Present Participle / Gerund

French present participle
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Participe présent / Gérondif

The French present participle, which always ends in –ant, may be used as a verb, gerund, noun, or adjective. Because it has no number or person marker, it’s an impersonal verb mood.

Structurally, French present participles are equivalent to "verb + ing" in English, but grammatically there are many differences between them.*

Par exemple…

donnant giving
choisissant choosing
vendant selling

Present participle as a verb

The present participle acts as a verb when it indicates some action that is happening simultaneously with the main verb. The participle may modify a noun/pronoun or a verb.

Noun

When the present participle modifies a noun or pronoun, its action is unrelated to the action of the main verb – it modifies the nearest noun or pronoun, which may or may not be the subject of the main verb.

Voulant partir, il a demandé son anorak.
(Il voulait partir donc il a demandé …)
  Wanting to leave, he asked for his jacket.
Nous avons vu Thomas mangeant en ville.
(Thomas mangeait en ville)
  We saw Thomas eating in town.

Verb

When the present participle modfies a verb, it’s a gerund (un gérondif) and its action is related to the main verb: the performer of the two actions is the same. This usage has three possible meanings.

1) While / Upon
The gerund indicates what is happening at the same time as or immediately before the main verb’s action:

Il pleurait en racontant l’histoire.   He cried while telling the story.
En entendant la réponse, nous avons applaudi.   Upon hearing the response, we clapped.

 For emphasis, you can add tout:

Elle souriait tout en faisant la vaisselle.   She smiled while washing (even as she washed) the dishes.
Tu as volé mon portefeuille tout en faisant semblant d’être mon ami !   You stole my wallet while pretending to be my friend!

2) By / Because
The gerund reveals why or how the main verb happens:

En me réveillant à 6h, j’ai fini avant midi.   By waking up at 6 am, I finished before noon.
(Because I woke up at 6 am …)
C’est en travaillant trop qu’on s’épuise.   It’s by working too much that people get worn out.

3) Who / That
The gerund can sometimes be used instead of a relative clause:

les voyageurs venant de l’Europe
(les voyageurs qui viennent de l’Europe)
  travelers coming from Europe
(travelers who come from Europe)
les chiens aboyant doivent rester dehors
(les chiens qui aboient …)
  barking dogs must stay outside
(dogs that bark …)

  Present participle vs Gerund

While the present participle and gerund look identical, the gerund is almost always indicated by the preposition en, and the meaning is different.

Present participle: Nous avons vu Thomas mangeant en ville.

The present participle is modifying the nearest noun, Thomas: "We saw Thomas (as he was) eating in town."

    vs

Gerund: Nous avons vu Thomas en mangeant en ville.

The gerund is modifying the verb: "We saw Thomas (at the same time) as we were eating in town."

  When used as a verb, the present participle / gerund is invariable: there is no gender or number agreement. However, in the case of pronominal verbs, the reflexive pronoun must agree with the subject:

Par exemple…

en me réveillant, je…   upon waking up, I …
Je t’ai vu te levant.   I saw you getting up.

  * One of the most common French mistakes made by beginning and even intermediate French students is to use the present participle after a verb, in order to translate one of two typical English contructions.

1) English present progressive, such as "I am giving." French does not have a present progressive, so the phrase Je suis donnant means nothing at all. The correct way to translate the English present progressive is with the present tense: Je donne. If you need to emphasize that the giving is going on right now, you can use the expression être en train de, but don’t overdo it. In the vast majority of situations, the present tense does a fine job on its own.

2) English gerund, such as "I like singing." While the French present participle can be a gerund, that gerund cannot be a noun, which is what’s happening in this English construction. J’aime chantant is nonsense. In French, this construction requires the infinitive: J’aime chanter. Likewise, the French present participle can’t be used in expressions like "Seeing is believing." Voyant, c’est croyant is your enemy; once again, the infinitive is your friend: Voir, c’est croire.

Quiz: Present participles

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French present participle
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