French Infinitive: L'infinitif

What is the infinitive of a verb and how is it used?

Couple dancing
"J'aime danser." (I like to dance.). Hero Images / Getty Images

The infinitive is the basic, unconjugated form of a verb, sometimes called the name of the verb. In English, the infinitive is the word "to" followed by a verb: to talk, to see, to return. The French infinitive is a single word with one of the following endings: -er, -ir, or -re: parler, voir, rendre. We usually learn French verbs in the infinitive, since that is what you start with in order to conjugate them.

The French infinitive can be used several different ways without any conjugation. Note that it is often translated as the English present participle.

1. As a noun - the subject or object of a sentence

   Voir, c'est croire.
   Seeing is believing.

   Apprendre le japonais n'est pas facile.
   Learning Japanese isn't easy.

2. After a preposition (see verbs with prepositions)

   Il essaie de te parler.
   He is trying to talk to you.

   C'est difficile à croire.
   It's hard to believe.

   Sans être indiscret...
   Without meaning to pry...

3. After a conjugated verb (see the lesson on dual-verb constructions)

   J'aime danser.

   I like to dance.

   Nous voulons manger.
   We want to eat.

   Je fais laver la voiture (causative)
   I'm having the car washed.

4. In place of the imperative for impersonal commands (as in instructions or warnings) - learn more

   Mettre toujours la ceinture de sécurité.
   Always wear (your) seatbelt.

   Ajouter les oignons à la sauce.
   Add the onions to the sauce.

5. In place of the subjunctive when the main clause has

 - the same subject as the subordinate clause

   J'ai peur que je ne réussisse pas. > J'ai peur de ne pas réussir.
   I'm afraid of not succeeding.

   Il est content qu'il le fasse. > Il est content de le faire.
   He's happy to be doing it.

 - an impersonal subject (if the subject is implied)

   Il faut que vous travailliez. > Il faut travailler.
   It's necessary to work (for you to work).

   Il est bon que tu y ailles. > Il est bon d'y aller.
   It's good to go (for you to go).

Word order with the infinitive is a bit different from conjugated verbs: everything goes directly in front of the infinitive.

1) Object pronounsreflexive pronouns, and adverbial pronouns always precede the infinitive.

   Tu dois y aller.
   You have to go (there).

   Fermer la fenêtre. > La fermer.
   Close the window. > Close it.

   Il faut te lever.
   You must get up.

2) Both parts of the negative adverb precede the infinitive.

   Ne pas ouvrir la fenêtre.
   Don't open the window.

   Ne jamais laisser un enfant seul.
   Never leave child unattended.

3) When you have both of the above, the negative adverb precedes any pronouns:

   Ne pas l'ouvrir.
   Don't open it.

   Ne jamais le laisser seul.
   Never leave him unattended.