If the French present participle (le participe présent) is easy to form, it’s used much less in French than it is in English. Let me explain.
The French present participle is difficult to explain to an English speaker. Well, this French tense construction is actually easy to explain, since it’s fairly regular. However, we don’t use the present participle in French nearly as much as you use it in English.
Le Participe Présent = the present participle
Il chante en marchant.
He is singing while he is walking.
What is this “ant” ending? And what is this “en” doing here ? It doesn’t look like the French pronoun en !!
“En marchant” is a tense: the French “participe présent”, the “present participle” in English.
1 – French Present Participle – Usage in English and in French
In English, the present participle is the ING form of a verb, and it is mostly used in the progressive verb constructions, but also as an adjective, a noun (it’s then called “a gerund”)…
- I am singing – singing is a present participle used as part of a present continuous formation
- Running water – running is a present participle used as an adjective
- Good thinking – thinking is a present participle/ gerund used as a noun
In French, as repeated over and over in my audiobook series A Moi Paris, the progressive/continuous form simply doesn’t exist. We use a simple verb form (or the expression “être en train de” + verb in the infinitive)
- I am closing = je ferme (présent)
- I was closing = je fermais (imparfait).
- I was (in the middle of) closing = j’étais en train de fermer – use “être en train de” if you really want to say you were in the middle of it, but don’t use it each time you use a progressive form in English: it would sound terrible in French!
In French, the present participle is quite rare. We use it in the following situtations:
2 – French Present Participle – Simultaneous Actions
In French, to express an action that is simultaneous with, but not necessarily related to the action of the main verb (the notions of ‘upon’, ‘while’, ‘by’ in English), we use the construction EN + verb in the present participle.
- En voyant la photo, elle a pleuré – Upon seeing the picture, she cried.
- Je ne peux pas écouter de la musique en travaillant – I cannot listen to music while working.
- J’ai perdu trois kilos en arrêtant de manger du pain – I lost 3 kilos by quitting eating bread.
This is the most straightfoward use of the present participle in French. Note that the present participle is explained with many examples, and then illustrated by a story with audio in my French audiobook learning method À Moi Paris L5, chapter 7.
3 – French Present Participle Used as a Noun or an Adjective
We may also sometimes use a present participle as a noun or an adjective. You wouldn’t know you are using a present participle unless you studied grammar!
- un film amusant (adjective coming from the verb amuser) – an amusing movie
- un étudiant (noun coming from the verb étudier) – a student
4 – French Present Participle – Formation
To form the present participle in French, you take the “nous” form of the présent tense, remove the “ons” ending and add “ant” to it. The T is silent.
- chanter = chantant
- finir = finissant
- voir = voyant
- boire = buvant
The verb stem will be the same as the imperfect stem since it’s based on the same logic (present “nous” form without the “ons”).
And of course, there are some irregular ones (only three… not too bad!)
- avoir = ayant
- être = étant
- savoir = sachant
5 – Difficulties of the French Present Participle
Honestly, I find it extremely difficult to explain how to use the French present participle thoroughly to an English speaker, probably because it is so common in English, so rare in French. There are so many cases when you could use a present participle or a gerund in English, but you cannot use a present participle in French.
Let me point out things to watch out for:
A. There are no progressive forms in French.
So be on your guard when you see a verb in ING in English. This doesn’t mean you’ll have a present participle in French. You cannot just translate the verb form…. Chances are that you would actually be using a “progressive” construction in English (I am / was / will be singing…) which doesn’t translate word by word in French as I explained thoroughly in my article French mistake: watch out for the ING constructions.
Right now, I am singing = maintenant, je chante
(or maybe “je suis en train de chanter” if you really want to insist that you are in the middle of it. But don’t use it all the time you translate a progressive construction, it would sound silly in French…)
B. Infinitive construction
In French, when two verbs follow each other, the second one must be in the infinitive:
I love reading. “J’aime lisant” is not possible in French. So you have two possible translations:
- I love to read = J’aime lire (conjugated verb + infinitive)
- I love reading = j’aime la lecture (use a noun in French).
C. Particular cases
Sentences such as “dancing is living” are tough to translate.
French would use a noun or an infinitive:
- La danse, c’est la vie. (nouns)
- Danser, c’est vivre. (infinitives)
So the translation is not set in stone, it’s often a question of what “sounds” better to a French person.
Voilà. I hope this helps. If you have suggestions on how to better this lesson, please send me an email at Camille at Frenchtoday dot com, since as I said, I find it hard to explain the present participle in French to an English speaker. In my opinion, the best way is to developp a feel for it as you see it being used (or not used!) in context.
Good luck with your French studies, and remember, repetition is the key!