Conjugation refers to the five possible inflections of a verb: Person, Number, Mood, Tense, and Voice. Once you've made a choice from each of these five, you have a conjugation or inflection. For example:
Verb - parler
Person - first person
Number - singular
Mood - indicative
Tense - present
Voice - active
= je parle
Verb - aller
Person - third person
Number - plural
Mood - subjunctive
Tense - present
Voice - active
= qu'ils aillent
When conjugating a French verb, the first things to figure out are the tense and mood, which work hand-in-hand. All moods have at least two tenses (present and past) out of the possible 8 (only the indicative has all 8). The verb timeline lists moods horizontally and tenses vertically.
The indicative is the most common mood and is normally not stated. When you talk about the passé composé, the imperfect, or the present tense, for example, you mean "of the indicative mood." It's only with other moods like subjunctive and conditional that the mood is stated explicitly.
All moods have a present tense, which is again not made explicit except in the indicative and participle (parentheses indicate what normally goes unsaid):
- present (indicative)
- (present) conditional
- (present) subjunctive
- (present) imperative
- (present) infinitive
- present participle
So for example, the imperfect (indicative) and the imperfect subjunctive are two different moods of the same tense. On the other hand, the (present) conditional and the past conditional are two different tenses of the same mood.
The verb timeline can help you understand this, because it lines up moods and tenses so that you can see how they all fit together. X axis + Y axis = verb form and basis of individual conjugations.
Voilà - now that you understand the basics of French verb conjugation, study the lessons on individual tenses and moods (linked from the verb timeline) to learn more, or visit my French grammar glossary.
When you understand subject pronouns, tenses, moods, and how to conjugate French verbs, you're in great shape. There are however some grammatical subjects which make conjugation a bit more difficult.
When you have more than one subject, you have to figure out which subject pronouns would replace that group and then conjugate the verb accordingly. For example, toi et moi would be replaced by nous, as would David et moi. Toi et lui and Michel et toi would be replaced by vous. Lui et elle or Marc et Anne would be replaced by ils. The trick is to make this replacement in your head without actually saying it out loud, as denoted by the (parentheses):
Toi et moi (nous) pouvons le faire
You and I can do it
Paul, Marie et moi (nous) mangeons
Paul, Marie, and I are eating
Toi et elle (vous) êtes en retard
You and she are late
Sophie et toi (vous) devez partir
You and Sophie have to leave
Luc et sa femme (ils) sont arrivés
Luc and his wife have arrived
Lui et elle (ils) lisent beaucoup
He and she read a lot
Subject + Object Pronoun
In a construction with an object pronoun, usually nous or vous, there is sometimes a tendency to conjugate the verb according to it, rather than to the subject pronoun, because the object directly precedes the verb. Though this tends to be a careless mistake made orally rather than a lack of understanding, it's included here just as a little reminder.
Je vous ai donné la liste
I gave you the list
xx Je vous avez donné la liste xx
Vous nous avez menti
You lied to us
xx Vous nous avons menti xx
The construction c'est + stressed pronoun + qui makes many people - including at times native French speakers - want to use the third person singular verb conjugation because of qui. But this is incorrect; in fact, the conjugation has to agree with the pronoun.
C'est moi qui ai gagné
It's me that won
xx C'est moi qui a gagné xx
C'est vous qui avez tort
You're the one who's wrong
xx C'est vous qui a tort xx
C'est nous qui allons le faire
We're the ones who are going to do it
xx C'est nous qui va le faire xx
Pronoun + Qui
Similar to the c'est… qui construction is a subject or demonstrative pronoun + qui. Again, the qui makes people want to use the third person singular, but once again the conjugation has to agree with the pronoun.
Vous qui avez mangé pouvez partir
Those of you who have eaten may leave
xx Vous qui a mangé pouvez partir xx
Ceux qui veulent aider doivent me voir
Those who want to help need to see me
xx Ceux qui veut aider doivent me voir xx
Je cherche celles qui étudient
I'm looking for the ones who are studying
xx Je cherche celles qui étudie xx
Collective subjects can take the third person singular or plural:
Un tas de fleurs sont mortes / Un tas de fleurs est mort
A bunch of flowers died
Un grand nombre de livres ont disparu / Un grand nombre de livres a disparu
A large number of books disappeared
Adverbs of Quantity
Adverbs of quantity take the third person singular or plural, depending on the number of the noun that follows:
Beaucoup d'étudiants sont arrivés
A lot of students have arrived
Peu de pluie est tombée
Little rain fell
Combien de livres y a-t-il ?
How many books are there?
Also see "… d'entre… " below.
Indefinite pronouns always take a third person conjugation (either singular or plural, depending on the number of the pronoun).
La plupart a décidé
Most have decided
Plusieurs sont perdus
Many are lost
Tout le monde est là
Everyone is there
Also see "… d'entre… "
When an adverb of quantity or indefinite pronoun is followed by entre + personal pronoun, many non-native French speakers (including myself) want to conjugate the verb according to the personal pronoun. But this is incorrect - in this construction, the verb has to be conjugated to agree with what comes before entre, not what comes after.
Certains d'entre vous ont oublié
Some of you forgot
xx Certains d'entre vous avez oublié xx
Beaucoup d'entre nous sont en retard
Many of us are late
xx Beaucoup d'entre nous sommes en retard xx
Chacun d'entre vous peut le faire
Each one of you can do it
xx Chacun d'entre vous pouvez le faire xx