Le Participe Présent

French Present Participle. Illustration by Claire Cohen. © 2018 ThoughtCo.

The French present participle is the verb form that ends in -ant. It is far less common than its English counterpart, which ends in -ing. The French present participle may be an adjective, gerund, noun, or verb. Before getting into specific uses of the present participle, there are four things that French students need to know in order to avoid common mistakes:

  1. The French present participle can never be used to talk about what someone is doing. The construction "je suis mangeant" (the literal translation of "I am eating") simply does not exist in French - you must use the present tense: je mange. To emphasize the ongoing nature of an activity, you can use the French expression être en train de: je suis en train de manger - "I'm eating (right now).
  1. The French present participle cannot be used after another verb. "J'aime lisant" does not exist; to say "I like reading," you must use the infinitive: j'aime lire.
  2. The English usage of the present participle as a noun indicating an activity, as in "Seeing is believing," is another case in which the French translation requires the infinitive: Voir, c'est croire. Sometimes you can just use a noun; to translate "Reading is fun," you have two options: Lire est un plaisir, La lecture est un plaisir.
  3. As a verb or gerund, the present participle is invariable, except in the case of pronominal verbs, which keep the appropriate reflexive pronoun in front of the present participle: me coiffant (doing my hair), en nous levant (upon [us] getting up), etc.

Present Participle as a Verb or Gerund

When used as a verb, the French present participle expresses an action that is simultaneous with, but not necessarily related to, the action of the main verb.

There are two possible uses for this in French: to modify a noun or express an action that is related to the main verb.

1. Modify a noun:

Sachant le danger, je n'y suis pas allé.Knowing the danger, I didn't go.
Ayant faim, il a mangé tout le gâteau.Being hungry, he ate all of the cake.
Une fille, lisant un livre, est venue au café.A girl reading a book came to the café.
Je l'ai vu achetant des livres.I saw him buying some books.

2. Express an action that is related to the main verb.

This present participle, called le gérondif, or "gerund," nearly always follows the preposition en. It can serve three purposes:

 a) Describe an action that is related to and simultaneous with the action of the main verb, usually translated as "while" or "upon:"

Elle lisait en mangeant. She read while eating.
En voyant les fleurs, elle a pleuré.Upon seeing the flowers, she cried.
Il ne peut pas parler en travaillant.He can't talk while working.

 b) Explain how or why something happens, usually translated by "by":

C'est en pratiquant que vous le faites bien.It's by practicing that you do it well.
Elle a maigri en faisant beaucoup de sport.She got thin by exercising a lot.
En m'habillant vite, j'ai gagné 5 minutes.By getting dressed quickly, I saved 5 minutes.

c) Replace a relative clause:

les étudiants venant de l'Afrique (qui viennent de l'Afrique)students who come from Africa
les médecins parlant français (qui parlent français)doctors who speak French
les membres voulant partir (qui veulent partir)members wishing to leave

Present Participle vs. Gerund

The difference between A and B is that the present participle modifies a noun, whereas the gerund expresses something related to a verb.

This distinction is immediately apparent in the following examples:

  • J'ai vu Luc sortant de l'école.
    • I saw Luc leaving the school (I saw him as he was leaving)
    • > The noun Luc is modified, so sortant is the present participle.
  • J'ai vu Luc en sortant de l'école.
    • I saw Luc upon leaving the school (I saw him when I was leaving)
    • > The verb saw is modified, so en sortant is the gerund.

Present Participle As an Adjective or Noun

The French present participle is sometimes used as an adjective. Like other adjectives, the present participle used in this way usually follows the nouns it modifies and agrees with the noun in gender and number, following the normal rules of adjective agreement:

  • un film amusant
    an amusing movie
  • de l'eau courante
    running water
  • les numéros gagnants
    the winning numbers
  • des maisons intéressantes
    interesting houses


    The French present participle can sometimes be used as a noun, and again follows the normal gender/number rules for nouns.

    •    un assistant - assistant
    •    un commerçant - shopkeeper
    •    un enseignant - teacher
    •    un étudiant - student
    •    un fabricant* - manufacturer
    •    un gagnant - winner
    •    un participant - participant
    •    un savant* - scientist


    *Some verbs have different forms for the present participle used as a verb and as a noun or adjective

    Present Participle Conjugations

    The formation of the French present participle is very simple. For regular and all but three irregular verbs, the French present participle is formed by dropping -ons from the nous form of the present tense and adding -ant. The three exceptions are avoirêtre, and savoir.

    Remember that for pronominal verbs, you must keep the appropriate reflexive pronoun in front of the present participle: me coiffant (doing my hair), en nous levant (upon [us] getting up), etc.

    French present participles
    verbparlerfinirrendrevoiravoirêtresavoir
    nous formparlonsfinissonsrendonsvoyonsavonssommessavons
    present participleparlantfinissantrendantvoyantayantétantsachant*

    *Savoir and a number of other verbs have two different spellings for the present participle, depending on how they are used - some examples:
     
    spellingverbpresent participle adjective/noun
     
    adj. ends in -entafflueraffluantaffluent
     différerdifférantdifférent
     divergerdivergeantdivergent
     excellerexcellantexcellent
     expédierexpédiantexpédient
     précéderprécédantprécédent
     violerviolantviolent
     
    adj. ends in -cantcommuniquercommuniquantcommunicant
     convaincreconvainquantconvaincant
     fabriquerfabriquantfabricant
     provoquerprovoquantprovocant
     suffoquersuffoquantsuffocant
     
    adj. ends in -gant déléguerdéléguantdélégant
     extravaguerextravaguantextravagant
     fatiguerfatiguantfatigant
     intriguerintriguantintrigant
     naviguernaviguantnavigant
     
    irregularsavoirsachan

    savant