In my previous blog post, we looked at a common mistake in the use of the French verb form “penser de” in the following example:
WRONG: *Je pensais de t’appeler. (I was thinking of calling you.)
RIGHT: Je pensais t’appeler.
The mistake originates in the resemblance of “penser de” and “think of” and in the existence of many verbs in French that do use this “de” as in:
J’essayais de t’appeler. (I was trying to call you.)
Elle a cessé de fumer. (She stopped smoking.)
In this post I want look at the general problem of choosing the right preposition to connect two verbs. Here are three typical examples of correct usage :
1. Elle aime faire du ski. (She likes to ski.)
2. Ce livre m’a aidé à comprendre le problème. (This book helped me understand the problem)
3. Nous avons décidé de partir demain. (We decided to leave tomorrow.)
(Note how English use “to” most of the time – but not always – to connect two verbs.)
Looking at these examples in French, we have three situations or rules: 1) verbs that do not require a connecting preposition; 2) verbs connected by the preposition “à” and 3) verbs connected by the preposition “de.”
How do you know which verbs follow which rule? Voilà la question ! This is something that you basically have to learn by heart and develop a feel for. Let’s look at the three groups of verbs. Be aware that the following lists contain the most commonly used verbs in each category but are not complete.
French Verbs without a connecting preposition
Let’s start by looking at some very common verbs that do not take a preposition when followed by another verb:
aimer, aller, avoir beau, compter, croire, descendre, déclarer, désirer, devoir, entendre, faire, falloir (il faut), mener, monter, oser, penser, pouvoir, présumer, revenir, savoir, sentir, supposer, venir, voir, vouloir, etc.
Here are some examples:
Nous allons manger tout de suite. (We are going to eat right away.)
Je compte acheter une nouvelle voiture l’année prochaine. (I plan to buy a new car next year.)
Je descends parler au client. (I’m coming down to speak with the customer.)
Elle ne peut pas venir demain. (She cannot come tomorrow.)
Ils ont fait faire des travaux dans le jardin. (They had some work done in the garden.)
Il ne sait pas nager. (He doesn’t know how to swim.)
Pay special attention to this group because it includes some of the most common and useful verbs in French and they tend to attract the unnecessary “de” or “à.” Many of them are what are called “helping verbs” or semi-auxiliaries. These are verbs like “aller”, “faire”, “entendre”, “faire”, “pouvoir” and “vouloir” that are very often paired with other verbs. If you get this group right, more than half the battle is won.
French Verbs followed by the preposition “à”
This is a very large group of verbs.
aider, s’amuser, s’appliquer, arriver, aspirer, astreindre, s’attendre, autoriser, avoir, chercher, condamner, consentir, contribuer, convier, destiner, encourager, s’engager, enseigner, s’exposer, se fatiguer, habituer, inciter, se mettre, s’obstiner, parvenir, persévérer, persister, porter, pousser, préparer, réussir, trouver, etc.
Here are some examples:
Je m’apprête à partir. (I’m getting ready to leave.)
Il hésite à se prononcer. (He is reluctant to make a statement.)
Ils l’ont aidé à sortir de la maison en flammes. (They helped him get out of the house on fire.)
French Verbs followed by “de”
There are many verbs followed by the preposition “de”.
accepter, accuser, achever, admettre, arrêter, charger, cesser, se charger, choisir, commander, conseiller, défendre, décider, envisager, éviter, finir, se hâter, s’indigner, interdire, jurer, se mêler, menacer, négliger, omettre, suggérer, etc.
Here are some examples of the use of these verbs:
Ils ont accepté de nous vendre la maison. (They agreed to sell us the house.)
On l’accuse d’avoir volé l’argent. (He is accused of stealing the money.)
Arrêtez de crier ! (Stop screaming.)
J’envisage d’acheter une maison. (I’m considering buy a house.)
Il nous suggère de partir tout de suite. (He suggests that we leave right away.)
Je vous propose d’écouter cet extrait. (I propose that we listen to this excerpt.)
Although nearly all verbs fall into only one of the above categories, there are some cases where a verb can fall into multiple categories. There may be a subtle distinction between the two forms or the two forms may be interchangeable. Here are some cases:
1. Décider à/de :
The verb “décider” used intransitively requires the preposition “de”, as in “décider de partir, de manger, de parler.” But when used with a direct object or in pronominal form, “décider” uses “à.” I should point out that this is a rather sophisticated nuance and an educated native speaker will be suitably impressed by your knowledge of French. Here are some examples:
Le prix m’a decidé à acheter. (The price made me decide to buy.)
Son avocat l’a décide à changer d’avis. (His attorney made him change his mind.)
Je me suis décidé à partir. (I made up my mind to leave.)
Elle s’était enfin décidée à agir. (She had finally made up her mind to do something.)
2. Continuer à/de:
The verb “continuer” takes either preposition interchangeably.
Elle a continué à pleurer. (She continued to cry.)
Elle a continué de pleurer
3. Venir de
The verb “venir” normally does not require a preposition (e.g. Venez manger à la maison – Come eat at the house) but there is special situation where the prepositions “de” is used. “Venir de” is used to indicate a very recent event or action, as in:
Je viens d’arriver. (I’ve just arrived.)
Elle vient de manger. (She just finished eating.)
Learn the French verb and preposition combinations for accuracy
As mentioned earlier, the first group of French verbs (with no preposition) is really the most important one. Make sure you know all those very important verbs. This is where the pitfalls of the extraneous “de” or “à” lie. In fact, if you make a mistake in the other two categories, most likely nobody will notice it. But if you make it here, it will stick out like a sore thumb.
For all the other verbs, the trick is to learn the verb and the preposition at the same time. For example, when you learning “s’attendre” (to expect), always learn it in combination with another verb such as “s’attendre à recevoir un prix” (to expect to win a prize).
Or when learning the verb “finir” (to finish), learn it in combination with another verb, such as in:
“finir de manger” (to finish eating.)
If you want to use French verbs fluently and accurately, mind your prepositions.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.