REGULAR -ER verbs
A majority of French verbs are conjugated following the same basic pattern. These verbs have an infinitive (the form found in the dictionary) which ends in -er. Think of porter, écouter, fermer, regarder (to carry or to wear, to listen, to close, to look at or to watch).
The conjugation is as follows:
(Although there are five different written forms among the six conjugations, there are only three different pronunciations, since 'je porte', 'tu portes', 'il or elle porte' and 'ils or elles portent' are all pronounced the same way: [click for sound?]. This makes the 's' on the end of 'tu portes' very easy to forget in written French, as well as the 'nt' in 'ils portent'.)
Other verbs conjugated like porter:
90% of French verbs
So far, so good. Unfortunately, there are some variations that complicate things.
Take the verb 'commencer' (to begin), for example. Like all verbs which end in -cer, it conjugates with a slight variation, as follows.
The cedilla is there because the letter 'c' represents
two different sounds in French
In French this rule is always true (amazing!) (unlike in English where it is just almost always true - notice the horrible inconsistencies in a sentence such as 'Caesar saw Celtic coelenterates').
Sometimes, though (and this is the case with 'commençons'), a soft c sound unwittingly ends up in front of an 'a', an 'o' or a 'u', almost by accident. So what do you do?
If you want to write a soft c sound coming before an 'a', an 'o' or a 'u', you have to add a cedilla. A cedilla takes a hard 'c' sound, and makes it soft. (see accents)
(In other words, when spoken this verb is as regular and as normal as any other -ER verb. The cedilla is an attempt to maintain that in the written form.)
Other verbs conjugated like commencer:
Funnily enough, the verbs ending in -GER follow the same pattern as -CER verbs:
Like the letter 'c', the letter 'g' is
In French this rule is always true (and this is where English is really inconsistent - 'My girlfriend's getting some margarine').
(As with -CER verbs, when spoken this verb is as regular and as normal as any other -ER verb. The added 'e' is an attempt to maintain that in the written form.)
Other verbs conjugated like manger:
(Verbs whose stem ends with a weak e)
Sometimes it's the vowel that needs to be altered to reflect the pronunciation accurately. As in the verb 'se lever':
If you know how the word is pronounced, you can deduce the spelling. Or if you know how the word is spelled, you can deduce the pronunciation. (Unfortunately you have to know one or the other.)
So what's so unspecial about the nous and the vous forms that they don't get to have an accent?
Well, the 'lev' of the stem in these forms is followed by a pronounced ending ('ons' or 'ez'). They have an extra syllable, and it is this last syllable - the ending - that gets the stress. It changes the pronunciation of the 'le-' syllable, which becomes a lot more humble. It becomes a 'stressed e', pronounced like the 'e' in 'le' or 'je'.
In the other forms, the 'lev' of the stem happens to be the last syllable of the word (and it ends in a pronounced consonant). So it is pronounced with a little more stress, and a more open 'e' sound.
Listen to the way the first 'e' is pronounced in the following words:
This more open 'e' sound is what the accent grave is there to represent. (see accents)
It's all a question of balance, really. When one side is down, the other is up:
So in the singular forms, as well as the third-person plural (whenever the ending is not pronounced, in other words), the last syllable of the stem will change to an 'è'.
Sometimes this happens to an unaccented e:
Moi, j'achète les boissons pour la boum, et vous achetez
Other verbs conjugated like acheter:
Sometimes it happens to an e accent aigu:
Other verbs conjugated like célébrer:
Sometimes, the change in pronunciation is marked by a doubling of the following consonant (which achieves the same thing as an è (e accent grave)):
Other verbs conjugated like s'appeler:
(There are even some verbs which can be spelled either with an e accent grave or with a double consonant, but they're too obscure to worry about.)