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The third person plural verb ending –ent is often not pronounced. Though the rules for when and how to pronounce it are fairly straightforward, they’re not always explained as clearly as they could be.
The question of whether –ent is pronounced or not has to do with two completely different issues:
Part of speech: Is –ent part of a verb?
When –ent is not part of a verb, it is always pronounced.
When –ent is part of a verb, the next question is: Is it at the end of the verb?
When it’s not at the end of the verb, –ent is always pronounced.
Here –ent is pronounced [ɑ̃t].
When –ent is at the end of the verb, there’s one final qualifier: is it third person singular or plural?
Third person singular
In verb conjugations that end in –ent in the third person singular, –ent is always pronounced.
|il ment||he lies|
|elle sent||she feels|
|on se repent||one repents|
Third person plural
It’s only at the end of third person plural conjugations that the –ent might not be pronounced, and the issue here has nothing to do with grammar: it’s a question of register.*
A) In standard French, in most registers (normal, informal, familiar, and slang), –ent is silent.**
|ils parlent||they’re talking|
|elles sentent||they feel|
B) In formal French, –ent is somewhat more likely to be pronounced.
C) In literature and poetry, –ent is always pronounced. In fact, this verb ending is included in the poem’s syllable count, so it’s needed in order to recite the poem correctly.*
In third person plural conjugations, when –ent is is pronounced, it’s not nasal like it is in all the other situations listed above. Here, it’s pronounced as a schwa [ə] or even an open eu [ø]. (Again, the t is silent unless there’s a liaison.)
* These pronunciation rules related to register also apply to –e and –es (je parle, tu chantes, il donne). In all of these verb endings, the "e" is known as an e instable or e muet.
** Except in a few places, like southwestern France, where its pronunciation is characteristic of local French variations.
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