French Verbs of Perception and Sensation: How to Use Them

Perception verbs follow their own rules of word order and agreement.

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Introduction to French Verbs of Perception and Sensation

French verbs of perception are verbs that, logically enough, indicate a perception or sensation. There are six common French verbs of perception:

  •    apercevoir > to catch a glimpse of
  •    écouter > to listen to
  •    entendre > to hear
  •    regarder > to watch
  •    sentir > to feel
  •    voir > to see

Verbs of perception and sensation may be followed by a noun or an infinitive. Note that in this construction, the French infinitive following the verb of perception is often translated into English as a present participle.
For example:

   J'aperçois un arbre.
   
I see (a glimpse of) a tree.

   J'aperçois tomber un arbre.
   
I see (a glimpse of) a tree falling.

   J'écoute les enfants.
   
I'm listening to the children.

   J'écoute parler les enfants.
   
I'm listening to the children talking.

   J'entends les étudiants.
   I hear the students.
   J'entends arriver les étudiants.
   I hear the students arriving.

   Je regarde l'équipe.
   I'm watching the team.

   Je regarde jouer l'équipe.
   I'm watching the team play.

   Je sens le vent.
   I feel the wind.
   Je sens souffler le vent.
   I feel the wind blowing.

   Je vois le chien.
   I see the dog.
   Je vois courir le chien.
   I see the dog running. 

Word Order With Verbs of Perception

Word order with French verbs of perception depends on whether the infinitive has a subject and/or object and whether these are nouns or pronouns. How do you know whether the noun or pronoun that precedes the verb is the subject or the direct object?

If the noun or pronoun is the person or thing performing the action of the infinitive, it is the subject of the infinitive. If the person or pronoun is not performing the action but rather is being performed by the infinitive, it is the direct object.

1. When the infinitive has either a subject pronoun or object pronoun, it must be placed in front of the main verb.

Subject

   J'entends les enfants arriver.
   (I hear the children arriving.)
   Je les entends arriver.

   Je regarde la fille écrire.
   (I see the girl writing.)
   Je la regarde écrire.

Object

   J'entends lire l'histoire.
   (I hear the story being read.)
   Je l'entends lire.

   Je vois coudre une robe.
   (I see the dress being sewn.)
   Je la vois coudre.
2. If the infinitive has a non-pronoun direct object and no subject, it must be placed after the infinitive.

   J'entends lire l'histoire.
   (I hear the story being read.)

   Je vois coudre une robe.
   (I see the dress being sewn.)

   Je regarde nettoyer la chambre.
   (I'm watching the room being cleaned.)

3. If the infinitive has a non-pronoun subject and no object, the subject can be placed either before or after the infinitive.

   J'entends les enfants arriver.
   J'entends arriver les enfants.
   (I hear the children arriving.)

   Je regarde la fille écrire.
   Je regarde écrire la fille.
   (I'm watching the girl write.)

   Je sens le vent souffler.
   Je sens souffler le vent.
   (I feel the wind blowing.)

4. If the infinitive has a non-pronoun subject as well as an object, you must place the subject in front of the infinitive and the object after it.

   J'entends les enfants casser le jouet.
   (I hear the children breaking the toy.)

   Je regarde le monsieur écrire une lettre.
   (I'm watching the man write a letter.)

   Je sens le vent caresser ma peau.
   (I feel the wind caressing my skin.)

5. If the subject is a pronoun (a.), it precedes the conjugated verb. If the object is a pronoun (b.), it precedes the infinitive.

   a. Je les entends casser le jouet.
   (I hear them breaking the toy.)
   b. J'entends les enfants le casser.
   (I hear the children breaking it.)

   a. Je le regarde écrire une lettre.
   (I'm watching him write a letter.)
   b. Je regarde un monsieur l'écrire.
   (I'm watching a man write it.)

   a. Je le sens caresser ma peau.
   (I feel it caressing my skin.)
   b. Je sens le vent la caresser.
   (I feel the wind caressing it.)

6. If both the subject and object are pronouns, you must place the subject in front of the main verb and the object after it.

   Je les entends le casser.
   (I hear them breaking it.)

   Je le regarde l'écrire.
   (I'm watching him write it.)

   Je le sens la caresser
   (I feel it caressing it.)

Agreement With Verbs of Perception

The rules of agreement for verbs of perception in the compound tenses are a bit different than for other verbs. Rather than agreeing with the direct object, as for most verbs conjugated with avoir in the compound tenses, verbs of perception only require agreement when the subject precedes the verb. How do you know whether the noun or pronoun that precedes the verb is the subject or the direct object?

If it is the person or thing performing the action of the infinitive, it is the subject of the infinitive and follows agreement rule 1 below.

If it is not performing the action but rather is being performed on by the infinitive, it is the direct object and follows rule 2 below.

1. If the subject of the infinitive precedes the verb of perception, there is agreement:

   J'ai vu tomber la fille.
   I saw the girl fall.
   La fille que j'ai vue tomber.
   Je l'ai vue tomber.

   J'ai regardé les enfants écrire.
   I watched the children write.
   Les enfants que j'ai regardés écrire.
   Je les ai regardés écrire.

   J'ai entendu arriver les étudiants.
   I watched the students arrive.
   Les étudiants que j'ai entendus arriver.
   Je les ai entendus arriver.

2. There is no agreement with the direct object of the infinitive.

   J'ai vu les enfants écrire les lettres.
(Enfants is the subject; lettres is the direct object. Even if we leave out enfantslettres is still the direct object, so there is no agreement.)
   J'ai vu écrire les lettres.
   I saw the letters get written
   Les lettres que j'ai vu écrire.
   Je les ai vu écrire.

   J'ai entendu le monsieur lire une histoire.
(Monsieur is the subject; histoire is the direct object.)
   J'ai entendu lire une histoire
   I heard a story get read.
   L'histoire que j'ai entendu lire.
   Je l'ai entendu lire.

   J'ai écouté une fille chanter les cantiques.
(Fille is the subject; cantiques is the direct object.)
   J'ai écouté chanter les cantiques.
   I listened to the hymns (get) sung.
   Les cantiques que j'ai écouté chanter.
   Je les ai écouté chanter.