French Grammar: Uses of Infinitive Verbs

French Grammar: Uses of Infinitive Verbs

Creative Commons Image via The LEAF Project


French Grammar: Uses of Infinitive Verbs
la grammaire française: l’utilisation des verbes à l’infinitif

  • The infinitive form of a verb conveys the basic meaning of that verb.
  • French infinitive verbs are used in a variety of ways.


The infinitive form of a French verb is the form that ends with [-ER], [-IR], or [-RE]. Each of these infinitive endings is the equivalent of  “to …”  (i..e. to speak, to read, to take, etc.) in English. Often, an infinitive verb is conjugated when used in a sentence. But French infinitives are used in a variety of other ways, too.

a. A conjugated verb can be followed by an infinitive. Depending on the conjugated verb, a preposition (often [à] or [de]) may come before the infinitive. Here are some verbs that don’t require a preposition and are followed immediately by an infinitive:

aimer / aimer mieux : to like / to prefer

aller : to go

désirer : to want

détester : to hate

devoir : to have to / must / should / ought

espérer : to hope

penser : to intend

pouvoir : to be able / can

préférer : to prefer

savoir : to know how

vouloir : to want

b. Verbs that convey motion can also be followed by an infinitive. These include:

descendre : to go down / to descend

monter : to go up / to climb / to ascend

rentrer : to go home / to go inside / to go back

retourner : to return / to go back

sortir : to leave / to exit / to go outside

venir : to come

c. A French infinitive is used directly after the expression être en train de to mean to be … (doing something):

Je suis en train de préparer le dîner. : I am preparing dinner.

d. A French infinitive is used directly after the expression avant de to mean before … (doing something):

Ils se lavent les mains avant de manger. : They (masculine) wash their hands before eating.

e. A French infinitive is used directly after the expression venir de to mean to have just … (done somthing):

Ils viennent d’arriver. : They have just arrived.

f. Some impersonal expressions are also followed immediately by an infinitive. These include:

il faut : you must / one must / you have to / one has to / it’s necessary to

il vaut mieux : it’s better to

g. A French infinitive is sometimes used instead of the imperative (command form) – especially for warnings and instructions:

Fumer est dangereux pour votre santé. : Smoking is dangerous to your health.

Laver les tomates et couper-les en dés. : Wash the tomatoes and dice them..

h. A French infinitive can be used instead of the subjunctive when the main clause and the subordinate clause have the same subject:

Il a honte qu’il fasse cela. –> J’ai honte de faire cela.
He is ashamed that he is doing that. –> He is ashamed to do that.

i. French infinitives can also be used as the subject of a sentence. Comparable sentences in English normally require a verb ending in -ing.

Apprendre le chinois est difficile. : Learning Chinese is difficult.

Voir, c’est croire! : Seeing is believing!


J’aime voyager.
I like to travel.

Nous allons faire la lessive.
We are going to do the laundry.

Elle monte à sa chambre faire les devoirs.
She is going up to her bedroom to do homework.

Les enfants regardent de deux côtés avant de traverser la rue.
The children look both ways before crossing the street.

Il faut étudier pour l’examen.
You must study for the exam.