French Present Participle

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

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.

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”)…

  1. I am singing – singing is a present participle used as part of a present continuous formation
  2. Running water – running is a present participle used as an adjective
  3. 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)

  1. I am closing = je ferme (présent)
  2. I was closing = je fermais (imparfait).
  3. 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:

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.

  1. En voyant la photo, elle a pleuré 
    Upon seeing the picture, she cried
  2. Je ne peux pas écouter de la musique en travaillant
    I cannot listen to music while working
  3. 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.

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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!

  1. un film amusant (adjective coming from the verb amuser) – an amusing movie
  2. un étudiant (noun coming from the verb étudier) – a student

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.

  1. chanter = chantant
  2. finir = finissant
  3. voir = voyant
  4. 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!)

  1. avoir = ayant
  2. être = étant
  3. savoir = sachant

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:

  1. I love to read = J’aime lire (conjugated verb + infinitive)
  2. 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:

  1. La danse, c’est la vie. (nouns)
  2. 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.

We Avoid the Present Participle in Spoken French

If French literature often uses the present participle, the fact is that we don’t use it all this much in spoken French. It makes the sentence too formal, gives it a ‘heavy’ style. So, we avoid it.

For example, instead of saying :

Regardez les vagues se brisant sur les rochers
Look at the waves crashing on rocks

I’m much more likely to say

Regardez les vagues qui se brisent sur les rochers
Look at the waves which crash/ crashing on rocks

This is exactly why it is important that you carefully select your sources to learn French. If reading French literature is mentally rewarding, it may not be the best tool to learn French to communicate in everyday life.

You need to get acquainted with the way French people really speak. I suggest you check out my French audiobooks featuring realistic dialogues and everyday French vocabulary and sentence structure to learn authentic spoken French.

Good luck with your French studies, and remember, repetition is the key!

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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