French grammar online

Modal verbs in French

About-France.com  - the connoisseur's guide to France 
About- France home page Visit France French  institutions Guide to Paris
About-France.com - the connoisseur's guide to France   - French life, institutions, society, travel and tourism.
French grammar
You are  here:   France   › French grammar Verbs ›  Modal verbs

 Modal verbs in French    

Page index:  Vouloir Pouvoir
Defining modal verbs:  A modal verb is a verb that qualifies an action with regard to its desirability, its necessity, its possibility or its futurity.

    While this is a clear and concise definition, it is an unsatisfactory definition which does not even fully account for all modal verbs in English. As far as French linguistics are concerned, it is often said that French does not have modal verbs.
   Whether or not this is the case is a matter of opinion, not  fact, and will always be a good subject for academic argument among linguists; in recent years, and by assimilation with English and other languages, the expression "verbes modaux" is increasingly used.

Comparing modal verbs in English and French
French has less modal verbs than English
While English has will, shall, may, might, must, ought to, have to, can and be able to,
French just has three modal verbs:  vouloir, pouvoir, devoir
to which can be added certain uses of savoir.
However these verbs have tenses which can modify their modality.
French does not use modal verbs to denote futurity, as this is done by means of the future tense and other mechanisms.

1.  Vouloir 

Vouloir is a  verb expressing wish, desire or intention.

Here are its main usages:
►  In the present tense it implies a definite wish  (Examples 1 & 2)
►  In the present perfect it can imply an unfulfilled/ wrongly fulfilled wish,(Examples 3 & 4) or a fulfilled wish (Example 5)
►  In the conditional it implies a hope or a potential wish. (Examples 6 - 8)

Click here For a full verb table of vouloir 

Present tense: 
    Singular: Je veux, tu veux, il/elle... veut
    Plural:  Nous voulons, vous voulez, ils veulent

1. Je veux partir maintenant.
        I want to leave now
2. Le capitaine veut savoir s'il y a un médecin à bord
        The captain wants to know if there's a doctor on board.
3. J'ai voulu ouvrir la boîte, mais je l'ai cassée.
        I wanted to open the box, but I broke it .
4. Il semble qu'il a voulu sortir par la cheminée.
        It looks as if he wanted to (was trying to) get out through the chimney.
5. J'ai voulu te faire une surprise !!.
        I wanted it to be a surprise for you !!.
6. Nous voudrions partir avant minuit.
        We'd like to leave before midnight. 7. Il voudrait savoir qui vous êtes.
       He'd like to know who you are.
8. Je pensais que vous voudriez aller au concert ce soir
        I thought you'd want to go to the concert this evening.

Other tenses: Future: je voudrai  –  Simple past:  je voulus  –  Passé composé: j'ai voulu
      Imperfect:  je voulais  –  conditional:  je voudrais  –  present subjunctive: je veule

2.  Pouvoir

Pouvoir expresses ability, corresponding to the English can or be able to.

Here are its most common usages.
►  In the present tense it implies a definite or potential ability  (Examples 1 & 2)
►  In the present perfect it normally implies a successfully accomplished action, and has the sense of the English "managed to (Examples 3 & 4)
►  In the imperfect it usually implies past ability (Examples 5 & 6)
!! Take care with the distinction in usage between the perfect and imperfect tenses of pouvoir
►  In the conditional it implies potential future possibility. (Examples 7 & 8)
►  In the future perfect, it expresses past action that may have occurred or has probably occurred (Examples 9 & 10)
►  In the past conditional, it expresses unfulfilled hypothetical possibility (Examples 11 & 12)

Reflexive use of pouvoir :
►  The English modal verb may is often expressed using the French expression
     Il se peut que ..... followed by a subjunctive.  (Examples 13 & 14)

Present tense: 
    Singular: Je peux or je puis, tu peux, il/elle... peut
    Plural:  Nous pouvons, vous pouvez, ils peuvent

Click here For a full verb table of pouvoir 

1. Tu ne peux pas fumer ici.
        You can't smoke here
 Nous pouvons aller au concert ce soir.

        We can go to the concert this evening.
3. J'ai pu (=success) ouvrir la boîte, mais je l'ai cassée.
        I was able to open the box , but I broke it .
4. Il semble qu'il a pu sortir par la cheminée.
        It looks as if he was able to get out through the chimney.
5. Dans ma jeunesse je pouvais  (= ability) porter 50 kg. !!.
        In my youth I could carry 50 kilograms !!.
6. Les policiers ne pouvaient pas faire comme ils voulaient
        The policement were not able to do as they pleased.  
Il pourrait parler anglais s'il faisait un effort.
       He could speak English if he tried.
8. Nous pourrions aller au concert ce soir
        We could to go to the concert this evening.
9. Il aura pu se mettre à l'abri quelque part.
       He may have found shelter somewhere.
10. Il aura pu se mettre à l'abri quelque part. (second meaning)
        He will have been able to find shelter somewhere.
11. Il aurait pu être bloqué par la grève à l'aeroport.
       H could have been blocked by the strike at the airport.
12. Vous auriez pu vous tuer !!
        You could have killed yourselves !!
Il se peut qu'ils soient bloqués par la grève à l'aeroport.
       They may be blocked by the strike at the airport.
14. Il se peut qu'on aille au concert ce soir.
        We may go  to the concert this evening.

Sometimes French uses savoir instead of pouvoir to express acquired ability
1. Mon frère sait parler quatre langues.
        My brother can speak four languages

Other tenses: Future: je pourrai  –  Simple past:  je pus  –  Passé composé: j'ai pu
      Imperfect:  je pouvais  –  conditional:  je pourrais  –  present subjunctive: je puisse.

3.  Devoir

Click here For a full verb table of devoir
Devoir expresses obligation, corresponding to the English must, have to, should or ought to. The specific meaning is specified by a combination of tense and context.

►  In the present tense, devoir corresponds to the English must / have to in most of their meanings; both formal obligation (e.g. You must stop that) and probablilty (It must be ten midnight by now).   See examples 1 & 2 below

The most confusing points about uses of devoir concern past tenses.
►   The perfect or composite past of devoir ( e.g. il a dû) has two quite different meanings, corresponding either to had to or to must have. See examples 3 & 4 below. Logic and context will usually remove any possible ambiguity; for instance, it is very unlikely that Hier j'ai dû acheter un parapluie would mean Yesterday I must have bought an umbrella - unless the speaker suffers from amnesia.

►  The imperfect tense of devoir (e.g. il devait)  has three possible meanings; it can be used in the sense of had to, or less commonly in the sense of must have. Occasionally it used as a shorter alternative to the past conditional in the sense of ought to have  See examples 5 & 6 below

► Used in conditional tenses, 
devoir implies recommendation or partial obligation, and has the meaning of should / ought to.  See examples 7 & 8 below.
►Spelling point: the past participle masculine (the normal form) of devoir is spelt , with a circumflex accent. The feminine form (when needed) is spelt with no circumflex, i.e. due.

Present tense: 
    Singular: Je dois, tu dois, il/elle... doit
    Plural:  Nous devons, vous devez, ils doivent

1. Vous devez arrêter le moteur maintenant.
        You must stop the engine now.
2. Il fait nuit noire! Il doit être au moins minuit.
        It's pitch dark; it must be at least midnight by now.
3.  Il n'y a aucun bruit, il a dû arrêter le moteur maintenant .
     or:  ....   il doit avoir arrêté le moteur maintenant
        There's no noise; he must have stopped the engine now.
4. Il y avait une fuite d'huile, donc il a dû arrêter le moteur.
        There was an oil leak, so he had to stop the engine.
5.  Nous devions être à Paris pour une réunion samedi dernier.
        We had to be in Paris for a meeting last Saturday.  or
        We must have been in Paris for a meeting last Saturday,
6.  Nous devions être à Paris pour une réunion , mais nous n'y étions pas.
     or:  ....   Nous aurions dû être à Paris ......
        We should have been in Paris for a meeting , but we weren't
7.  Si vous avez tout bien appris, vous ne devriez pas avoir de problème.
        If you've learned it all well, you shouldn't have any problem.
8.  Nous aurions dû prendre un parapluie.
        We ought to have brought an umbrella.

Reminder: Context and logic are normally sufficient to clarify which of  different meanings of devoir is implied, when more than one interpretation is possible .

Other tenses: Future: je devrai  –  Simple past:  je dus  –  Passé composé: j'ai dû
      Imperfect:  je devais  –  conditional:  je devrais  –  present subjunctive: je doive.

Copyright © About-France.com

Printer-friendly page
Map of France

►► French civilisation and culture
The regions of France
Maps of France
France facts and figures
The French political system
The French economy
The French legal system
Education in France
Health care in France
Religion in France
The press in France
French art
A-Z Dictionary of France
►► Site guide
About-France.com home
Full site index
About-France.com site search
►► Principal chapters on About-France.com :
The regions of France
Beyond Paris, a guide to the French regions and their tourist attractions.
Guide to Paris
Make the most of your trip to Paris; Information on attractions, Paris hotels, transport,  and lots more. 
Tourism in France
The main tourist attractions and places to visit in France - historic monuments, art galleries, seasides, and more
Planning a trip to France 
Information on things to do before starting your trip to France..
Driving in France 
Tips and useful information on driving in and through France - motorways, tolls, where to stay....
Maps of France
Cities, towns, departments, regions, climate, wine areas and other themes.
The French way of life 
A mine of information about life and living in France, including working in France, living in France, food and eating, education, shopping.
A-Z dictionary of France
Encyclopedic dictionary of modern France - key figures, institutions, acronyms, culture, icons, etc.

Compare Paris passes

Le Puy
11th century chapel of St Michel de l'Aiguilhe in Le Puy en Velay
Copyright © About-France.com  2003 - 2021

We respect your privacy. About-France.com does not collect any data from users. Cookies are used to enable interactivity and a few advertisements. To remove this message, click or get more details