoun or a clause. With an indirect object, the verb that comes after il faut is in the infinitive:

Il me faut partir - I have to leave, Il te faut finir - You need to finish.

With a clause, the sentence looks like this: il faut que + subject + subjunctive:

Il faut que je parte, Il faut que tu finisses.

Pro tip: The first option is probably easier, since you just need to memorize a few pronouns rather than the subjunctive conjugations for hundreds of verbs.

An ode to the greatest French swear word everPhoto: David Goehring/Flickr

4. Who misses whom?

Tu me manques looks straightforward, but it's actually backwards: it doesn't mean "You miss me," but rather "I miss you." How come? In French, the verb manquer à (quelqu'un) means "to be missed by (someone)." So "John misses Ana" is Ana manque à John; literally, Ana is missed by John. And when you replace that with pronouns, the preposition disappears: Ana lui manque - He misses Ana.

Pro tip: remember the preposition: it's manquer à, not just manquer.

Lonely? Tell someone you miss them. Photo: stefanos papachristou/Flickr

5 and 6. Know it all?

Savoir or connaître? Both of these French verbs mean "to know":

Je sais conduire - I know how to drive, Il sait que tu as menti - He knows you lied.

Je connais ton frère - I know your brother, Il connaît ce resto - He knows this restaurant.

Pro tip: Savoir is used with a verb, while connaître requires a direct object.

Photo: AFP

Of course, this is just an overview of some pretty complicated grammar points, so if you have trouble with any of these, head over to Kwiziq French to create a free account. Once you take the level placement test, you'll be presented with a personalized study plan to help you eliminate errors and fill in gaps before moving on to new material.

Laura K. Lawless is Kwiziq's Marketing Coordinator and the creator of Lawless French.

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