In English we have a variety of ways of talking about events that occur in or relate to the present moment, all of which serve to nuance the particular meaning we’re trying to convey. In French, the same meaning can be achieved, but rather than rely on auxiliary forms and a variety of tense markers, French uses one form to express the same ideas, with the occasional help from prepositions like depuis, or expressions like il y a… que.
Identifying the present tense
Regular French verbs are placed into three groups, depending upon final letters of the verb, or verbal ending. Each of these verb groups is conjugated slightly differently, but there are several verbal endings that are shared by all conjugations:
Person ……………………………. Ending
2nd person singular (tu) …………-s
1st person plural (nous) …………-ons
2nd person plural (vous) ………..-ez
3rd person plural (ils, elles) …….-ent
Familiarization with verb conjugations and present tense endings for both regular and irregular verbs will allow you to easily identify this tense. That said, present tense conjugation tables for the three groups of regular verbs are beyond the scope of this article. Some final tips that might help: present tense verbal endings will never contain an ‘r’, this sound signals the future tense or the conditional. In addition, a present tense verb will never follow a conjugation of the verbs avoir or être. That is to say that the present is une forme simple (a simple form) and not une forme composée (a compound form).
A unified form to express multiple meanings
In English we have three ways to express actions that occur at the present time: the regular, or simple present (I eat), the present progressive (I am eating) , and the emphatic present (I do eat). All of these phrases can be expressed in French using one form, the present tense: Je mange. The same construction in French is equivalent to any of the three English variations.
Note: While the present form of a French verb may function alone as an equivalent to the English present progressive, if you want to insist upon the progressive aspect of an action, the phrase être en train de + infinitive may be used.
The present perfect and present perfect progressive in French
In English, we use the present perfect (have + past participle of verb) and the present perfect progressive (have been + verb + “ing” ending) to talk about events that occurred in the past that continue into, or impact the present. French uses the present tense of the verb coupled with the preposition depuis.
For example: “I have studied French for 8 years.” becomes “J’etudie le français depuis 8 ans.” The expressions il y a… que, voici… que, or voilà… que may also be used in conjunction with the present to express the same idea.
Note: In a negative construction French uses a form of past tense, the passé composé, in conjunction with depuis because the action does not continue into the present. All French verbs of the simple form are by default, imperfect. This means that the action is continuous, unfinished or ongoing. So a sentence like “I have not seen Nicholas for 2 days.” in which the ‘seeing’ does not continue into the present, cannot take the present tense, but must take a compound form like the passé composé.
For help with conjugating French verbs in the present tense or for information on other aspects of French grammar, check out my other articles. A bientôt!