French Modal Verbs work very differently to how they do in English, and can definitely prove to be tricky. Good news, our guide covers absolutely all of it!
Before discovering what the French modal verbs are, let’s go over a few basics first.
Moods vs Tenses
To learn about modals and how they work, it’s first of all good to understand the differences between tenses and moods. If this is something that’s clear in your mind, feel free to skip this part!
In both written and spoken French, when you’re wanting to specify when an action occurs then either le présent (the present tense), l’imparfait (the imperfect tense), or le futur (the future tenses) are used.
Verb moods are inherently verb forms, and in a way they describe the speakers’ attitude or feeling towards the state or action of the verb. In short, verb moods are more about expressing the “how” rather than the “when”.
Personal moods distinguish the different grammatical persons and their verbs are conjugated.
Indicatif (Indicative mood) – Indicates to events and actions that occur at some point in time
Subjonctif (Subjunctive) – Expresses uncertainty, doubt, or the unlikelihood of events
Conditionnel (Conditional) – Describes the possibility of a specific condition in the present or past
Impératif (Imperative) – For commanding
Impersonal moods do not make a distinction between the different grammatical persons and their verbs are not conjugated since they use a single form for all persons.
Participe (Participle) – Verb’s adjectival form
Infinitif (Infinitive) – Nominal verb form
With that in mind, let’s move onto the topic at hand: Modal Verbs.
Modals are special auxiliary verbs and are used to express certain sentiments such as:
- Solid Plans and Certainties
- Wishes and Desires
- Promises and Possibilities
- Necessities and Obligations
First, let’s see what they look like in English.
Ability (can/could) -> I can drive. / It could rain tomorrow.
Habits (would) -> I would be glad to help.
Solid plans and certainties -> She will turn 20 tomorrow.
Wishes and desires -> She wants her own house.
Promises and possibilities (may/might/could) -> He may come tomorrow.
Necessities and obligations (must/ought/should) -> You must wait for them.
The video below is a great way to learn more about French Modal Verbs:
Without further ado, let’s have a closer look at these Modal Verbs in French. Ready?
French Modal Verbs
Ability – Can
To keep it simple, if you’re talking about something you know how to do and that you can do, then the French modal verb to use here is “savoir” (to know). Now, if you’re talking about something you can do simply because you’re able to, pouvoir (to be able to) is the one to use.
It’s used in the present tense (indicative mood) followed by the main action verb (infinitive mood)
Vous pouvez aller à sa classe.
You can go to his class.
Elle sait parler français couramment.
She knows how to speak French fluently.
Ability – Could (with conditions)
If you are confident about doing something or in your ability to do it, you can use condition to express it in French.
A sentence using this type of modal verb will look something like this: savoir/pouvoir + infinitive of the main verb + the plan to do something in the future.
It’s used in the present tense (conditional mood).
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.
Ability – Could (yes, again!)
This time, the modal verbs are used in a way to imply a recalling of a past event, or even to express a thought of potentially being able to do something.
A sentence using this type of modal verb will look something like this : savoir/pouvoir + ability to do something
It’s used in either the present perfect or imperfect tense (both in indicative mood)
Elle a affirmé qu’elle savait comment organiser la fête.
She said she knew how to organize the party.
When you’re wanting to talk about how someone is incapable of doing something both in the present (cannot) or in the past (could not), the modal verbs savoir and pouvoir are also used.
It’s used in the present, present perfect and imperfect tenses (indicative mood), and in the past tense (conditional mood).
Nous ne pouvons pas rester ici comme ça.
We can not stay here like this.
When you’re wanting to talk about habitual activities, the phrase tous les jours (every day) can be used to give the action a timeframe.
In English, you’d most probably use “would” to discuss an action or event that’s repeated/carried out in a habitual way, but this is not the case in French.
Any verb can be used to express a habit, but it needs to be conjugated in the imperfect tense (indicative mood) for it to be correct.
Chaque matin, l’oiseau chantait au lever du soleil.
Each morning, the bird would sing at sunrise.
Firm Plans and Certainties
This modal construction allows you to say something with relative certainty; such as what you will do or what will happen.
The modals in this category can also be used when recalling something that has already happened as if it were going to happen in the future.
When you are pretty much certain that something is going to happen, you can use French’s version of “will” to express confidence in the event.
This is achieved by using any verb conjugated in the future tense (indicative mood) + whatever it is you will definitely/plan to do.
Nous regarderons le spectacle ce soir.
We will watch the 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 though they were right there with you at the time, this modal construction is a good one to use.
It can be applied to any verb conjugated in the present tense but in the conditional mood.
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, the verb “vouloir” is used.
When your heart desires something and you want to be able to express it without it taking the form of a polite request, this is the modal construction you’ll want to use.
It only works with the verb vouloir (to want) which can be conjugated in any tense in the indicative mood.
Elle a voulu sa propre maison.
She wanted her own house.
Je veux dormir maintenant.
I want to sleep now.
Utilise this to ask for something you’d like in a polite and well-mannered way.
It only applies to the verb vouloir (to want) conjugated either in the conditional mood’s present or past tense.
Après son dîner, elle voudrait 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
This category is useful when discussing what may have happened earlier or what might or could eventually happen.
Both “will” and “shall” are used for talking about future events. “Will” is used to describe definite plans and “shall” more so for aspirations and hopes.
In French, both are expressed with verbs in the future tense. Similarly to “ought” and “should”, the context of the sentence or conversation makes all the difference.
You’ll be using the verbs vouloir or devoir in conjunction with another verb in infinitive form. This modal construction is only available to use in the future tense (indicative mood).
Elle arrivera à 21 heures.
She will arrive at 9 pm.
Could be/May be/Might be
For expressing hope, you can use the French expressions il se peut (it could be/ it may be/it might be) and peut-être (maybe). Therefore, you’ll be making use of the verbs se pouvoir/pouvoir.
You’ll find it in sentences comprised of the verb pouvoir conjugated in the present tense (indicative mood) alongside être in its infinitive form. You’ll also find it when the verb se pouvoir is conjugated in the present tense (indicative mood) to form the impersonal il se peut (could be/might be/ may be), which is usually followed by que (that) and then ends with a verb conjugated in the subjunctive mood.
Peut-être, vous l’aimez.
Maybe, you like it.
Ce pourrait être le sac de Liza.
It could be Liza’s bag.
When you are not completely sure or when you have a suspicion about something, the verb devoir (followed by the auxiliary être ) is the one to use. Devoir should always be conjugated in the present tense (indicative mood) followed by
être which is always in its infinitive form.
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.
When you have a strong feeling that something should’ve happened, make use of the verbs devoir or falloir. Sentences in this modal form usually take on three different constructions:
- il (it) +the verb falloir conjugated in the past perfect tense (indicative mood) + que (that) + action verb conjugated in the past tense (subjunctive mood)
- The verb devoir conjugated in the present perfect tense (indicative mood) + action verb in infinitive form.
- Que (that) + sentence subject + the verb devoir conjugated in the past tense (conditional mood) + action verb in infinitive form.
Elle a dû faire face à quelque chose lors de son voyage.
She must have faced something on her trip.
With the verb pouvoir conjugated in the past or present tense in the conditional mood, use this modal construction in conditional sentences.
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 do, and range from mandatory (must) to politely insistent (ought to).
When something is mandatory and you therefore must do it, the verbs devoir and falloir are at your disposal. A sentence in this modal form will look something like : devoir conjugated in the present tense (indicative mood) + action verb in infinitive form, or else the verb falloir conjugated in the present tense (indicative mood) + que (that) + action verb conjugated in the present subjunctive.
Ils doivent y aller.
They must go there.
When something is not mandatory but you feel obliged to do it anyway, you’ll be using the verb devoir (to have to). However, it’ll need to be conjugated in the present or past tense of the conditional mood followed by an infinitive verb.
Vous devriez conserver les documents dans ce cas.
You should keep the documents in that case.
When someone politely says you “ought to” do something, devoir is also used but according to the context this time.
Elle devrait retourner à son école pour continuer sa matière.
She should return to her school to continue her subject.
And with that, our chapter on French Modal verbs has come to an end! You can 100% give yourself a pat on the back for making it to the end, as this is no easy topic!
See you next lesson – and in the meantime, don’t forget to practice! If you need any help don’t hesitate to get into contact with one of our online French Tutors.