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All About French Modal Verbs

If you are a French learner, it is vital to learn French modal verbs as they are critical in the French language. These are the verbs that end in – oir and are irregular.

In this article, you will learn which verbs are modals and how you can conjugate and use them.

Difference between moods and tenses

To learn how modals work, let’s first understand the differences between tenses and moods.

Are you familiar with the tenses and moods of English verbs? If yes, then differentiating between the two in French won’t seem tough to you.

Verb tenses

While writing or speaking French, when you want to specify when an action occurs, then le présent (the present), l’imparfait (the imperfect), and le futur (the future) tense are used.

Verb moods

These verb forms are used while describing speakers’ attitudes towards the state or action of the verb. Verb moods are more about explaining “how” and less for “when.”

Personal Moods –  Distinguish grammatical persons and are conjugated.

  • Indicatif (Indicative mood) – Used for a fact that indicates events and actions occur at some point.

je fais (I do)

  • Subjonctif (Subjunctive) – Expresses uncertain, doubtful, or unlikelihood of events.

souhaiter que (to wish that)

  • Conditionnel (Conditional) – Describes the possibility of a specific condition in the present or past.

je ferais (I would do)

  • Impératif (Imperative) – Gives a command

Donnez-la-nous! (Give it to us!)

Impersonal Moods – Do not make a distinction between grammatical persons, not conjugated, and use a single form for all persons.

  • Participe (Participle) – Verb’s adjectival form.

faisant (doing)

  • Infinitif (Infinitive) – Nominal verb form and its name.

faire (to do)

Uses of Modal Verbs

Modals, the special auxiliary verbs are used to describe or express functions like:

  • Abilities
  • Habits
  • Solid Plans and Certainties
  • Wishes and Desires
  • Promises and Possibilities
  • Necessities and Obligations

Let’s see some examples of modals describing the above functions:

Ability- can/could

I can drive
It could rain day after tomorrow.

Habits – would

I would be glad to help.

Solid Plans & Certainties

She will turn 20 tomorrow.

Wishes & Desires

She wants her own bag.

Promises & Possibilities – may/might/could

He may come tomorrow.

Necessities & Obligations – must/ought/should

You must wait for them.

Challenges in direct translations of French and English modals

If you look up the translations of words like should, could, and would in English-French dictionary, you might end up reading complicated explanations but will not get a single-word translation. Though there are no direct equivalents to these words, certain French verbs are associated with them.

The French verbs that are often used to express these English modals are savoir (to know how), vouloir (to want to), pouvoir (to be able), falloir (to need to/to have to), and devoir (to have to do something).

So, depending on the context and its conjugation, you can use any verb as modal in French.

Understanding French Modal Verbs

Abilities – Can/Could

When you say – you could do something in the past or future / can do something now.
You will learn here how to express “can/ could” in French, depending on the context.


If there is something that (you know how to do)  and “can” do it, then the exact French verb is “savoir.”
If you “can” do something because (you are able to do), then you can use “pouvoir.”
Verbs used : savoir – to know how
pouvoir – to be able
Tenses/Moods Used :Indicative mood – Present tense
Infinitive mood – Main action verb

Vous pouvez aller à sa classe.
You can go to his class.

Elle sait parler français avec brio.
She knows how to speak French fluently.

Could with conditions

If you are confident about doing something or your ability, you can use condition to express it in French.
Verbs used: savoir/pouvoir + infinitive of action/main verb – plan to/will be able to (do something in future)
Tenses/Moods Used: Conditional mood – Present tense

Vous pourriez visiter le nouveau restaurant demain.
You could visit the new restaurant tomorrow.

Emma pourrait déménager dans sa nouvelle maison le mois prochain.
Emma could move to her new home next month.

Could, too

Recalling the past event and thinking of being able to do something.
Verbs used:savoir/pouvoir – was able to do something in past
Tenses/Moods Used: Indicative mood – Present perfect or imperfect tense

Elle a affirmé qu’elle savait comment organiser la fête.
She said she knew how to organize the party.

Expressing inability

When you try to say that someone is incapable of doing something in the present (cannot) or in the past (could not).
In such situations, whether you use the verb savoir or pouvoir, it expresses inability.
Verbs used: savoir/pouvoir – could not or can not, that express not being or having been able
Tenses/Moods Used: Indicative mood – Present or present perfect or imperfect tense
Conditional mood – Past tense

Nous ne pouvons pas rester ici comme ça.
We can not stay here like this.


When you are mentioning habitual things, another phrase accompanies the modal. This phrase gives the timeframe for the action, like tous les jours (every day).


In English “would” is used when you are saying – how things would be done. But it does not go the same way for French.
Verb used: Any
Tenses/Moods Used: Indicative mood – Imperfect tense

Chaque matin, l’oiseau chantait au lever du soleil.
Each morning, the bird would sing at sunrise.

Firm Plans and Certainties

The modal construction allows you to say something with relative certainty like- what you will do or what will happen.

You can also use modals in the situations that mentally send you in the past, where you talk about something that has already happened and is still to come.


When you are pretty sure that something is certainly going to happen, you can use there “will” to express confidence in the event.
Verb used: Any verb – will do/definitely plan to do
Tenses/Moods Used: Indicative mood – Future tense

Nous regarderons spectacle ce soir.
We will watch show tonight.

Il lira votre lettre demain.
He will read your letter tomorrow.


While telling a story, if you want your listeners to feel as they were present at the situation.
Verb used: Any verb
Tenses/Moods Used: Conditional mood – Present tense

Je pensais qu’elle viendrait demain, mais elle est venue aujourd’hui.
I thought she would come tomorrow, but she came today.

Wishes & Desires

In French, if you want to express your desire or wish, “vouloir” is used.

Simple desires

When your heart desires something, and you want it without making any polite request.
Verb used: vouloir –  to want
Tenses/Moods Used: Indicative mood – Any tense

Elle a voulu sa propre maison.
She wanted her own house.

Eteignez la lumière, je veux dormir maintenant.
Turn off the light, I want to sleep now.

Polite request

You get what you want but in a polite and well-mannered way.
Verb used: vouloir –  would have liked/would like
Tenses/Moods Used: Conditional mood – Present/Past tense

Après son dîner, elle voudrais aller se promener.
After dinner, she would like to go for a walk.

Elle aimerait vous voir.
She would like to see you

Promises and Possibilities

To discuss – what may have happened earlier or might happen and what could happen


Will and shall, both are used when you are talking about future events. “Will” is used to describe definite plans and “shall” for aspirations and hopes.

In French, both are expressed with verbs in the future tense. Same as “ought” and “should”, the context of a sentence or conversation makes the difference.
Verb used: vouloir/devoir in conjunction with another verb infinitive form.
Tenses/Moods Used: Indicative mood – Future tense

Elle arrivera à 21 heures.
She will arrive at 9 pm.

Could be/May be/Might be

For expressing hopefulness, you can use French expressions il se peut (it could be/ it may be/it might be) and peut-être (maybe).
Verb used: se pouvoir and pouvoir
Tenses/Moods Used: Present tense – Indicative of pouvoir – Infinitive of être/peut-être
Present tense – Indicative of se pouvoir  – Impersonal il se peut – with
que –   another verb’s  subjunctive

Peut-être, vous l’aimez.
Maybe, you like it.

Ce pourrait être le sac de Liza.
It could be Liza’s bag.

Must be

When you are not completely sure and have suspicions.
Verb used: Devoir (with être)
Tenses/Moods Used: Indicative – Present tense – devoir
Infinitive – être – adverb

Quel bel endroit! Nous devons être ici pour célébrer quelque chose de grand.
What a nice place! We must be here to celebrate something big.

Must have

When you have a strong feeling that something must have happened.
Verb used: Devoir, Falloir
Tenses/Moods Used: Indicative mood – Past perfect tense – falloir que– other verbs in   subjunctive moods (past tense)
Indicative mood – Present perfect tense – devoir– other verbs in the infinitive
Conditional mood – quedevoir in the past tense – other verbs in the infinitive

Elle a dû faire face à quelque chose lors de son voyage.
She must have faced something on her trip.


For conditional sentences.
Verb used: pouvoir
Tenses/Moods Used: Conditional mood – Past or Present tense

John demandait s’il pouvait y aller.
John was asking if he could go there.

Necessities & Obligations

These modals are used for expressing what you need to and range from mandatory (must) to politely insistent “ought to.”

Absolute musts

When something is mandatory, and you must do it.
Verb used: Devoir/ falloir
Tenses/Moods Used: Indictive mood – Present tense – Devoir

Infinitive – main action verb
Subjunctive – Present tense – falloir – il  – que

Ils doivent y aller.
They must go there.


When you feel obligated to do a thing, but it is not mandatory to do.
Verb used: Devoir
Tenses/Moods Used: Conditional mood – Present/ Past  tense – Devoir – other verbs infinitive

Vous devriez conserver les documents dans ce cas.
You should keep the documents in that case.

When someone politely says you “ought to” (should) do something.  Devoir is used according to the context.

Elle devrait retourner à son école pour continuer sa matière.
She should return to her school to continue her subject.

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