How to Use the Major French Verb Vouloir

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The French verb vouloir means "to want" or "to wish." It is one of the 10 most common French verbs and you will use it just as much as avoir and être. It has several different meanings, depending on the tense and mood, and it's the driving element in numerous idiomatic expressions.

Vouloir is also an irregular verb, which means that you will need to memorize the conjugation because it doesn't rely on a common pattern.

Don't worry, though, we'll discuss everything you need to know about vouloir.

Vouloir and Politeness

The French verb vouloir is frequently used to politely ask for something in French.

  • Je voudrais téléphoner s'il vous plaît. - I would like to make a phone call, please.
  • Voulez-vous m'aider, s'il vous plaît ? - Will you help me, please?
  • Veux-tu t'asseoir, s'il te plaît ? - Please sit down.
  • Voulez-vous venir avec moi? - Do you want to come with me?

Vouloir is also frequently used to politely extend an offer or invitation. Note that in French, it is used in the present indicative whereas English would use the present conditional.

  • Est-ce que tu veux dîner avec moi ? - Would you like to have dinner with me?
  • Voulez-vous un peu plus de pain ? - Would you like a little more bread?

When someone invites you to do something saying, "Would you like to...," your response should be just as subtle. Answering "Non, je ne veux pas" (No, I don't want to.) is quite strong and considered too blunt.

To accept, we usually say, "Oui, je veux bien." (Yes, I'd love to.) Here again, we use the present indicative, not the conditional. Or you can just say, "Volontiers." (With pleasure.)

To refuse, it's common to apologize and then explain why you cannot accept, using the irregular verb devoir in the response.

For example, "Ah, je voudrais bien, mais je ne peux pas. Je dois travailler..." (Ah, I'd love to, but I can't. I have to work...).

Memorizing Conjugations of Vouloir

We will examine more meanings of vouloir in French expressions later in this lesson. First, let's learn how to conjugate vouloir. Remember that this is an irregular verb, so you will need to commit each form to memory.

This lesson can seem intense and it is a lot to memorize, that's why it's best to take it one step at a time. As you begin, concentrate on the most useful tenses, including the présent, imparfait, and passé composé and practice using them in context. Once you've mastered those, go ahead and move on to the rest.

It's also strongly recommended to train with an audio source. There are many liaisons, elisions. and modern glidings used with French verbs, and the written form may mislead you into assuming an incorrect pronunciation. 

Vouloir in the Infinitive Mood

To serve as a foundation for the conjugations of vouloir, it is important to understand the infinitive forms of the verb. They're rather easy and you already know the present infinitive.

Present Infinitive (Infinitif Présent)
vouloir
Past Infinitive (Infinitif Passé)
avoir voulu

Vouloir Conjugated in the Indicative Mood

The most important conjugations of any French verb are those in the indicative mood. These state the action as a fact and include the present, past, and future tenses. Make these a priority while studying vouloir .

Present (Présent)
je veux
tu veux
il veut
nous voulons
vous voulez
ils veulent
Present Perfect (Passé composé)
j'ai voulu
tu as voulu
il a voulu
nous avons voulu
vous avez voulu
ils ont voulu
Imperfect (Imparfait)
je voulais
tu voulais
il voulait
nous voulions
vous vouliez
ils voulaient
Pluperfect (Plus-que-parfait)
j'avais voulu
tu avais voulu
il avait voulu
nous avions voulu
vous aviez voulu
ils avaient voulu
Future (Futur)
je voudrai
tu voudras
il voudra
nous voudrons
vous voudrez
ils voudront
Future Perfect (Futur antérieur)
j'aurai voulu
tu auras voulu
il aura voulu
nous aurons voulu
vous aurez voulu
ils auront voulu
Simple Past (Passé simple)
je voulus
tu voulus
il voulut
nous voulûmes
vous voulûtes
ils voulurent
Past Anterior (Passé antérieur)
j'eus voulu
tu eus voulu
il eut voulu
nous eûmes voulu
vous eûtes voulu
ils eurent voulu

Vouloir Conjugated in the Conditional Mood

The conditional mood is used when the verb's action is uncertain. It implies that the "wanting" will only happen if certain conditions are met.

The politeness associated with vouloir appears again when using it in the conditional mood.  For example:

  • Je voudrais du thé. - I would like some tea.
  • Voudriez-vous venir avec nous ? - Would you like to come with us?
  •  Je voudrais ceci. - I would like this one.
  • Je voudrais faire un enfant. - I'd like to have a child.
Present Cond. (Cond. Présent)
je voudrais
tu voudrais
il voudrait
nous voudrions
vous voudriez
ils voudraient
Past Cond. (Cond. Passé)
j'aurais voulu
tu aurais voulu
il aurait voulu
nous aurions voulu
vous auriez voulu
ils auraient voulu

Vouloir Conjugated in the Subjunctive Mood

Similar to the conditional, the subjunctive mood is used when the action is questionable in some way.

Present Subjunctive (Subjonctif Présent)
que je veuille
que tu veuilles
qu'il veuille
que nous voulions
que vous vouliez
qu'ils veuillent
Past Subjunctive (Subjonctif Passé)
que j'aie voulu
que tu aies voulu
qu'il ait voulu
que nous ayons voulu
que vous ayez voulu
qu'ils aient voulu
Subj. Imperfect (Subj. Imparfait)
que je voulusse
que tu voulusses
qu'il voulût
que nous voulussions
que vous voulussiez
qu'ils voulussent
Subj. Pluperfect (Subj. Plus-que-parfait)
que j'eusse voulu
que tu eusses voulu
qu'il eût voulu
que nous eussions voulu
que vous eussiez voulu
qu'ils eussent voulu

Vouloir Conjugated in the Imperative Mood

The present imperative of vouloir is also used to politely say something like, "Could you please." This is little weird since in French we don't use "can" but instead use "want."

  • Veuillez m'excusez. - Would you please excuse me? / Could you excuse me?
  • Veuillez m'excuser. - Please (be so kind as to) excuse me.
  • Veuillez vous asseoir. - Please sit down.
  • Veuillez patienter. - Please wait.

Note that even though it is listed in grammar books, rarely will you hear anyone use the tu form in the imperative, as in: "Veuille m'excuser." We would say instead, "Est-ce que tu veux bien m'excuser ?"

Present Imperative (Impératif Présent)
veux/veuille
voulons
voulez/veuillez
Past Imperative (Impératif Passé)
aie voulu
ayons voulu
ayez voulu

Vouloir in the Participle Mood

As you become more fluent in French, it's a good idea to study and understand how to use the particle moods for verbs. Since vouloir is such a common verb, you'll certainly want to study its usage in these forms.

Present Participle (Participe Présent)
voulant
Past Participle (Participe Passé)
voulu / ayant voulu
Perfect Participle (Participe P.C.)
Ayant voulu

Vouloir-isms

There are a couple of peculiarities about using vouloir that you should be familiar with.

When vouloir is followed directly by an infinitive, there is no need to add a preposition. For example:

  • Je veux le faire. - I want to do it.
  • Nous voulons savoir. - We want to know.

When vouloir is used in a main clause and there is another verb in a subordinate clause, that verb should be in the subjunctive. These are mainly vouloir que constructions. For example:

  • Je veux qu'il le fasse. - I want him to do it.
  • Nous voulons que tu le saches. > We want you to know (it).

The Many Meanings of Vouloir

Vouloir is used to mean many things in many constructions and it is commonly found in French phrases. Some of this derives from its propensity to play a part in versatile idiomatic expressions.

  • Vouloir, c'est pouvoir. (proverb) - Where there's a will, there's a way.
  • ne pas vouloir blesser quelqu'un - to not mean to hurt someone
  • ne pas vouloir qu'on se croie obligé - to not want someone to feel obliged

Vouloir may be used as a strong will or command in various contexts.

  • Je veux danser avec toi. -  I want to dance with you.
  • Voulez-vous parler ? -  Do you wish to speak?
  • Je ne veux pas le faire ! -  I don't want to / I won't do it!
  • Je ne veux pas de dessert. -  I don't want any dessert.
  • Il ne veut pas venir. - He doesn't want to come.
  • vouloir faire - to want to do
  • vouloir que quelqu'un fasse quelque chose - to want someone to do something
  • Que veux-tu que je te dise? - What do you want me to say to you?
  • sans le vouloir -  without meaning to, unintentionally
  • Je l'ai vexé sans le vouloir. -  I upset him without meaning to.

Vouloir bien means "to be willing to," "to be glad to," "to be good / kind enough to."

  • Tu veux faire la vaisselle ? - Do you want to do the dishes?
    Je veux bien - That's fine. 
  • Je veux bien le faire. -  I'll be happy to do it.
  • Elle veut bien l'acheter, mais il ne le vend pas. -  She's willing to buy it, but he's not selling it.
  • Aidez-moi, si vous voulez bien. -  Help me, if you would be so kind.

Vouloir dire translates as "to mean." 

  • Qu'est-ce que ça veut dire? - What does that mean?
  • Mais enfin, qu'est-ce que ça veut dire? - What's all this about then?
  • Que veut dire "volontiers" ? -  What does "volontiers" mean?
  • "Volontiers" veut dire "gladly." -  "Volontiers" means "gladly."

En vouloir à quelqu'un means "to be angry at someone," "to bear someone a grudge," "to hold it against someone."

  • Il m'en veut de l'avoir fait. -  He holds it against me for doing that.
  • Ne m'en veux pas ! -  Don't be angry with me!

Careful! When en vouloir is by itself with no object of scorn mentioned, it can simply mean "to want some": 

  • Elle en veux trois. - She wants three of them.

Depending on the context and, again, without an indirect object pronoun, en vouloir can also mean "to be ambitious" or " to want to make something of life."

- Updated by ​Camille Chevalier Karfis