French Vouloir, Pouvoir, and Devoir

Overview

It is important to understand and be able to use three irregular French verbs—vouloirpouvoir, and devoir — as they are very common as well as useful. They are often taught together because of the similarities in their conjugations.

I want this!

In this unit, you’ll learn three more irregular verbs – vouloir, pouvoir, and devoir – meaning “to want,” “to be able to,” and “to have to / to owe ,” respectively. The reason why we learn verbs in groups is because they are conjugated in similar ways. Below you’ll find the conjugation tables for these three verbs with example sentences. Notice the similarities between the three tables. Vouloir and pouvoir are more similar to each other than they are to devoir. The other resources in this module explain their patterns separately.

From this unit forward, you will learn the past participle with each new verb to use in the past tense. Go ahead and review the past tense, or le passé composé.

Subject PronounVouloirMeaning
JeveuxI want
TuveuxYou want
Il/Elle/OnveutHe/She/One wants
NousvoulonsWe want
VousvoulezYou want
Ils/EllesveulentThey want

Past Participle: voulu

Using vouloir in a sentence can express a particular item you want if it’s followed by a definite or indefinite article, or a particular action if it’s followed by an infinitive.

Examples:

Je veux une boisson.                                       I want a drink.

Il a voulu le désert.                                         He wanted the desert.

Nous ne voulons pas jouer aux cartes.           We don’t want to play cards.

Elles nont pas voulu faire du shopping.        They didn’t want to do some shopping 

Subject PronounpouvoirMeaning
JepeuxI can I am able to
TupeuxYou can You are able to
Il/Elle/OnpeutHe/She/One can He/She/One is able to
NouspouvonsWe can We are able to
VouspouvezYou can You are able to
Ils/EllespeuventThey can They are able to

Past Participle: pu

Most often, pouvoir is followed by an infinitive to express that one can or can not do something.

Examples:

Tu peux aller au cinéma.                    You can go to the movies.

Vous ne pouvez pas partir.                 You are not able to leave.

La petite fille a pu voir les étoiles.      The little girl was able to see the stars.

Nous navons pas pu aller ce soir.     We were not able to go tonight.  

Subject PronounDevoir*Meaning
JedoisI must / I owe
TudoisYou must/owe
Il/Elle/OndoitHe/She/One must/owes
NousdevonsWe must/owe
VousdevezYou must/owe
Ils/EllesdoiventThey must/ower

Past Participle: dû

*The verb devoir can have several meanings. Understanding devoir depends on the context of each sentence. The translation of devoir when it means “to owe” is typically followed by a noun, while the translation that means “to have to” is typically followed by a verb.

Examples:

Je dois de l’argent.                                                                  I owe some money.

Nous ne devons pas lui téléphoner jusqu’à demain.               We don’t have to call him until tomorrow.

A la fin de la semaine, nous avons dû faire des courses.        At the end of the week, we had to do some grocery shopping.

Elle na pas dû de livres à la bibliothèque.                            She didn’t take any books to the library.

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