Present Participles

In French, the present participle of a verb (the ‐ing form) may be used with the preposition en (while, on, upon, by, in, when) to form a gerund (a noun that, in English, ends in ‐ing). When used without en, the present participle may act as an adjective and is also used to express the ‐ing form of the verb in English.

The present participle of all French verbs ends in ‐ant, the English equivalent of ‐ing.

Forming the Present Participle

The present participle of most French verbs (regular and irregular) is formed by dropping the ‐ons ending from the nous form of the present tense and simply adding ‐ant, as shown in Table 1. The line through the ‐ons part of the nous form indicates that it is removed to form the present participle.

Note how this affects spelling‐change and shoe verbs:

There are only three irregular present participles in French:

Verb

NousForm

Present Participle

avoir (to have)

nous avons

ayant (having)

être (to be)

nous sommes

étant (being)

savoir (to know)

nous savons

sachant (knowing)



English uses many more gerunds than French; therefore, the present participle is used much less in French and is often replaced with an infinitive:
  • J'adore le cyclisme. (I love cycling.)
  • Danser me plaît beaucoup. (Dancing gives me great pleasure.)

The present participle is primarily used:

With the preposition en to imply simultaneous actions:

  • Il parle en mangeant. (He speaks while eating.)
  • Elle est arrivée en courant. (She arrived running.)
  • Il est tombé en dansant. (He fell [while, when, upon, on, as he was] dancing.)

Tout may be used before en to add emphasis:

  • Elle pleure tout en souriant. (She cries even while smiling.)

En + present participle may mean “by.” With the verbs commencer and finir, par + infinitive is used, provided there is no direct object:

  • Il gagne beaucoup en travaillant. (He earns a lot by working.)
  • Il commence par chanter. (He begins by singing.)
  • Il finit par danser. (He ends by dancing.)

BUT:

  • Il finit l'histoire en riant. (He finishes the story by laughing.)

Without the preposition en to show a cause, a reason, a motive, a condition, a result, an incidental circumstance, or an action that took place at the same moment as or immediately before the action of the main verb. When used as a verb, the present participle is invariable—meaning that there is no agreement of the present participle with the subject:

  • Étant occupé, je l'ai ignoré. (Being busy, I ignored him.)
  • Elle est partie, oubliant ses clefs. (She left, forgetting her keys.)
  • Regardant la télé, je me suis endormi. (Watching TV, I fell asleep.)
  • Il étudie en écoutant la radio. (He studies while listening to the radio.)
  • Il est entré criant. (He arrived screaming.)

In addition, the present participle can be used as follows:

Some present participles may be used as adjectives and must, therefore, agree in number and gender with the nouns or pronouns they modify. They generally follow the noun or pronoun:

  • Je trouve ces filles charmantes. (I find those girls charming.)
  • Ce sont des films amusants. (They are amusing films.)

The present participle can, but rarely does, replace a relative clause ( qui + verb):

  • Je vois des gens qui portent des sacs. (I see some people who are carrying bags.)
  • Je vois des gens portant des sacs. (I see some people carrying bags.)

The present participle CANNOT be used:

To express “to be” + present participle (the English progressive form). To express that an action is in progress, use the present tense or être en train de + infinitive:

  • Il dort. (He is sleeping.)
  • Il est en train de dormir. (He is sleeping.)

To replace an English gerund (a noun ending in ‐ing). A French present participle can only be used as a verb and not as a noun. The following examples show you some correct ways to replace an English gerund:

  • Je préfère la natation. (I prefer swimming.)
  • La pâtisserie est un art. (Pastry making is an art.)
  • Je le ferai sans qu'il le sache. (I'll do it without his knowing it.)