Using Infinitive Verbs in French

Instructor: Emily France

Emily has experience teaching English and French and has a master's degree in International Studies

In this lesson, we will learn about infinitive verbs in French, including what an infinitive verb is, the five main contexts in which infinitives are used, and where to place them in a sentence.

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.)

Victor has to do his homework before going to Elises house.

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.)

Elise likes to go to the movie theater and watch movies.

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.)

The recipe says: Finely chop the herbs.

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).

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