“They don’t have the ‘-ing’ word, do they?” The comment was made to me by a bowls opponent during a match in Worcester – it was a friendly, so the chat was quite relaxed. I’d mentioned that I’d been a French teacher, and it turned out that this guy (let’s call him Tony) had a property in France, which he’d been doing up for several years. Apparently, he didn’t speak very much to the locals, as the language was hard and… “they don’t have the ‘-ing’ word”.
What did Tony mean by “the ‘-ing’ word”? I don’t think he was referring to that rather amusing habit of taking English words and then slightly mis-applying them (“le smoking” for a dinner jacket; or “le footing” for jogging”, and so on.) What I suspect he meant (and the bowls was serious enough to ensure we never explored this) was that whereas English has the alternative forms “I think” and “I am thinking”, French doesn’t have a precise form corresponding to the second one. As we saw in an earlier post, the French present tense covers both of those English forms, and to be able to use it you have to know the correct set of endings. I just like to think that Tony went on to read my blog.
Anyway, I want to focus here on yet another form in ‘-ing’ for which French definitely does have a very good and consistent parallel. This is known as the present participle (le participe présent). The present participle of English verbs always ends in “-ing” (singing, talking, etc), and it’s absolutely predictable because that’s all you do – add ‘ing’ to the verb. This of course is a relief, because the past participle of English verbs will vary depending on how irregular the verb is; usually it ends in “-ed” (“I have walked”, “he has worried”) but there are lots of exceptions like “we have broken” or “they have thought”. Let’s not go there!
Let me stress again that the present participle is not the same as the continuous present tense. If I say “I am running” or “we are eating …” I’m using a verb, with a subject (“I” or “we”). But a participle isn’t a full verb – you can think of it as being part verb and part adjective – otherwise expressed, it can refer either to an action (verb) or a state (adjective). To use an English example, the word “charming” appears in the following two sentences first with a verbal function and secondly as a descriptive adjective:
In the first example you can see that the main verb is “he told”, with the participle “charming” adding a little detail about that action. But in the second example “charming” could easily be replaced by any other adjective, depending on your opinion of the neighbour (“suave”, “bad-tempered”, “horrible”, etc).
Have a look at these two examples also:
In the first example “opening” is a simple adjective, for which you might have used the word “first”. The second example is clearly a verbal form – it could have started “I opened my wallet and discovered…”. There’s no mystery or clever grammar about the fact that it doesn’t do so – the present participle is just a stylistic choice.
I’ve explained this at some length because if you can understand this in relation to English, then the French forms will be no problem at all. (My apologies if your first language is not English, and if this has been hard to follow. I hope the next section on French will still be meaningful.)
In the same way that the “badge” of the present participle in English is ‘-ing’, so the corresponding ending in French is ‘-ant’. And given that the French for “to charm” is “charmer” we shouldn’t be surprised to see the participle “charmant” fulfilling exactly the same roles as its English counterpart. Translating the first two examples that I gave earlier on:
You can now see (I hope) that the forms and essential usages in the two languages really do have remarkable similarities. The only big difference to watch out for – and one which is entirely consistent with our earlier explanation of adjectives – is that whereas the participle used as a verb is invariable (that is, it does not change its form to match the word it refers to) the adjectival form will be modified to agree in number and gender with the person or thing that it describes – just like any other adjective:
Changeant sa route, elle a décidé d’aller visiter Paris
Elle réagit de façon différente selon ses émotions changeantes
The essential difference is that in the first sentence the present participle is describing an action, and is a form of the verb in question; therefore it does not change. In the second sentence it is an adjective describing the feminine plural noun “émotions”, and so it naturally agrees.
So we now know that the signature ending of the present participle is “-ant”. Always. And in order to make a standard present participle, all you have to do is replace the “-ent” of the “ils” form of the present tense of the verb with this “-ant” ending. If you think of it this way it will allow you to make the correct form of verbs like “finir”, (present tense “ils finissent” and a present participle “finissant”), or “partir” (“ils partent”, so present participle ”partant”).
Admittedly there is no rule-based way of learning the fairly small list of irregular forms. The first three are the regular mischief-makers:
Etre → Étant
Avoir → Ayant
Faire → Faisant
(Of course, none of these has an “-ent” ending in the “ils” form of the present anyway.) Then there are three others which we have come across as rather special irregular verbs:
Pouvoir → Pouvant
Savoir → Sachant
Vouloir → Voulant
Out of interest, the first two of this trio remind us of a couple of related words which have evolved in slightly different ways. Thus, while the participle from “savoir” is “sachant”, there was an earlier and more regular form “savant”, which still survives as a noun meaning a scientist or learned person; while in days gone by the verb “pouvoir” had a present tense ending “ils puissent” which produced “puissant”- and that survives as an adjective meaning powerful, with a corresponding noun “la puissance” (power). Ah, c’est intéressant!
Apart from these standard irregular verbs there are various other exceptions or oddities. Some of them are just slight variations of spelling – for example, “ils croient” produces “croyant” rather than “croiant”, and other similar verbs follow suit: “voir” (“ils voient”) has “voyant”. Others are a little more distant (“boire”, to drink, has “ils boivent” but the present participle is “buvant”, which appears closer to “nous buvons”). I’m not going to say any more about these individual forms because these various exceptions might look daunting in a short article such as this, and there’s no point putting a disproportionate emphasis on them, as opposed to the silent majority of thousands of regular verbs.
What the relatively few exceptions do show us is the importance of learning certain key elements of verbs whenever you come across a new one. The present tense, as we’ve seen, is the gateway to many more tenses or forms; the past participle is another element to learn; and the present participle, if irregular, is clearly another one to file away. So now that we know how to form it, we can go on, in another post, to look at some typical uses. First, however, I need to make a brief mention of another type of “-ing” word: it’s called a gerund but don’t be put off by grammatical terminology – you’ll see that you use it every day.