How to tackle six of the trickiest French verbs

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

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

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.

READ ALSO: Eleven signs you've cracked the French language

11 signs you've cracked the French language

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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.