Modal verbs are very useful verbs for speaking French. Here you'll learn which verbs are modals, how to conjugate them, and how to use them with other verbs.

Modal Verbs

So, you finally got a chance to go to France. Now you can practice all the French you've been learning! At the hotel, you want to ask the concierge some questions about what to see. In order to express what you can and want to do as well as what you simply must see, you'll need French modal verbs.

French modal verbs are very similar to English modal verbs. They're alike in that they can be used by themselves or as main verbs with other verbs. Unlike their English counterparts, French modal verbs are limited to vouloir (to want), pouvoir (can/to be able to), and devoir (must/ to have to). When you're using a French modal verb before a second verb, the second verb will be in the infinitive form. For example, Je dois aller. (I must go.) Here we conjugate devoir and leave aller in the infinitive.

Since they're all irregular, you'll have to remember their conjugations. Below are charts of all three verbs, so that you can see how they're conjugated.

Pronoun Verb DevoirS-V Pronunciation Translation
je dois zhu dwah I must
tu dois tü dwah you must (singular/informal)
il/elle/on doit eel/el dwah he/she must
nous devons noo duh-vohn we must
vous devez voo duh-vay you must (plural/formal)
ils/elles doivent eel/el dwav they must
Pronoun Verb VouloirS-V Pronunciation Translation
je veux zhu vö I want
tu veux tü vö you want (singular/informal)
il/elle/on veut eel/el vö he/she wants
nous voulons noo voo-lohn we want
vous voulez voo voo-lay you want (plural/formal)
ils/elles veulent eel/el völ they want
Pronoun Verb PouvoirS-V Pronunciation Translation
je peux zhu pö I can
tu peux tü pö you can (singular/informal)
il/elle/on peut eel/el pö he/she can
nous pouvons noo poo-vohn we can
vous pouvez voo poo-vay you can (plural/formal)
ils/elles peuvent eel/el pöv they can
Translation: We want to see the Eiffel Tower.
want

Modal Verbs in the Past

Now you're home from your vacation and you want to be able to email your French-speaking friends and tell them all of the things you were able to see and do in France. You need to be able to conjugate your modal verbs in the past tense.

Passé Composé

All three modal verbs are conjugated with avoir in the passé composé. Again, they're irregular verbs, so they have irregular past conjugations. All three verbs will end in u as the past participle, but the stem of the verb is different. They're shown in the chart below.

Verb Stem + Past Participle Pronunciation Conjugation
devoir j'ai dû
vouloir voulu voo-lü il a voulu
pouvoir pu nous avons pu

Imparfait

Not all verbs in the past are conjugated in passé composé. There will be plenty of things that you'll want to say that will require another past form, such as imparfait, which can often stand in for the past continuous in English. In this case, the endings follow the same form. The stems are formed the same as if you were forming the 1st or 2nd person plural nous or vous, dev-, voul-, and pouv-.

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Pronoun Stem + Past-Participle S-V Pronunciation
je devais/voulais/pouvais zhu duh-veh/voo-leh/poo-veh
tu devais/voulais/pouvais tü duh-veh/voo-leh/poo-veh
il/elle/on devait/voulait/pouvait eel/el/ohn duh-veh/voo-leh/poo-veh
nous devions/voulions/pouvions noo duh-vee-ohn/voo-lee-ohn/poo-vee-ohn
vous deviez/vouliez/pouviez voo duh-vee-ay/voo-lee-ay/poo-vee-ay
ils/elles devaient/voulaient/pouvaient eel/el duh-veh/voo-leh/poo-veh

Your Vacation with Modals

Je veux vous dire ce qui est arrivé pendant ma vacance. I want to tell you what happened on my vacation.

Je ne peux pas vous reconter tous. I can't tell every single thing.

Je dois au moins parler des musées. I must at least talk about the museums.

Bien sûr, j'ai dû aller au Louvre. Of course, I had to go to the Louvre.

J'ai voulu commencer très tôt. I wanted to start very early.

J'ai pu entrer le musée à 10h. I could enter the museum at 10 a.m.

Je voulais voir le Mona Lisa, mais je n'avais pas le temps. I wanted to see the Mona Lisa, but I didn't have the time.

Je ne pouvais pas voir tous. I couldn't see everything.

Je devais y aller une deuxième fois, parce qu'il y avait tellement des chose à voir! I should have gone there a second time because there was so much to see!

Translation: I had to go to the Louvre!
had to

Lesson Summary

French modal verbs are very helpful in expressing desire, ability, and necessity. Now that you know how to conjugate your modal verbs in the present and past tenses, you'll be able to talk about your past experiences and present desires with your French-speaking friends. They're irregular verbs, and you must learn the stem and participles for each one, but there are only three verbs to learn! And all three verbs are conjugated with avoir in the passé composé.

Pronoun Verb DevoirVerb VouloirVerb Pouvoir
je dois veux peux
tu dois veux peux
il/elle/on doit veut peut
nous devons voulons pouvons
vous devez voulez pouvez
ils/elles doivent veulent peuvent
Verb Stem + Past Participle
devoir
vouloir voulu
pouvoir pu

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