4 Common Verbs in French

Certain verbs in French are commonly used, not only popping up in most conversations, put in the greater part of sentences within these conversations. Try and have a conversation without the verbs avoir, être, aller, and faire. It might be a fun exercise, but it would be very difficult. The advantage of having such common verbs is that they are very versatile and those four verbs that keep popping up would mean dealing mainly with those four verb conjugations. The disadvantage is that these verb conjugations are irregular. This means that their forms deviate from the established patterns of large numbers of verbs in the language. So if you experience moments of oblivion while trying to remember these verb conjugations, there won’t be other verb patterns to guide you.

The origins of irregular verb patterns are varied, ranging from suppletion, the use of an unrelated form to complete a verb paradigm, to frequent repetition of commonly used verbs, which allows them to maintain patterns that fall out of use or adapt to more regular patterns over time. Conjugations of the verb aller, for instance, include vais, allons, and ira from the Latin verbs vadere, ambulare, and ire. The verb faire has the uncommon characteristic of having second person plural endings in many of its conjugations that do not include ez. It is the third most frequently used verb in French, according to eduscol, which is run by the Ministère de l’Éducation nationale et de la Jeunesse, and seems to have maintained its unique pattern.

Breaking Down the 4 French Verbs

1- The Verb « Avoir »

The verb avoir indicates possession and also appears in commonly used idiomatic expressions. To indicate possession, you could say j’ai un chat, ils ont trois cafés, or on a une idée. Avoir is used in expressions having to do with physical condition, such as tu as mal à la tête or il a la grippe. It is also used in idiomatic expressions having to do with hunger and thirst, state of mind, and judgment, e.g., nous avons soif, ils ont peur des arraignées, and vous avez tort. In addition, it is the auxiliary verb used for the greater part of composite tenses, including the verb être, the other auxiliary verb that is used for composite tenses in French.

a) Expressions with « Avoir »

Here are some uses of the verb avoir in everyday expressions:

French English
avoir faim to be hungry
avoir soif to be thirsty
avoir chaud to be hot
avoir froid to be cold
avoir peur to be scared
avoir raison to be right
avoir tort to be wrong

Notice how all of the English equivalents use the verb to be. When learning on Glossika, you'll notice within your "Skills" list that these patterns are practiced together as stative verbs with person as experiencer.

b) Talking about Age

We can also use avoir to point out age:

French English
avoir ... ans to be ... (years old)

c) Talking about Getting Hurt

When we talk about something physically hurting, we can use avoir mal along with a body part.

French English
avoir mal à.... ... hurts

When we name the body part, we include its definite article. This is different from what is used in English, which is often a possessive adjective, e.g., j’ai mal à la hanche vs. my hip hurts. Remember that the preposition à contracts with definite articles that are plural or masculine and singular, giving us forms such as the following:

The body part
j’ai mal à... les genoux → aux genoux
j’ai mal à... le dos → au dos
j’ai mal à... la tête → à la tête

d) Avoir l’air... ...

We can use avoir l’air to express the idea of seeming a certain way. Since it can be a synonym for sembler, être, or demeurer, in some locutions it will agree with the subject of the sentence. At other times, when it expresses the idea of appearing a certain way, it will agree with air.

French English
avoir l’air + adjective to seem
  • Les clients ont l’air angoissés.  (angoissés ≈ les clients)

mais :

  • Ces fleurs en papier ont l’air authentique.   (authentique ≈ l’air)

e) Expressions Used with Infinitives

Some expressions with avoir are used with infinitives. J’ai besoin de nettoyer le sol indicates needing to clean the floor, while j’ai envie de manger une pizza indicates a desire to eat pizza.

French English
avoir besoin de + infinitif to need
avoir envie de + infinitif to desire, fancy

f) J’en ai assez !

If you’ve had enough of something, you can use another expression with avoir:

French English
en avoir assez to have had enough

Have you had enough of studying French for the day? You can say: “J’en ai assez !”

2- The Verb « être »

The verb être is one of the most frequently, if not the most frequently used verb in French. Its meaning to be gives it the value of an equal sign and can introduce attributes, qualities, possession, as well as many types of action in the passive voice. We use it when describing people or things, e.g., elles sont comiques, ceci est drôle, and to show possession, e.g., “Ce cahier est à Charles”. We use it as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses, and notably, with pronominal verbs, e.g., vous êtes arrivées, on s’est serré la main, nous nous sommes vus.

a) The Process of Happening

Certain expressions with être involve the use of infinitives. We can use être to refer to something in the process of happening:

French English
être en train de + infinitif to be doing

To emphasize the moment during which someone is watering flowers, we could say, il est en train d’arroser les fleurs. To translate this into English, we would use the present progressive tense, a tense that we do not have in French, e.g., he’s watering the flowers. If we begin with the English sentence, however, we could translate this into French either using en train de + infinitive or the present active indicative tense, depending on context.

b) Express State of Mind

We also see the verb être used in constructions such as:

Il est + adjectif + de + infinitif
C’est + adjectif + de + infinitif

This emphasizes a state of mind, a condition, or an opinion, e.g., il est content d’avoir de ses nouvelles ; c’est agréable de s’asseoir sur une terrasse.

c) Ça m’est égal

In addition to beginning certain phrases using être with the impersonal il or ce, we can also use ça. To express indifference, you can use the phrase:

French English
Ça m’est égal. don’t mind; I don’t care; It’s all the same to me.

d) Être + Past Participle

We may choose to use être along with a past participle form of a verb we use in pronominal constructions, but remember that there is a difference between the action and the situation that results from this action:

Pronominal Verbs être + past participle
s’allonger être allongée, être allongé
s’asseoir être assise, être assis
se coucher être couchée, être couché
se fâcher être fâchée, être fâché
se fatiguer être fatiguée, être fatigué
se lever être levée, être levé
se perdre être perdue, être perdu
se presser être pressée, être pressé

3- The verb « aller »

Aller is a commonly used verb that means to go. It is practical when speaking of physically moving from one place to another, e.g., l’enfant va à la boulangerie. We can also use aller to speak of an intention to do something or to express future action, e.g., nous allons manger vers 20 h, or elles vont finir leurs devoirs. The verb aller + infinitive is a tense called the futur proche.

a) How are you doing?

We can use the verb aller to talk about how we’re doing:

French English
aller bien to be doing well
aller mal to be doing poorly
aller comme ci, comme ça to be doing all right

b) Means of Transit

We can use aller to talk about means of transit:

Means of Transit Means of Transit
aller à cheval aller en taxi
aller à pied aller en train
aller à vélo aller en tram
aller en bus aller en voiture

c) To Get away

We can talk about going away, departing, leaving, and going ahead using certain expressions involving aller:

French English
s’en aller to go away, to depart

This is considered to be an idiomatic pronominal verb, and must be conjugated as such, e.g., elles s’en sont allées.

d) Other Expressions

Other phrases with aller that you will commonly hear include:

French English
Il faut que j’y aille. I have to go.
Allez-y. Go ahead.

The latter can be in reference to physical space, to let someone walk ahead of you, for instance, or in reference to speech, deferring to interlocutors by inviting them to speak before you.

We can also use the verb aller to describe things as being a good combination:

French English
aller ensemble to go together; to be a good fit; to be a good combination

4- The Verb « faire »

The verb faire means to do or to make. It is also used in many expressions involving weather and activities. We can say nous faisons un gâteau, il fait beau, or ils font de la danse.

a) About the Weather

Faire is used in expressions describing the weather:

French English
quel temps fait-il ? what’s the weather like?
faire beau to be fair, nice
faire moche to be nasty out
faire du vent to be windy

Your reply will include the impersonal phrase il fait... (see the second example above).

b) Describe Activities

We use the verb faire to describe activities, often involving partitive articles:

faire de la, du, des + activity
  • Simone fait de la gymnastique.
  • Manuel et Marielle font du ski.
  • Les enfants font des galipettes.

c) Initiation of Action

We use the faire causatif to talk about initiating another action. This involves the construction faire + infinitive. This can have a subject, a direct object, or a subject and a direct object.

French English
Ils font courir les athlètes. They make the athletes run.
On fait sauter le chien. We make the dog jump.
Vous faites réciter les poèmes aux enfants. You have the children recite poems.

The third example can become ambiguous, if the context is not clear enough, as it can mean that either the children are reciting the poems or that someone else is reading poems to the children. In order to clarify, the sentence can be phrased as:

  • Vous faites réciter les poèmes par les enfants.

d) Expressions with pronouns En and Y

Certain expressions with faire involve the pronouns en and y.

French English
s’en faire to worry
s’y faire to get used to

We could allay someone’s fears by saying: “Ne t’en fais pas si ta fille n’aime pas son nouveau cours à l’école”, to which one could respond: “En tout cas, il faudra bien qu’elle s’y fasse”.

e) Other Expressions

Other idiomatic expressions involving faire include:

French English
faire voir to show
faire venir to send for
faire savoir to let someone know; to inform
se faire couper les cheveux to get a haircut
se faire arrêter to get arrested
se faire faire quelque chose to have something made; to get something

With all of these uses for these four verbs in mind, you could probably have an entire conversation. Enjoy! 😎


Read more!

  1. Learn How to Use French Adverbs
  2. Common 'False Friends' in French that You Should Know
  3. French Verbs: The Ultimate Guide to Different French Tenses
  4. The Most Common Mistakes Learners Make When Learning French
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It is very easy to project the rhythms of your first language onto your second or third language, but remember that French places even stress on words and that the pitch does not change very dramatically. The Encyclopedia Britannica even describes French as sounding monotone. The even rhythm of French, facilitated by the elision and liaison that occurs between words, sometimes makes it difficult for beginning and intermediate learners to distinguish individual words. Producing this rhythm also proves challenging for those who are used to pausing between words or emphasizing certain syllables within each word. • • •  Get more details in our blog article "5 Phonetic Difficulties and Solutions When Learning French" • • •  #glossika #glossikafrench #french #difficulty #solution #learnfrench #speakfrench #frenchlanguage #speaking #listening #tone

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