Emily has experience teaching English and French and has a master's degree in International Studies
Introduction to Infinitive Verbs
Victor has just made a new friend at school named Elise, and they are asking each other questions about the things they like:
Victor: Qu'est-ce que tu aimes faire? (What do you like to do?)
Elise: J'aime regarder les films au cinéma et jouer au foot. Et toi? (I like to watch movies and play soccer. And you?)
Victor: J'aime écouter de la musique et je commence à apprendre la guitare. (I like to listen to music, and I'm beginning to learn the guitar.)
Elise: C'est génial! J'ai envie de manger. Veux-tu venir chez moi pour prendre un goûter? (That's great! I feel like eating. Do you want to come to my house to have a snack?)
Victor: D'accord, mais je dois d'abord finir mes devoirs. (Okay, but I have to finish my homework first.)
As Victor and Elise's conversation shows, infinitive verbs are a common occurrence in French, and there are numerous contexts in which they're used. First, let's discuss what an infinitive verb is. Basically, the infinitive is the complete, un-conjugated form of a verb. In French, infinitive verbs always end in either er, re, or ir. The infinitive form of a verb in French translates roughly as 'to + verb' in English. To take some examples from the above dialogue:
- jouer (zhoo-ay, to play)
- prendre (prahn-druh, to take/pick up/grab)
- finir (fee-neer, to finish)
When to Use Infinitive Verbs in French
Now that we've established what an infinitive verb is, let's go over the situations in which you would use this common verb form:
Following a Verb
Infinitives are often placed directly after a conjugated verb, similar to how one would use an infinitive in English. For instance, Elise told Victor: j'aime regarder les films (I like to watch movies), with regarder (ruh-gahr-day) being the infinitive. Here are some other examples of an infinitive following a verb:
- J'aime étudier le français. (I like to study French.)
- Tu dois être fatigué. (You must be/have to be tired.)
After a Preposition
Infinitive verbs are also sometimes placed after a preposition, the most common being de (duh, of/from) and à (ah, to/at). The preposition preceding the infinitive usually follows another verb, an adjective, or a noun. For example, Victor says: Je commence à apprendre la guitare (I am beginning to learn the guitar). This is an instance in which the infinitive 'apprendre' (ah-prahn-druh) is preceded by a conjugated verb (commence) and a preposition (à). As a further example, Elise says: J'ai envie de manger (I feel like eating, literally: I have want/desire to eat). Here, the infinitive manger (mahn-zhay) follows a noun (envie) and the preposition de.
As a Command
In addition, infinitive verbs are sometimes used in place of the imperative form in formal, impersonal contexts, such as recipes or instructions. Below are a few examples to demonstrate how infinitive verbs can be used as commands:
- Faire brouiller de l'eau, (Boil the water.)
- Émincer l'ail. (Mince the garlic.)
- Mettre toujours la ceinture de sécurité. (Always wear a seatbelt.)
As a Replacement for the Subjunctive Tense
Infinitive verbs are also used to replace the subjunctive verb tense, as long as one of two conditions are met:
- The main clause and the subordinate clause have the same subject. For instance, instead of je veux que j'aille au supermarché (I want me to go to the supermarket), you would say je veux aller au supermarché (I want to go to the supermarket).
- When there's an impersonal subject and the subject is implied. For example, you could use the infinitive to say il faut faire les devoirs (it's necessary to do your homework) instead of il faut que tu fasses les devoirs (it's necessary for you to do your homework).
As the Object/Subject of a Sentence
On rare occasions, an infinitive verb can also be a noun, as either the subject or object in a given sentence. For example:
- Apprendre le français est facile. (Learning French is easy.)
- Voir, c'est croire. (Seeing is believing.)
Where to Put an Infinitive Verb
Another thing to consider when using infinitives in French is where to place them in a sentence. Luckily, this is pretty simple: object pronouns and reflexive pronouns are placed before the verb when in infinitive form. As an example, instead of je commence à apprendre la guitare (I'm beginning to learn the guitar), Victor could say je commence à l'apprendre (I'm beginning to learn it).
Negative adverbs go before the infinitive too. For instance, you may see ne pas fumer (no smoking) signs in France.
When using both an object pronoun and a negative adverb, the negative adverb precedes both the pronoun and the infinitive, as in ne pas l'ouvrir (do not open it).
The infinitive is the full, unconjugated form of a verb, like parler (pahr-lay, to talk/speak), faire (fayr, to do/make), and ouvrir (oov-reer, to open). This verb form is used in a variety of contexts. To help you remember, here are the five main instances in which infinitive verbs are used:
- Following a conjugated verb
- After a preposition
- As an impersonal command
- As a replacement for the subjunctive tense
- As the subject or object of a sentence
Object pronouns and negative adverbs always precede the infinitive, so remembering where to put infinitive verbs in a sentence is pretty straightforward. These tools should help you when using French infinitive verbs in your own conversations.
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