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I've just started learning French, and I had a question about which verb forms would be the most useful to commit to memory.

I ask this with the way I studied Latin and German in mind. In the case of the former, we have four principal parts for each verb (present active indicative 1st person singular, present active infinitive, perfect active indicative 1st person, perfect passive participle — e.g., amo, amare, amavi, amatus); with the latter, there are three (infinitive, 3rd person preterite, past participle — e.g., arbeiten, arbeitete, gearbeitet). Memorizing these made it very easy to derive the various permutations of tenses, voices, moods, etc. for a verb. (Alongside this, a further consideration for German would be the auxiliary verb used with the past participle, a feature I know exists in French as well.)

So far, I haven't been able to find an analogous compartmentalization in French. And, given the language's significantly greater complexity as it pertains to verbs, I was wondering what forms beyond the infinitive would be most helpful to know. Or perhaps thinking about the matter in this way isn't quite the way to go for French?

Merci!

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  • The way to learn a language is step by step. If you do not use that kind of approach, you will not learn it systematically. This way involves getting a book (online or paper) and doing the exercises presented to you in dialogues. How to form the tenses (say, the future tense) is how the best books on the subject for learners are organized. As for tenses in general, one of the first steps is to learn basic present tenses of the most used irregular verbs. être, faire, aller in the context of exercises.
    – Lambie
    Nov 10, 2021 at 16:25

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This question is complex and possibly opinion-based, but I'll try to answer anyway.

I'm not sure that in French there is a compartmentalization like the one you describe, but there are definitely tenses that you need to learn first.

There are several composite tenses, like you said, and you have to learn the tense of the auxiliary. There's also the present conditional that uses the radical of the simple future with the ending of the imperfect, but that's pretty much it.

Then, the tenses you'll need depend a lot on what you want to do with French. There are tenses that are used almost exclusively in literature than you don't have to learn right away (you'll still need them eventually!), namely simple past, passé antérieur, past subjunctive, ...

I'd say the most important that you absolutely need are present indicative, simple future, passé composé and imperfect. Present subjunctive is also very important and you won't get very far without it.

But most importantly, I think almost any French course or learning method will teach you tenses in an order that is useful and good for learning.

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In French, the set of forms that has been traditionally deemed useful as a denotation of the individuality of a verb is the sequence "group, auxiliary, modèle, infinitives (présent, passé), participles (present, passé)". However, the first element is not a form but a list of forms, which can be found here (No IV).

The following reference contains a rare sample of such a descriptive list.

Conjugaison / Conjugueur Dictionnaire entendre

GROUPE :        3ième
AUXILIAIRE :    avoir
MODÈLE :       rendre

INFINITIF Présent ;         entendre
                 Passé :            avoir entendu
PARTICIPE Présent :      entendant
                   Passé :         entendu

In the preceding reference the additional information (VERBE POUVANT ÊTRE TRANSITIF, TRANSITIF INDIRECT OU INTRANSITIF, ADMET LA CONSTRUCTION PRONOMINALE : S'ENTENDRE) is rarely given. The information "MODÈLE" is also rarely given; here, for instance (Académie Française) the model is "attendre", and nothing else than the model is given.

This grammatical description of a verb is not usually found in dictionaries; the Wiktionnaire does list group and existence of pronominal form, but there is nothing in the TLFi. This type of information is found to be too grammatical for lexicographers.

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