Fragile French: Handling the Present Participle with Care
Did you know there’s such a thing as a present participle in French?
We’re not talking about some kind of special reward to thank you for your participation in learning the language.
Even more confusingly, we’re not just talking about the French present tense, either. Not exactly.
You can think of the present participle as a kind of grammatical loyalty bonus, though.
See, the present participle is quite versatile and can add a bit of elegance to your French when you talk or write.
You may have already noticed that the past tense gets a lot of play in French.
There’s the imparfait (the imperfect), the passé simple (simple past), our old favorite the passé composé (perfect past) and even the plus-que-parfait (pluperfect), these last two being comprised of an auxiliary verb and a past participle.
It would be a mistake to think that the French only dwell on the past, though.
And there’s no better way to get your head out of what’s over and done with than by grabbing hold of the newest grammatical tidbit coming up in your learning adventure: the present participle.
Forming it’s a cinch, but you need to beware of some key differences between French and English if you’re going to handle it well.
Once you do get used to it, though, you’ll be seeing and using it all over the place.
So let’s get started!
What Is the Present Participle?
The French present participle is the verb form that ends in -ant.
The present participle may be used with the preposition en (while, on, upon, by, in, when) to form a gerund (the equivalent of the English verb form that ends in “‐ing”).
When used without en, the present participle may act as an adjective, noun or verb.
In both cases, its translation is the English “-ing” form.
When Not to Use the French Present Participle
As you’ll soon see, the present participle is a super useful construction. But English speakers must beware because the French present participle is not used as frequently as the frequently-used-in-English “-ing.” So before we proceed, it’s worth understanding when not to use the present participle.
1. The present participle cannot be used to describe what one is doing “right now.”
To say “I’m running (right now)” in French requires the present tense and not the present participle:
Je cours. (I’m running.)
If you want to say you’re in the middle of doing something, the construction être en train de (to be in the process of) is your friend:
Je suis en train de courir. (I’m in the process of running.)
2. The present participle cannot be used after another conjugated verb.
In a similar vein, if you want to say, “I like running,” you use the present tense followed by the infinitive and not the present participle, like so:
J’aime courir. (I like running.)
Construction of the Present Participle
For regular and most irregular verbs, the French present participle is formed by dropping -ons from the nous (first person plural personal pronoun, meaning “we”) form of the present tense and adding -ant. Let’s take a look, shall we?
The nous form of the verb parler (to talk) is parlons. If we drop the -ons and replace it with –ant, we get the present participle parlant (talking).
The nous form of the verb faire (to do, to make) is faisons. The present participle we get is faisant (doing).
The nous form of prendre (to take) is prenons. The present participle is prenant (taking).
To form the present participle with reflexive verbs, you simply keep the appropriate reflexive pronoun in front of the present participle.
For example, the verb se lever (to get up) has the present participle se levant (getting up). In the case of the first person singular, the present participle is me levant. In the second person singular, it’s te levant and so on.
Exceptions: The aforementioned formula applies to all verbs except for avoir (to have), être (to be) and savoir (to know). What would a French grammar lesson be without some exceptions?
The present participle of avoir is ayant (having).
The present participle of être is étant (being).
The present participle of savoir is sachant (knowing).
The Present Participle as a Verb or Gerund
The present participle can be used as a verb in two instances.
1. As that which modifies a noun.
Ayant peur, le bébé a pleuré. (Being afraid, the baby cried.)
The noun being modified is la peur (fear).
Sachant le risque, je suis resté(e) à la maison. (Knowing the risk, I stayed home.)
The noun being modified is le risque (the risk).
2. As a gerund.
Le gérondif (the gerund) follows the preposition en and it expresses an action related to the main verb. This en + present participle construction can be placed either at the beginning or end of a sentence. There are a couple instances in which the gerund is used in French:
- When describing an action that is related to and occurs at the same time as the action of the main verb. In this case, the gérondif translates to “while” or “upon.”
Carine mange en conduisant. (Carine eats while driving.)
The construction tout en (which roughly translates to “all the while”) can also be used as a way to further emphasize the simultaneity of two events, especially if they are somewhat contradictory, as in the above case:
Carine mange tout en conduisant. (Carine eats all the while driving.)
Honte à toi, Carine ! (Shame on you, Carine!)
- Explaining how or why something happens. In this case, the gérondif translates to “by”:
Charlotte a réussi en travaillant dur. (Charlotte succeeded by working hard.)
The Present Participle Instead of a Relative Clause
Relative clauses can accumulate rather quickly in French, so the present participle is a great way to change things up a bit.
Relative clauses are those which begin with the relative pronouns qui (who, what, which), que (whom, what, which, that), lequel (what, which, that), dont (of which, from which, that, whose), où (when, where, which, that) or puisque (since, because, as).
Les gens qui attendent le taxi ont froid. (The people who are waiting for a taxi are cold.)
Here, qui attendent can be replaced by attendant (waiting) to produce the construction:
Les gens attendant le taxi ont froid. (The people waiting for a taxi are cold.)
Here’s another one:
Les gens qui ont une voiture arrivent toujours en avance. (People who have a car always arrive early.)
In this sentence, qui ont can be replaced by ayant (having), leaving us with:
Les gens ayant une voiture arrivent toujours en avance. (Literally translates to “People having a car always arrive early,” but is understood to mean “People who have a car always arrive early.”)
The Present Participle as an Adjective
The present participle can also function as an adjective and therefore modify nouns. The rules of placement and agreement according to number and gender apply as usual.
Okay, what I’m about to say might blow your mind: Many of the French adjectives you probably already use are present participles. Let’s take a look.
- amusant (amusing)
The present participle and adjectival form of the verb amuser (to have fun) is amusant (amusing).
Je lis un livre amusant. (I’m reading an amusing book.)
- courant (running)
The present participle of the verb courir (to run) is courant (running).
La maison a de l’eau courante. (The house has running water.)
Note: Courant can also mean “current.”
- gagnant (winning)
The present participle of the verb gagner (to win) is gagnant (winning).
J’ai choisi le cheval gagnant. (I chose the winning horse.)
- intéressant (interesting)
The present participle of the verb intéresser (to interest) is intéressant (interesting).
J’ai regardé un film intéressant. (I watched an interesting film.)
And that’s not all! There are several other present participles that function as adjectives, where slight spelling changes take place. Let’s take a look at some examples of these present participles as adjectives that you’re bound to come across, broken up by ending.
- différent (different)
The present participle of différer (to differ) is différant (differing).
Present participle: Ella m’a apporté des pantalons différant l’un de l’autre. (She brought me pants differing from one another.)
Adjective: J’ai deux pantalons différents. (I have two different pants.)
- excellent (excellent)
The present participle of exceller (to excel) is excellant (excelling).
Present participle: Matthieu, un garçon excellant à l’école. (Matthieu, a boy excelling at school.)
Adjective: Passe une excellente journée. (Have an excellent day.)
- expédient (speedy)
The present participle of expédier (to finish quickly) is expédiant (rushing).
Present participle: En expédiant le travail Michel a commis des erreurs. (By rushing the work, Michel made mistakes.)
Adjective: J’ai fait un travail expédient. (I did a speedy job.)
Note: Expédier can also mean “to send.”
- précédent (preceding)
The present participle of précéder (to precede) is précédant (preceding).
Present participle: L’ordre des évènements précédant l’accident m’echappe. (The order of events preceding the accident escapes me.)
Adjective: J’ai préféré le film précédent. (I preferred the preceding film.)
- violent (violent)
The present participle of violer (to violate) is violant (violating).
Present participle: Michel a viré l’employé tout en violant ses principes fondamentaux. (Michel fired the employee all the while violating his fundamental principles.)
Adjective: Le film est violent. (The film is violent.)
- convaincant (convincing)
The present participle of convaincre (to convince) is convainquant (convincing).
Present participle: Marc a préparé le plat principal en convainquant sa femme de faire le dessert. (Marc prepared the main course while convincing his wife to make the dessert.)
Adjective: L’argument est convaincant. (The argument is convincing.)
- provocant (provocative)
The present participle of provoquer (to provoke, to cause) is provoquant (provoking, causing).
Present participle: La grippe est le résultat d’une bactérie provoquant une infection. (The flu is the result of a bacteria causing an infection.)
Adjective: Son argument est provocant. (His argument is provocative.)
- suffocant (suffocating)
The present participle of suffoquer (to suffocate) is suffoquant (suffocating).
Present participle: Il a toussé en suffoquant. (He coughed while suffocating.)
Adjective: La chaleur est suffocante. (The heat is suffocating.)
- extravagant (extravagant)
The present participle of extravaguer (to rave, to ramble) is extravaguant (raving, rambling).
Present participle: Il a gesticulé en extravaguant. (He gesticulated while rambling.)
Adjective: Marie porte une robe extravagant. (Marie is wearing an extravagant dress.)
- fatigant (tiresome)
The present participle of fatiguer (to tire) is fatiguant (tiring).
Present participle: Les enfants jouent en fatiguant leur mère. (The children play while tiring out their mother.)
Adjective: J’ai eu une journée fatigante. (I had a tiresome day.)
The Present Participle as a Noun
The present participle can also function as a noun in several instances.
- Un assistant (assistant) is derived from the present participle of the verb assister (to assist, to aid).
Note: Assister can also mean “to watch” or “to witness.”
- Un commerçant (shopkeeper) is derived from the present participle of the verb commercer (to trade).
- Un enseignant (teacher) is derived from the present participle of the verb enseigner (to teach).
- Un étudiant (student) is derived from the present participle of the verb étudier (to study).
- Un fabricant (manufacturer) is derived from the present participle of the verb fabriquer (to make, to produce, to build).
- Un gagnant (winner) is derived from the present participle of the verb gagner (to win).
- Un participant (participant) is derived from the present participle of the verb participer (to participate).
Getting the Most out of the Present Participle
Here are a few ways to practice and master the present participle in its various forms.
- Upping your verb game. Because the formation of the present participle follows a formula that has only a few exceptions, upping your verb game is an effective way to expand the number of tools with which to use it. The book “501 French Verbs” is a must-have in any French learner’s library along with a good dictionary (or dictionary app).
- Transcribing and/or transforming. Being active and learning go hand-in-hand. A great activity that you can try out to facilitate active learning is to transcribe a 30-second snippet of audio (dialogue from a French podcast or movie) and then transform it by using the present participle where applicable. Another idea is to simply transform a piece of written text from a book, online news site or magazine.
Follow these tips en travaillant dur (while working hard), and you’ll be used to the present participle in no time!