french-modal-verbs

I Should, I Might, I Can: Understanding French Modal Verbs

A few weeks ago, Aunt Polly called me up and invited me along on her annual trip to Paris.

Can you come?” she asked, her voice filled with enthusiasm.

“Oh, Aunt Polly, I couldn’tcould I?”

“My dear, you simply must! You really shouldn’t miss out on this. It’s Fashion Week!

“Well, I would love to. But don’t you think one of your other nieces might like to go?”

“I shall take them along on other trips with me. But you ought to take this opportunity. It will be a very special Fashion Week, featuring French modals.”

“Sorry, I must have misheard you. You said ‘French models,’ right?”

“No, no. Modals. I want you to understand why modals are so special. I really would like you to come.”

And so, one plane ride and two taxi trips later, we had arrived at our first Fashion Week event. We took our seats near the runway with anticipation.

The spotlight shone on the runway, dazzling in the near-dark of the room. The opening notes of the big-band classic, “In the Mood,” hushed the whispers of the crowd.

Out of nowhere came the booming voice of the announcer. “Introducing our model modals. They follow in the footsteps of Modal Agency fashionistas like Naomi Can-Belle, Kate Must and Shall Macpherson.

“First, we have the powerful Pouvoir: A real ‘can-do’ modal. Pouvoir is followed by the savvy Savoir, who always knows how to look her best. Third on the catwalk is the daring Devoir—a fashion ‘must’ this season! Devoir will be modeling modal fashion coordinates with her twin brother, the formal yet funky Falloir…an aloof modal with a commanding presence. Finally, we have Vouloir, who always knows what she wants.”

The modals emerged one-by-one from the shadows, struck poses, then reversed course. The show ended to thunderous applause.

As the house lights came up, I turned to Aunt Polly. “You were right—the modals were a must-see.”

She smiled, pleased that I was starting to understand her excitement over Fashion Week. “Would you like me to tell you more about the French modals?”

I nodded in agreement. “I think you should.”

Luckily, I’d brought a little notepad along to jot down my impressions of the fashion show. Here are some of my notes about modals.

Learn a foreign language with videos

In the Mood for Modals: A Few Things to Know About Modals in French

If English is your native or primary language, you probably use modal verbs all the time without even thinking about it. This post brings modals center-stage to see how they feature in French.

Tensed up and moody: The difference between tenses and moods

To understand how modals work, let’s look at the difference between verb tenses and moods.

Verb tenses like le présent (the present tense), l’imparfait (the imperfect) and le futur (the future tense) are used to indicate when an action occurs.

Verb moods are less about when, and more about how. For example, the indicative mood points to (indicates) actions and events that actually occur at some point in time. The conditional mood deals with possible events in the past or present that depend upon a specific condition being true. The subjunctive mood expresses doubtful, improbable or uncertain events.

Modals are a special type of auxiliary verb that endow action verbs with shades of doubt, uncertainty, possibility and resolve.

A fistful of modals: Different uses of modals

Modals express thoughts beyond the black-and-white narrative. They convey the speculative, the insistent, the probable and the possible.

Modals are used to describe:

  • Abilities

…what can or could be done

  • Firm Plans & Certainties

…what will be done

  • Habits

…what would normally be done

  • Necessities & Obligations

…what must, ought to or should be done

  • Promises & Possibilities

…what may, might or could be done

  • Wishes & Desires

…what we want and what we would like

Found in translation: The lack of direct translations between French and English modals

French lacks direct equivalents to many English modals. If you were to look up words like would or must in your trusty English-French dictionary, you would find a long, complicated explanation rather than a single-word translation.

Model modals: Modals as a concept

While French doesn’t have direct equivalents to words like “could,” “would” and “should,” there are certain French verbs associated with these concepts.

The French verbs most often used to express modal thoughts are pouvoir (to be able), savoir (to know how), devoir (to have to do something), falloir (to need to/to have to) and vouloir (to want to).

That said, virtually any verb can be used as a modal in French, depending on the context and its conjugation.

Aside from the guide below, the best way to get used to modals is by seeing them used in real-life scenarios, like in the videos on FluentU.

FluentU lets you learn French from real-world content like music videos, commercials, news broadcasts, cartoons and inspiring talks.

Since this content is material that native French speakers actually watch regularly, you’ll get the opportunity to learn real French the way it’s spoken in modern life.

One quick look will give you an idea of the diverse content found on FluentU:

French modal verbs

Love the thought of learning French with native materials but afraid you won’t understand what’s being said? FluentU brings authentic French videos within reach of any learner. Interactive captions guide you along the way, so you never miss a word.

French modal verbs

Tap on any word to see a definition, in-context usage examples, audio pronunciation, helpful images and more. For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what appears on your screen:

French modal verbs

Don’t stop there, though. Use FluentU to actively practice all the vocabulary in any video through word lists, flashcards, quizzes and fun activities like “fill in the blank.”

French modal verbs

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Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.

I Should, I Might, I Can: Understanding French Modal Verbs

Abilities

You can do something in the present and you could do it in the past or the future… and now you can talk about it in French (even if you could not yesterday).

Do the can-can: Ways to express “can”

Nope, it’s not time to visit the Moulin Rouge and join a chorus line of dancers doing high kicks. We just want to say that we can do something right now… but the word we use for “can” in French will depend on the context.

If it’s something we can do because we know how to do it, we use savoir.

If it’s something we can do because we’re able to do it, we use pouvoir.

  • General Gist: “[Currently] able to [do something]”
  • French Verbs Used: Pouvoir (to be able) and savoir (to know how)
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: Present tense of the indicative mood + the infinitive of the main action verb

Examples:

Je peux trouver des romans à la bibliothèque.
(I can find novels at the library.)

Vous pouvez dormir dans votre chambre d’hôtel.
(You can sleep in your hotel room.)

Il sait parler français presque comme un Français.
(He can speak French almost like a Frenchman.)

Elles savent danser le quadrille, autrement appelé le “cancan.”
(They can dance the quadrille, also known as the “can-can.”)

Definitely could: Expressing “could” with the conditional

If you’re feeling confident about your ability to do something tomorrow or the next day, you could express it in French using the conditional.

  • General Gist: “Will be able to/plan to [do something] [in the future]”
  • French Verb(s) Used: Pouvoir/savoir + infinitive of main/action verb
  • French Tense/Mood Used: Present tense of the conditional mood

Examples:

Vous pourriez prendre votre dîner au nouveau restaurant.
(You could have dinner at the new restaurant.)

Je pourrais visiter mes amis demain après-midi.
(I could visit my friends tomorrow afternoon.)

Sylvie pourrait vendre sa bagnole l’année prochaine.
(Sylvia could sell her car next year.)

En utilisant des ressources immersives comme la collection des vidéos sur FluentU, d’ici l’année prochaine vous sauriez parler français comme un natif.
(Using immersive resources like the collection of videos on FluentU, by next year you could speak French like a native.)

Could, too! Reminiscing about being able to do something

Maybe you want to fondly reminisce about what you could do in the past.  For this, you’ll need either pouvoir (to be able) or savoir (to know how), usually dans l’imparfait (in the imperfect).

  • General Gist: “Was able to [do something] [in the past]”
  • French Verb(s) Used: Pouvoir/savoir
  • French Tense(s)/Mood Used: Imperfect or present perfect tense of the indicative mood

Examples:

Pierre pouvait porter son chapeau à la boîte de nuit.
(Peter could wear his hat to the night club.)

Bernadette a prétendu qu’elle savait programmer l’ordinateur.
(Bernadette claimed that she could program the computer.)

Not for lack of trying: Expressing an inability

Sometimes, you’ll need to describe a situation in which the subject cannot (in the present) or could not (in the past) do something.

The negation will frame the verb that expresses the ability (or lack thereof), whether that verb is pouvoir or savoir.

Other negations of modal phrases will work essentially the same way.

  • General Gist: “Cannot…” or “could not…” in the sense of not being/having been able
  • French Verb(s) Used: Pouvoir (to be able) and savoir (to know how), used with the infinitive of the main action verb
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: Present or imperfect or present perfect tense of the indicative mood or past tense of the conditional mood

Examples:

Nous ne pouvons pas stationner la voiture ici.
(We cannot park the car here.)

Je ne pouvais jamais croire qu’il fût coupable.
(I could never believe that he was guilty.)

Vous n’avez pas su chanter en anglais.
(You could not sing in English.)

On n’aurait pas pu finir tous les exercices dans le cahier.
(We could not have finished all of the exercises in the workbook.)

Firm Plans & Certainties

Although no one can predict the future with perfect clarity, modal constructions allow us to say with relative certainty what will happen and what we will do.

We can also use modals to mentally send us back to the past, talking about what has already happened as though it were still to come.

Force of will: Saying you will do something

If you are 99.99% sure that you’re going to do something, or that something in particular is almost certainly going to happen, you can use modal constructions to express your confidence in the events to come.

  • General Gist: “Definitely plan to/will [do something]”
  • French Verb(s) Used: Any verb
  • French Tense/Mood Used: The simple future tense of the indicative

Examples:

Je lirai le texte cet après-midi.
(I will read the text this afternoon.)

Nous regarderons un film de Jean Cocteau ce soir au Cinéma du Centre.
(We will watch a film by Jean Cocteau this evening at the Central Theater.)

Il écoutera “Fidelio,” le seule opéra de Beethoven, au festival de musique classique en décembre.
(He will listen to “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s only opera, at the classical music festival in December.)

Le nounours dormira au lit du bébé tous les nuit.
(The teddy bear will sleep in the baby’s bed every night.)

Blast from a modal past: Narrating with “would”

When you’re telling a story, you want to make your listeners feel as though they were present while the events were unfolding.

If you were talking about what might be about to happen, and wanted to leave a sense of uncertainty, you would use “would” in English.

  • General Gist: French equivalents of “would” when describing nonrecurring past events as though they’re current
  • French Verb(s) Used: Any
  • French Tense/Mood Used: Present tense of the conditional mood

Examples: 

Et puis, il m’a dit, il visiterait le Forêt de Brocéliande, où le magicien Merlin eut voyagé.
(And then, he told me, he would visit the Broceliande forest, where Merlin the wizard had traveled.)

J’avais pensé que nous descendrions l’escalier, mais nous avons pris l’ascenseur à la plâce.
(I had thought that we would go down the stairs, but we took the elevator instead.)

Après le repas, Claire a supposé, elle danserait avec le beau homme qui restait près de sa côté pendant toute la soirée.
(After the meal, Claire imagined, she would dance with the handsome man who had been staying close to her all evening.)

Habits

One use of modals is to indicate that an action is habitual. Usually, the modal construction is accompanied by another phrase that gives you the timeframe for the customary action, such as chaque semaine (every week) or pendant le mois d’avril (during the month of April).

Knock on “would”: Describing habitual actions

While we would simply use “would” in English to talk about how things would normally be done, we would not be able to do this in quite the same way in French.

  • General Gist: Describing habitual/repeated actions
  • French Verb(s) Used: Any
  • French Tense/Mood Used: Imperfect tense of the indicative mood

Examples: 

Quand sa mère lui appelait au téléphone, il répondait, “Salut, Maman. Ton fils favorit à l’appareil!”
(When his mother called him on the telephone, he would answer, “Hi, Mom. Your favorite son speaking!”)

Chaque matin, l’oiseau chantait au lever du soleil.
(Each morning, the bird would sing at sunrise.)

Tous les soirs, ils mangeaient ensemble.
(Every evening, they would eat together.)

Necessities & Obligations

Modals don’t just express what we could do, will do or used to do. They also talk about what we need to do.

“Necessity” modals range from the mandatory (the equivalent of “must”) to the politely insistent “ought to.”

Just like in English, modals are expressed in different ways in French.

Absolute musts

If something is mandatory, you must do it. And here’s how you must do it in French.

  • General Gist: “Must do [something]”
  • French Verb(s) Used: Devoir (to have to) or falloir (to need to/to have to)
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: Devoir in the present tense of the indicative mood + infinitive of main/action verb or il (it) + falloir in the present tense + que (that) + subject + present subjunctive of other verb

Examples:

Tu dois mémoriser la conjugaison du verbe devoir, qui est un verbe irregulier.
(You must memorize the conjugation for devoir, which is an irregular verb.)

Elles doivent payer la somme indiquée à la facture.
(They must pay the total specified on the invoice.)

Il faut que nous rebroussions chemin.
(We must turn back.)

Il faut que j’aille au magasin.
(I must go to the store.)

You should do what you ought to: Obligations

There are times when you feel obligated to do something, but it’s not mandatory. And you should know how to express that distinction in French.

  • General Gist: “Should” in the sense of an obligation
  • French Verb(s) Used: Devoir. Note that devoir used in this sense does not distinguish between the insistent “should” and the more polite “ought to.”
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: Present or past tenses of conditional mood of devoir + infinitive of other verb

Examples:               

Philippe devrait remercier Hélène de lui avoir aidé.
(Philip should thank Helen for having helped him.)

Vous devriez garder votre ticket de caisse à tout hasard.
(You should keep your receipt just in case.)                                            

You simply ought to: Expressing “should”

When someone says you “ought to” do something, it’s really a polite way of saying you should. Or you might think of it as “should,” but in an ideal world.

While devoir is used in certain contexts to mean “ought,” French also uses the impersonal verb falloir to handle this more formal insistence in a hands-off way.

As we’ve discussed, falloir can also be used to mean “should.” As with devoir, the distinction is made in the context of the sentence or conversation, as in the examples below.

  • General Gist: “Ought to…”
  • French Verb(s) Used: Falloir (to need to/to have to) or devoir (to have to)
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: il (it) +falloir in the present or present perfect of the indicative mood + que (that) + subject + other verb in the appropriate tense of the subjunctive mood or il (it) + falloir in the present or present perfect (or other past tense) of the indicative mood + infinitive of other verb or devoir in the present or past tense of the conditional mood + infinitive of other verb

Examples:

Il faut que je visite ma grand-mère chaque semaine, parce qu’elle est toute seule.
(I ought to visit my grandmother every week, because she is all alone.)

Il a fallu que Roland ait chanté sa chanson à expliquer ce qui se fut passé à Roncevaux.
(Roland ought to have sung his song to explain what had happened at Roncesvalles.)

Il faut apprendre les règles grammaticales afin d’éviter des erreurs.
(One ought to learn grammar rules in order to avoid mistakes.)

J’aurais dû être concurrent!
(I should have/ought to have been a contender!)

Nous aurions dû savoir que l’or était faux.
(We should have/ought to have known that the gold was fake.)

Annick devrait rentrer à l’université pour continuer ses études.
(Annie ought to return to the university to continue her studies.)

Promises & Possibilities

Modals help us discuss what could happen, what might happen or what may have already happened.

They also describe our aspirations for the future… not just our definite plans, but what we hope to accomplish.

Shall: Will’s hopeful twin

“Shall” and “will” are like twins. Both of them are used to talk about future events. “Will” is the more pragmatic of the two, describing definite plans for the future. “Shall” is the dreamer, talking about grand plans, hopes and aspirations.

In French, both “will” and “shall” are expressed using French verbs in the future tenses. Similar to “should” and “ought,” the context of the conversation or sentence is largely what makes the difference in meaning.

  • General Gist: “Shall” [do something], in the sense of resolving/aspiring to do it
  • French Verb(s) Used: Any; devoir or vouloir may be used in certain circumstances, in conjunction with the infinitive of another verb
  • French Tense(s)/Mood Used: Future tenses of the indicative mood

Examples:

Je me passera du fil dentaire entre les dents deux fois par jour.
(I shall floss my teeth twice a day.)

Le témoin devra jurer à dire toute la vérité.
(The witness shall swear to tell the whole truth.)

Voulons-nous prendre le petit déjeuner à neuf heures demain matin ?
(Shall we have breakfast at nine o’clock tomorrow morning?)

Elle surmontera sa peur des araignées !
(She shall overcome her fear of spiders!)

Could it be so? Maybe. It might well be!

If you need to express hopefulness with just a dash of uncertainty, the French expressions peut-être (maybe) and il se peut (it may be/it could be/it might be) might help you out.

  • General Gist: “Maybe” or “it could be” or “it might be”
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: Present tense of the indicative of pouvoir with the infinitive of être (to be), also known as peut-être (maybe) or present tense of the indicative of se pouvoir in the impersonal (il se peut, “it could be” or “it might be”), often used with que (that) + the subjunctive of another verb

Examples:

Il se peut qu’il te fasse sa demande en mariage cette année.
(It could be that he proposes marriage to you this year.)

Peut-être, tu trouveras le bonheur avec lui.
(Maybe, you will find happiness with him.)

Il se peut qu’il soit l’homme de tes rêves.
(It might be that he is the man of your dreams.)

Just a theory: Expressing “must be”

You may not be completely sure, but you have your suspicions. These constructions with devoir will help you explain your theory. 

  • General Gist: “[Something] must be so”
  • French Verb(s) Used: Devoir (with être)
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: devoir in the present tense of the indicative + être (to be) in the infinitive + adverb

Examples:

Quel surprise—un resto de luxe ! Nous devons être ici à fêter notre victoire.
(What a surprise—a fancy restaurant! We must be here to celebrate our victory.)

Il devait être fier de sa fille, qui a gagné la bourse universitaire.
(He must be proud of his daughter, who won the college scholarship.)

Vous devez être crevée après avoir fait un marathon.
(You must be exhausted after having run a marathon.)

Something… happened (“It must have!”)

You just know it in your gut. And you can use falloir (and sometimes devoir) to say it in French.

  • General Gist: “[Something] must have happened”
  • French Verb(s) Used: Falloir, devoir
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: il (it) + falloir in the past perfect tense of the indicative mood + que (that) + other verb in the past tense of the subjunctive mood or devoir in the present perfect of the indicative mood + another verb in the infinitive or que (that) + subject + devoir in the past tense of the conditional mood + another verb in the infinitive

Examples: 

Il a fallu qu’elle soit allée en France.
(She must have gone to France.)

Quelque chose a dû lui arriver quand elle était là.
(Something must have happened to her while she was there.)

Il a fallu qu’elle soit impressionnée par la culture.
(She must have been impressed by the culture.)

Il me semble qu’elle aurait dû tomber amoureuse de la vie française.
(It seems to me that she must have fallen in love with the French lifestyle.)

On one condition: Expressing “if”

Particular actions can be stipulated by the presence of certain conditions. Naturally enough, the French conditional mood is used to express this.

  • General Gist: “[Someone] would or could [do/have done something] if [a certain condition were met]”
  • French Verb(s) Used: any; pouvoir is used specifically to indicate “could,” rather than “would”
  • French Tense(s)/Mood Used: Present or past tense of the conditional mood

Examples: 

Je viendrais au dîner avec mes potes s’ils choisissaient le restaurant thaïlandais.
(I would go to dinner with my buddies if they chose the Thai restaurant.)

Mon frère aurait voyagé en Europe si notre sœur était là comme guide.
(My brother would have traveled in Europe if my sister were there as a guide.)

Alain demandait s’il pourrait venir.
(Alan was asking if he could come.)

Elle aurait pu aller au spectacle, si quelqu’un l’avait invitée.
(She could have gone to the show, if someone had invited her.)

Wishes & Desires

Whether you want to do something or you would like to do something, you’ll need to use vouloir to express your wishes and desires in French.

The heart wants what it wants: Simple desires

You want it. You want it with all your heart. You want it so much, you’re not even trying to be polite about it.

That’s when you’ll want to use vouloir.

  • General Gist: “To want [something],” without making a polite request
  • French Verb Used: Vouloir (to want)
  • French Tense(s)/Mood(s) Used: Any tense of the indicative

Examples:

Éteins le réveil! Je veux faire la grasse matinée.
(Turn off the alarm clock! I want to sleep in.)

Christophe a voulu sa propre crosse de hockey.
(Christopher wanted his own hockey stick.)

Marie voudra une vue sur la mer.
(Marie will want an ocean view.)

Polite requests

Of course, you’re more likely to get what you want if you’re well-mannered about it. That’s where vouloir in the conditional mood comes in, to act as your goodwill ambassador. 

  • General Gist: “Would like” or “would have liked”
  • French Verb Used: Vouloir
  • French Tense(s)/Mood Used: Present or past tense in the conditional mood

Examples:

Après le plat principal, je voudrais un digestif—Grand Marnier, peut-être.
(Following the main course, I would like an after-dinner liqueur—Grand Marnier, maybe.)

Il aurait voulu un morceau de chocolat avec son café.
(He would have liked a bit of chocolate with his coffee.)

Nous voudrions vous connaître mieux.
(We would like to know you better.)

 

French modals are verb constructions that never go out of style.

French speakers who use modals will always be prêt-à-s’exprimer (ready to express themselves), in any mood.

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