The French Present Participle

Did you know there’s such a thing as a present participle in French?

We’re not talking about some kind of special award to thank you for your participation in learning the language.

Even more confusingly, we’re not just talking about the French present tense, either. 

Forming the French present participle is a cinch, but you need to be aware of some key differences between French and English if you’re going to handle it well.

Once you 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?

You can think of the present participle as a kind of grammatical loyalty bonus.

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)—the last two 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.

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 be aware that the French present participle isn’t used as frequently as the 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?

VerbNous FormPresent Participle
parler (to talk) parlons parlant (talking)
faire (to do, to make) faisons faisant (doing)
prendre (to take) prenons 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).

Here’s how these verbs would be conjugated:

Exceptions: The aforementioned formula applies to all verbs except for the following. What would a French grammar lesson be without some exceptions?

VerbNous FormPresent Participle
avoir (to have) avons ayant (having)
être (to be) sommes étant (being)
savoir (to know) savons sachant (knowing)

The Present Participle as a Noun Modifier

The present participle can be used as a noun modifier. For example:

Example SentenceNoun Being Modified
Ayant peur, le bébé a pleuré. (Being afraid, the baby cried.) la peur (fear)
Sachant le risque, je suis resté(e) à la maison.  (Knowing the risk, I stayed home.) le risque (the risk)

The Present Participle 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 of instances in which the gerund is used in French:

  • When describing an action 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:

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 following relative pronouns:

Relative PronounTranslation
qui who, what, which
que whom, what, which, that
lequel what, which, that
dont of which, from which, that, whose
when, where, which, that
puisque since, because, as

Here’s an example:

Les gens qui attendent le taxi ont froid. (The people who are waiting for a taxi are cold.)

Here, qui attendent (who are waiting) 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 (who have) 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. 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.

-ant adjectives

VerbNous FormPresent Participle / AdjectiveExample Sentence
amuser (to have fun) amusons amusant (amusing) Je lis un livre amusant.  (I'm reading an amusing book.)
courir (to run) courons courant (running) La maison a de l'eau courante.  (The house has running water.)

Note: courante can also mean "current."
gagner (to win) gagnons gagnant (winning) J'ai choisi le cheval gagnant.  (I chose the winning horse.)
intéresser (to interest) intéressons 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 you’re bound to come across, broken up by ending.

-ent adjectives

AdjectiveExample SentenceVerbNous FormPresent ParticipleExample Sentence
différent (different) J'ai deux pantalons différents.  (I have two different pants.) différer (to differ) différons différant (differing) Elle m'a apporté des pantalons différant l'un de l'autre.  (She brought me pants differing from one another.)
excellent (excellent) Passe une excellente journée. (Have an excellent day.) exceller (to excel) excellons excellant (excelling) Matthieu, un garçon excellant à l'école. (Matthieu, a boy excelling at school.)
expédient (speedy) Ils expédient le travail. (They quickly finish the work.) expédier (to finish quickly; to send) expédions expédiant (rushing) En expédiant le travail Michel a commis des erreurs.  (By rushing the work, Michel made mistakes.)
précédent (preceding) J'ai préféré le film précédent. (I preferred the preceding film.) précéder (to precede) précédons précédant (preceding) L'ordre des évènements précédant l'accident m'échappe.  (The order of events preceding the accident escapes me.)
violent (violent) Le film est violent. (The film is violent.) violer (to violate) violons violant (violating) Michel a viré l'employé tout en violant ses principes fondamentaux. (Michel fired the employee all the while violating his fundamental principles.)

-cant adjectives

AdjectiveExample SentenceVerbNous FormPresent ParticipleExample Sentence
convaincant (convincing) L'argument est convaincant. (The argument is convincing.) convaincre  (to convince) convainquons convainquant  (convincing) 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.)
provocant (provocative) Son argument est provocant.  (His argument is provocative.) provoquer (to provoke, to cause) provoquons provoquant (provoking, causing) La grippe est le résultat d'une bactérie provoquant une infection. (The flu is the result of a bacteria causing an infection.)
suffocant (suffocating) La chaleur est suffocante. (The heat is suffocating.) suffoquer (to suffocate) suffoquons suffoquant (suffocating) Il a toussé en suffoquant. (He coughed while suffocating.)

-gant adjectives

AdjectiveExample SentenceVerbNous FormPresent ParticipleExample Sentence
extravagant (extravagant) Marie porte une robe extravagante. (Marie is wearing an extravagant dress.) extravaguer (to rave, to ramble) extravaguons extravaguant (raving, rambling) Il a gesticulé en extravaguant.  (He gesticulated while rambling.)
fatigant (tiresome) J'ai eu une journée fatigante.  (I had a tiresome day.) fatiguer (to tire) fatiguons fatiguant (tiring) Les enfants jouent en fatiguant leur mère.  (The children play while tiring out their mother.)

The Present Participle as a Noun

The present participle can also function as a noun in several instances.

VerbNous FormPresent Participle / Noun
assister (to assist, to aid)

Note: assister can also mean "to watch" or "to witness"
assistons assistant (assistant)
commercer (to trade) commerçons commerçant (shopkeeper)
enseigner (to teach) enseignons enseignant (teacher)
étudier (to study) étudions étudiant (student)
fabriquer (to make, produce or build) fabriquons fabricant (manufacturer)
gagner (to win) gagnons gagnant (winner)
participer (to participate) participons participant (participant)

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Getting the Most out of the Present Participle

Here are a few ways to practice and master the present participle in its various forms.

  • Up your verb game. Because the formation of the present participle follows a formula that only has 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).
  • Transcribe and/or transform. Being active and learning go hand-in-hand. A great activity 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 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!

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