French modal verbs: how to use them well?

French modal verbs how to use them well

It’s not just in English , Spanish or German that modal auxiliaries are important . They are as essential as they are frequent in French! Today we suggest you review the use of the most common French modal verbs: duty , power and want . These little verbs are also called “modal auxiliaries” because they are often followed by an infinitive verb. 

French modal verbs are essential in everyday life: thanks to them, you can express obligation, possibility, permission and will. Indispensable, we tell you!

To have, to be able, to want: how to use the three French modal verbs?

1. Use the verb must to express obligation or probability

In French, unlike English, obligation and necessity are expressed with a single modal verb: duty . With duty , we can express must , have to and need to at the same time . It’s practical, isn’t it? So who said French grammar was complicated?

Example : 

  • You have to take a vacation my heart, you have to rest!

-> You must take a vacation honey, you need to rest!

  • have to take Lola to her dance class at 5:00.

-> I have to bring Lola to her dance class at 5:00.

Duty can also express probability, for example: Anne-Sophie is not there, she must be sick. Anne-Sophie isn’t here, she must be sick.

Have you noticed that French modal verbs are used without a preposition? Indeed, the infinitive verb is placed after. She must be… 

How to conjugate duty in the present: 

  • I’ve got to
  • you must
  • he/she/it must
  • we must
  • you have to
  • they must 

The pronunciation is the same for the three singular persons: I, you, he/she/on {dwa}. It’s getting easier and easier, isn’t it?

2. Use the verb can to express possibility or permission

Pouvoir works like can in English. It expresses what is possible in a particular context. 

Example : 

  • can bring wine and cheese tonight.

-> I can bring wine and cheese tonight .

Power can also express the permission given by someone. 

  • Passengers can use their computer during the flight.

-> Passengers can use their computer during the flight.

Warning: unlike can , power does not express a learned skill. For this, we use the verb to know . 

Note the difference with these examples: 

  • know how to swim.

-> I can swim (because I learned how to).

  • can swim. 

-> I can swim (because it’s possible to: the water isn’t too cold, there is no shark…).

How to conjugate power in the present:

  • I can 
  • you can 
  • he/she/it can
  • we can
  • you can
  • they can 

Again, for the first three people, the verb is pronounced the same: I, you, he/she/it {p ø }

3. Use the verb to want to express a will 

Want expresses the will, like want to in English.

Example :

  • Do you want to go to the restaurant or the cinema?

-> Do you want to go to the restaurant or to the cinema?

Here, to want is also followed by the infinitive, as in English , but without a preposition!

Good to know As you want means as you wish in English. It’s a very useful expression when you can’t decide! 

How to conjugate to want in the present:

  • I want
  • you want
  • he/she/it wants
  • we want
  • you want
  • they want 

That’s all you need to know to use French modal verbs well… and to explain them to your friends who are learning the language of Molière!

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