Forms of the infinitive
is the absolute and
impersonal form of a verb. French verbs have just one form of the
basic infinitive, ending in -er, -ir
eat or to eat
It is this form that is used to reference each verb in dictionaries.
(English, by comparison, has two forms of the infinitive, the full
infinitive with to
, and the short infintive without
There is also a secondary form of the infinitive, the past
, formed with the infinitie of the verb être
followed by the past
participle of the main verb.
mangé = to have eaten
Uses of the infinitive
The infinitive is found as a subordinate verb (following a first verb)
or as a noun.
1.1. The infinitive as a subordinate verb
This is the most common use of the infinitive. A number of common verbs
in French, such as aimer, vouloir,
détester, pouvoir, souhaiter
, can be
followed directly with a verb complement in the infinitive, as in
écouter la musique - I like listening to music.
Il doit aller à Paris
demain - He has to go to Paris tomorrow
Est-ce que vous savez lire le
grec? - Can you read Greek ? (Do you know how to read
With certain other verbs such as demander,
chercher, commencer, insister
, the verbal
complement is introduced by the proposition à
commencé à réviser - He's
With other verbs, such as oublier
complement is introduced by the preposition de
oublié de fermer la fenêtre. - I
forgot to shut the window
décidé de prendre le train du soir.
-They decided to take the evening train.
Avez-vous essayé de le
refaire? - Did you try to do it again?
There are also a few verbs, such as finir
after which the verbal complement can be introduced by one of two
different prepositions, depending on the meaning.
fini de lire le livre. - He's finished reading the book.
Il a fini par lire le livre.
- He ended up reading the book.
1.2. The infinitive as verb in a subordinate clause
Occasionally the infinitive is used as the verb of a subordinate clause
in which the subject of the subordinate clause is the object of the
main clause. This structure is the equivalent, or contraction, of a
l'enfant tomber à l'eau. - I saw the child fall
in the water ( = J'ai vu l'enfant. L'enfant est
tombé à l'eau, or J'ai vu
l'enfant qui tombait à l'eau.)
Il m'a regardé faire
vaisselle. - He watched me do the washing up.
2. The infinitive used as a noun
French differs from English, insofar as the infinitive is the only
form of the verb that can be used
as a noun . Unlike English, French does not
use the present participle as a noun form of a verb.
The infinitive is used as
noun, but not like
a noun. Since
it remains a verb, it cannot take an article, and cannot be
qualified by an adjective. It can, on the other hand, be qualified by
an adverb or followed by an object.
c'est croire. - Seeing is believing.
Etre ou ne pas être.
- To be or not to be.
Bien manger est bon pour la
santé. - Eating well is good for one's health.
Trop boire d'alcool est mauvais
santé. - Drinking too much alcohol is bad for
In just a few cases, verbal infinitives have taken on the quality of
nouns, and can thus be preceeded by an article, and be the subject or
object of a sentence.
savoir faire. - Skills, or knowing how to do things.
Le franc parler. -
Speaking frankly, straight talk.
Son franc parler est parfois un
His frank way of speaking is sometimes an advantage.
But for most verbs, the true noun form is different: descendre
/ une descente, conduire / la conduite, commencer / le
commencement, naître / la naissance.