Learning French is like learning a musical instrument.
In either case, you start with the basics.
In the case of music, you start with notes that you’ll later be able to put into melodies.
In the case of French, you first encounter verbs like être (to be) and avoir (to have), in their unconjugated, unadulterated form.
In other words, the infinitive.
Shortly thereafter, you begin to conjugate said verbs and incorporate them into complete sentences with all the new vocabulary you’ve learned.
So why dwell on that original unconjugated form?
What more is there to say about the French infinitive?
What more is there to know about it other than the mere fact of its existence?
As you start delving into grammar—the imperfect, the conditional and the like—the unconjugated verbs you learned early on seem like malleable things to be conjugated rather than usable words in their own right.
In short, the infinitive appears pretty basic.
But basic the French infinitive is not.
Just like with practicing scales on an instrument, it pays to stay on top of the infinitive, so you can locate it and use it in a sentence at the drop of a hat.
In this post, we’ll look at how flexible the French infinitive really is, and how it can contribute to your mastery of French.
Not So Basic After All: The Complete French Infinitive
Different Uses of the French Infinitive
In French, unconjugated verbs end in either -er, -re or -ir. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, unconjugated verbs are not just a thing of your early French-learning days. The French infinitive is actually rather versatile and unconjugated French verbs have a variety of uses. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?
After a conjugated verb
In French, two conjugated verbs in a row is a no-no (or should I say a non-non). So, for example, if you want to say “I like to run,” only the verb aimer (to like) would be conjugated:
J’aime courir. (I like to run.)
You can hear several examples of this construction in this slightly odd video about what the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet likes and dislikes. Better yet, since that video is available on FluentU, you don’t have to worry about missing a word. There are clickable subtitles, professionally translated English captions and flashcards built in (among several other learning tools).
Sign up for a free FluentU trial to watch that video—and more than 1,000 other authentic French videos—with all the learning features.
Dual-verb constructions are constructions that are formed with a semi-auxiliary verb such as aller (to go), devoir [faire quelque chose] (to have to [do something]), espérer (to wish), promettre (to promise) or vouloir (to want to), followed by another verb in the infinitive:
Nicole voudrait dormir. (Nicole would like to sleep.)
Object, reflexive and adverbial pronouns are usually placed between the two verbs and after the preposition (if there is one) that follows the conjugated verb:
Caroline doit se laver les mains. (Caroline must wash her hands.)
Negative constructions should surround the conjugated verb and precede the preposition, if there is one:
Jean ne va pas manger ce soir. (Jean is not going to eat tonight.)
As a noun (the subject/object of a sentence)
As a noun, the French infinitive is translated as the English present participle when it’s employed as a noun.
Prévenir, c’est guérir. (Preventing is healing.)
Lire, c’est voyager. (Reading is traveling.)
Apprendre le chinois est difficile. (Learning Chinese is difficult.)
After a preposition
In French, there are many verbs that must be accompanied by a preposition—most commonly à (at, to) or de (from, of). If an additional verb is required to make a sentence meaningful, it must be employed in the infinitive.
C’est difficile de discuter avec Adrien. (It’s difficult to talk to Adrien.)
Avant de manger, je me lave les mains. (Before eating, I wash my hands.)
In place of the imperative
The imperative mood is most commonly used in French to give commands. The French infinitive can be used in its place when a command is impersonal in nature. This means you’ll come across the infinitive in the context of warnings as well as in instruction manuals and in recipes.
Mettre un casque de sécurité. (Put on a safety helmet.)
Verser la farine dans le saladier. (Pour the flour in the mixing bowl.)
In an interrogative or exclamative phrase
The French infinitive can be used to construct interrogative or exclamative phrases in the context of a dilemma:
Que faire ? (What to do)
Où aller ? (Where to go?)
Quelle couleur choisir ? (Which color to choose?)
In place of the subjunctive
The French infinitive can be used in place of the subjunctive mood in two instances.
When the subject of the main clause and the subordinate clause is the same:
The sentence Elise est contente qu’elle soit à l’heure (Elise is happy that she is on time) can be rewritten using the infinitive as Elise est contente d’être à l’heure (Elise is happy to be on time).
(In a case like this, you’re actually required to use the infinitive because in the first example, elle would refer to someone else, not Elise.)
When the subject is implied but not explicitly stated:
The sentence Il faut que tu dormes (You must sleep) can be written using the infinitive as Il faut dormir (You must sleep).
To form the past infinitive
The past infinitive is a compound construction that’s formed with an auxiliary verb être (to be) or avoir (to have) and a past participle. The past infinitive denotes an action that occurs before the action of the main verb. The past infinitive is used in four instances.
Modifying the verb in the main clause:
J’aurais préféré avoir mangé plus tôt. (I would have preferred to have eaten earlier.)
Modifying the adjective in the main clause:
Elise est contente d’avoir déménagé. (Elise is happy to have moved.)
Following the preposition après (after):
Après avoir mangé, j’étais moins énérvé(e). (After having eaten, I was less annoyed.)
Merci de m’avoir invité(e). (Thank you for having invited me.)
A note on word order and the past infinitive: In day-to-day French, negative constructions precede the infinitive.
Je suis désolé(e) de ne pas être arrivé(e) à l’heure. (I am sorry for not having arrived on time.)
Keeping Things in Order: Word Order and the French Infinitive
So, speaking of word order, let’s talk about word order in the context of the French infinitive.
Adverbial, object and reflexive pronouns all precede the infinitive:
Il faut s’habiller. (You must get dressed.)
Both elements of a negative construction precede the infinitive:
Ne jamais laisser la fenêtre ouverte. (Never leave the window open.)
When you have a sentence that contains both pronouns and a negative construction, the negative construction precedes the pronouns:
Ne jamais la laisser ouverte. (Never leave it open.)
Beyond the Basics: How to Make the Most of the French Infinitive
- Quiz yourself. Correctly employing the French infinitive requires you to acquire a firm grasp on verb-pronoun pairings. While many such pairings exist in English, learners of French must remain aware that different pronouns are used in each language.
Check out these flashcards from Quizlet to practice determining whether verbs are followed by the preposition à (to from), de (from, of) or the infinitive. Once you’re comfortable with those, take this fill-in-the-blank preposition quiz. Finally, this quiz from Tex’s French Grammar is a great way to brush up on your translation skills while you fine-tune your understanding of the infinitive.
- Look in books. Reading is a great way to get intimate with French sentence structure. What you read is up to you (check out this list of free French e-books and this compilation of addictive French novels). What’s important is that you read actively.
A great way to do this is to classify the verbs that you come across as those which are followed by the prepositions à (at, to) and de (of, from) or nothing at all. The reference guide “501 French Verbs” is also a great resource for finding le mot juste (the right word) or perhaps I should say le verbe juste (the right verb)?
- (Re)write. A simple but effective exercise to get comfortable with the various uses of the infinitive (and improve your reading comprehension to boot!) is to take a paragraph from the book from above or another short- to medium-length text (a newspaper or magazine article will do the trick) and where applicable, replace existing constructions with the infinitive.
Quelle méthode choisir ? (What method to choose?)
Well, it’s up to you!
S’entraîner souvent (practice often) and your French will improve.
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