Verbs with the following endings conjugate differently.

  • Verbs with -oyer/uyer change "y" to "i" before silent "e" (ennuyerennuie).

  • Verbs with -eyer do not change this way.

  • Verbs with -ayer change "y" to "i" according to the writer's preference.

What is the reason for this? What does it signify or does this have any historic reasons?


The orthography reflects the pronunciation.

One of the rule of French orthography is that if two sounds that would be written i occur next to each other, they're not written with ii, but rather with y. This can be either the vowel /i/ followed by the glide /j/ (as in fuyez); or a digraph ending in i (oi, ai, ei) followed by the glide /j/ (as in foyer) or by the vowel /i/ (as in pays).

Ennuyer is pronounced (in my dialect, but the principle applies to Northern French French as well, just with different values for the vowels) /ɒ̃.nwi.je/. Notice how the letter y stands for both the vowel /i/ and the glide /j/?

Ennuie however is pronounced /ɒ̃.nwi:/. Here, there's only the vowel /i/ (elongated by the "mute" e, in Belgian, Swiss and eastern French French), without the glide, so the letter i is used.

This is also the case with, say, choyer (/ʃwa.je/) where two orthographic i would stand next to each other: the one of the digraph oi (for the sound /wa/) and the one for the glide /j/ . They fuse into y (i.e choi + ier = choyer rather than choiier). Choie is pronounced /ʃwa:/, so there's only one orthographic i, and no fusion into y.

With verbs in -eyer, the infinitive and the indicative present both have a digraph ending in i (ei pronounced /ɛ/) followed by /j/, so they're both written with the letter y. For example, grasseyer (/ɡʁa.sɛ.je/) et grasseye (/ɡʁa.sɛj/).

With verbs in -ayer, two pronunciations are accepted and thus two orthographies exist. The verb payer (pai + ier = /pɛ.je/) in the indicative present can be pronounced either /pe:/ and written paie or pronounced /pɛj/ and written paye. (In Parisian French this would be /pe/ and /pej/, with the same effects on orthography)

  • 1
    Note: When followed by an i, the first semi-vowel is generally /ɥ/ rather than /w/. The standard phonetic transcription of ennuyer is /ɒ̃.nɥi.je/. Jul 28 '15 at 13:13
  • The analysis would be easier for me to understand with the syllables written choi.yer and pai.yer rather than choi + ier and pai + ier which misled me to seek two morphemes instead of two syllables...
    – GAM PUB
    Jul 29 '15 at 10:58

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