How and When to Use the French Gerund, Explained
Gerund. Auxiliary verb. Infinitive. Past participle. Superlative.
If you’re dizzy just looking at the list of grammatical terms in the first line of this post, you can take a moment to refresh your memory on the French grammar terms and rules that you do know.
Take a deep breath, because we’ll be going over the first word of the list: the gerund.
Ready to start diving into French –ing verbs? Let’s start from the top.
- What Is a Gerund?
- How Do You Form the French Gerund?
- When Do You Use the Gerund in French?
What Is a Gerund?
Similar to how -ing verbs (eating, walking, driving, etc.) are used in English, the French gerund (en + present participle, as in en mangeant, or “eating” and en dormant, or “sleeping”) offers French speakers a way of modifying the present participle of a verb to express simultaneity and causation.
“He spoke while eating.”
“He learns French by watching French films.”
These are just two examples of sentences in which the French gerund would be used. More on this in a bit!
Allow me to tell you a bit more about the French present participle before we proceed:
The French –ant (present participle) ending is somewhat common, but its use is more restricted than that of the English -ing.
In English, we use the present participle to explain what we are, were or will be doing all the time. In French, however, the present participle can never be used to express those simple “I am/was/will be doing ____” sentences.
For example, in English, we say:
- “I am sleeping”
- “I was sleeping”
- “I will be sleeping”
Those English examples use the English present participle, -ing. In French, however, –ant cannot be used in the same way. You can’t say Je suis dormant; it’s just not proper French. Rather, to express those English sentences in French, you would say, respectively:
- “Je dors” or “Je suis en train de dormir”
- “Je dormais”
- “Je dormirais”
In other words, you would conjugate the verb dormir accordingly for each tense that you want to express (present, past and future).
Here’s an overview of exactly how and when the French present participle is used, for those of you who are interested. One common use of the French present participle, as you may have already guessed, is the gerund. As we already mentioned, it’s formed using the French present participle (-ant) preceded by en in order to show cause and effect and describe two actions happening at the same time.
Now that you have a basic idea of French grammar and gerunds, let’s learn some more about forming the gerund in French!
How Do You Form the French Gerund?
You form the French gerund by adding en + the present participle of a verb. The present participle is formed by taking the noun form of the verb in the present tense, dropping its ending and adding –ant. Here are a few examples:
Dormir (to sleep) → nous dormons (we sleep) → en dormant (while sleeping)
Manger (to eat) → nous mangeons (we eat) → en mangeant (while eating)
Écouter (to listen) → nous écoutons (we listen) → en écoutant (while listening)
Now that you’ve seen some examples, let’s take a look at how these French gerunds might be used in sentences:
Joséphine rêve en dormant. (“Joséphine dreams while sleeping.”)
Joséphine parle en mangeant. (“Joséphine talks while eating.”)
Joséphine étudie en écoutant de la musique. (“Joséphine studies while listening to music.”)
Tout en can be used in place of en for emphasis. For example, if Joséphine, who we mentioned earlier, is a very chatty person, we could say:
Joséphine parle tout en mangeant ! (“Joséphine talks even while eating!”)
The gerund is typically placed at the end of the sentence, but it can be seen at the beginning of a sentence as well. For example:
Tout en mangeant, elle parle ! (“Even while eating, she talks!”)
When using the French gerund, always pay special attention to who is performing the actions being discussed in the sentence, otherwise you could cause some misunderstandings.
The French gerund is used when there are two verbs, both performed by the same subject.
- In the final example, Joséphine étudie en écoutant de la musique (“Joséphine studies while listening to music”), the two verbs are étudier and écouter, but both are performed by Joséphine.
- If you were to say, En marchant, les enfants parlent avec leur père au téléphone, it’s implied that the children are the ones doing the walking and the talking (“While walking, the children talk with their father on the telephone.”)
- However, if you were to say, En marchant, le père parle avec ses enfants au téléphone, it implies that the father is the one doing both the walking and the talking (“While walking, the father talks with his children on the telephone.”)
When Do You Use the Gerund in French?
The closest English-language equivalents to indicate the use of the French gerund are “while,” “because”/“by” and “upon.”
When expressing simultaneity, the French gerund is equivalent to the English “while.”
Elle boit du thé en lisant un livre. (“She drinks tea while (simultaneously) reading a book.”)
The subject of our sentence is sipping a nice, relaxing cup of tea, while simultaneously reading her favorite book. She is one person performing two actions that are happening simultaneously. So, we can use the French gerund to express this.
When describing causation that expresses the manner by which something happened or by which some event came to be, it’s equivalent to the English “because” or “by.”
Le maladroit a trébuché en dansant. (“The clumsy person tripped while/because he was dancing.”)
The clumsy person tripped because of his dancing. His dancing was the cause of his fall, and by using the French gerund we can express this causation.
Paul apprend le français en regardant des films français. (“Paul is learning French by watching French films.”)
In the example above, the films are the means by which Paul is going to improve his language abilities. “By” watching the films, en regardant des films français, Paul will gradually improve his listening comprehension skills.
When describing causation that expresses the moment at which something happened, it’s equivalent to the English “upon.”
J’ai crié en tombant de l’échelle. (“I cried out when/upon/at the moment when/because I fell off the ladder.”)
Falling off a ladder, down the stairs or even tripping causes the average person to let out a small (or big and dramatic) cry. Upon falling, you let out the vocalization. En tombant, “upon falling,” you let out a cry.
(And just a friendly reminder once again that you never use the French present participle to express simple statements of what someone is doing, like “I am running” or “He is walking,” as we would in English. We have specific French grammatical tenses for that, and translating literally from English into a bad French sentence like, “Je suis courant”—literally, “I. Am. Running”—is more than awkward: It’s not a grammatically-correct statement in French!)
And there you have it: A basic introduction to the French gerund!
Try incorporating the gerund into your next conversation (maybe at the next event at your local Alliance Française?).
For further practice, it might help to see French gerunds in action. You can check out French authentic media featuring realistic conversations, such as novels, TV shows or movies. This kind of content can provide helpful examples of when the gerund comes into play.
Some language learning programs can help you review the workings of gerunds and French grammar as a whole. They can do so while offering tools to aid your understanding. One example is FluentU, which teaches with authentic French videos. Each clip comes with interactive subtitles which provide in-context definitions, grammatical details and example usages of any word, so you can easily dissect phrases for instances of the gerund.
It might also be useful to have some French grammar rule-books for reference. Two excellent resources you can use are “English Grammar for Students of French,” which teaches French grammar by comparing it to English grammar, and the beginner-friendly “French Grammar.”
Before you know it, you’ll be a pro at using and understanding everything from en dormant to en mangeant to en anything-ant in between!