French infinitive
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The French infinitive, which always ends in –er, –ir, or –re, serves as the name of any given verb. It’s what you look up in dictionaries and verb conjugation tables, so it’s important to learn the infinitive of every new verb you see or hear. Because the infinitive has no number or person marker, it’s known as an impersonal verb mood.

French infinitives are generally equivalent to "to" + verb in English.

Par exemple…

donner   to give
choisir   to choose
vendre   to sell

When speaking or writing French, verbs usually need to be conjugated, but there are several constructions that require the infinitive itself.

After verbs

The infinitive is used after semi-auxiliary verbs, including in the causative and after requests.

Par exemple…

semi-auxiliary   J’espère partir à midi.   I’m hoping to leave at noon.
causative   Nous faisons réparer le toit.   We’re getting/having the roof repaired.
request   Il m’a demandé de chuchoter.   He asked me to whisper.

After adjectives and nouns

Impersonal expressions, copular verbs + adjectives, and expressions with avoir + noun are all followed by the infinitive:

Par exemple…

impersonal expression + à / de   Il est difficile à comprendre.   That’s hard to understand.
copular verb + adj + de   Je suis désolé de l’apprendre.   I’m sorry to hear that.
avoir + noun + de   Elle n’a pas envie de manger.   She doesn’t feel like eating.

 The infinitive is only used when the above constructions end in a preposition. When they are followed by que, a conjugated verb is required – possibly the subjunctivelearn more.

After prepositions

1) When a preposition is used with no preceding verb, the infinitive is required:

Par exemple…

avant de commencer   before (we/you/they) begin
pour comprendre la situation …   in order to understand the situation …

2) In the passive infinitive:

Par exemple…

à vendre   for sale
Je n’ai rien à lire.   I have nothing to read.

3) With verbs that require a preposition:

Par exemple…

J’ai dû changer de train.   I had to change trains.
Il vont finir par divorcer.   They’re going to end up getting divorced.

Impersonal orders

In written documents like recipes, instruction manuals, and safety instructions, the infinitive is used to give impersonal orders (learn more):

Par exemple…

Chauffer l’huile sur feu modéré.   Heat the oil over medium heat.
Rester assis.   Stay seated.
En cas d’incendie, composer le 18.   In case of a fire, dial 18.

Word order

Word order with the infinitive is different—and much simpler—than with conjugated verbs: everything goes in front of the infinitive.

  1. The two parts of negative adverbs (e.g., ne and pas) stay together in front of the infinitive
  2. Object, reflexive, and adverbial pronouns precede the infinitive
  3. When you have both of the above, negation goes first

Par exemple…

Ne pas ouvrir la porte.   Don’t open the door.
La chauffer pendant 30 seconds.   Heat it for 30 seconds.
Je t’ai dit de ne jamais l’ouvrir.   I told you never to open it.

 Infinitive as noun

The infinitive can also be used as a noun; the English equivalent is either a noun or a gerund.

Par exemple…

Voyager seul peut être dangereux.   Traveling alone can be dangerous.
Voir, c’est croire.   Seeing is believing.
Savoir, c’est pouvoir.   Knowledge is power.

 Related lessons

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French infinitive

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