The three verbs of devoir (“must” or “need to”), pouvoir (“to be capable of”), and vouloir (“to want”) are closely connected concepts in French and also follow the same conjugation patterns. They are often taught together for efficiency, and learning them this ways also allows students to recognize the subtle distinctions between the meanings of each of these verbs.
Devoir generally reflects duties, expectations, obligations of someone (a mnemonic is “d” for “duty and debt”).
Also, notice below that there is no clear distinction between the concepts of “must” versus “should” in French.
Obligation and responsibility
Things one must do or should do.
Je dois finir le ménage. (“I must finish the housework.”)
Events that are “supposed to” happen
Reflects expectations of future events.
Bennet doit revenir bientôt. (“Bennet is supposed to return soon.”)
An active verb reflecting that someone owes another party something.
Il nous doit dix dollars. (“He owes us ten dollars.”)
Pouvoir reflects the concepts of having the capability or permission to do something.
Can and may
As with the concepts of “must” and “should” in devoir, there is also little distinction in pouvoir between saying someone “can” do something and “may” do something.
Vous pouvez chanter merveilleusement. (“You can sing beautifully.”)
Ils peuvent poser une question. (“They may ask a question.”)
To increase the sense of politeness of a request, you use the conditional form of pouvoir.
Est-ce que je pourrais emprunter un manteau? (“Could I borrow a coat?”)
Vouloir generally reflects one’s desires and wishes, both in terms of desired events and in desired people or objects.
The most direct translation of someone “wanting” something is in the present indicative tense.
Je veux des nouveaux talons rouges. (“I want some new red high heels.”)
As with pouvoir, using the conditional tense for vouloir elevates the politeness of the desire.
Il voudrait vous présenter ses excuses. (“He would like to offer you his apologies.”)
Perhaps counterintuitively, adding bien to the construction weakens the desire inherent in the phrase and instead implies that one is willing to or is agreeing to do something.
Je veux bien partir avec lui. (“I am willing to leave with him.”)
An interesting use of vouloir is with the imperative vous form, veuillez, which is a polite way of requesting that someone please do something. It is often used in formal written letters and in correspondence such as event invitations.
Veuillez accepter nos excuses pour cette erreur. (“Please accept our apologies for this mistake.”)
Understanding and applying these verbs in the present and conditional tenses should be the highest priority for most French language learners, as they are semi-irregular. Additionally, learning their past participle forms is quick and will allow you to refer to past events using passé composé.
Present tense conjugations
Using devoir, pouvoir, and vouloir in the present tense conveys the most straightforward and literal translations and is acceptable in most circumstances unless there is a great need for formality or a conditional implication in the message you are trying to convey.
As with many irregular verbs in French, the forms are familiar in the nous and vous forms, and distinct in the “boot” (the je, tu, il/elle, and ils/elles forms). For nous and vous, simply take off the –oir ending and add –ons and –ez.
For each verb the boot has its own base form that you will add –x, -x, -t on the singular side, and the plural third person will have the normal –ent ending.
|devoir (present indicative)|
|je dois||nous devons|
|tu dois||vous devez|
|il doit||ils doivent|
|pouvoir (present indicative)|
|je peux||nous pouvons|
|tu peux||vous pouvez|
|il peut||ils peuvent|
|vouloir (present indicative)|
|je veux||nous voulons|
|tu veux||vous voulez|
|il veut||ils veulent|
Conditional tense conjugations
In many instances, using the conditional tense connotes greater politeness and formality demonstrated on the speaker’s part. The conditional conjugations for these three verbs have irregular root forms, but all their verb endings follow the standard conditional tense pattern.
(If you need more guidance on forming the conditional tense, check out our lesson on the conditionnel.)
|je devrais||nous devrions|
|tu devrais||vous devriez|
|il devrait||ils devraient|
|je pourrais||nous pourrions|
|tu pourrais||vous pourriez|
|il pourrait||ils veulent|
|je voudrais||nous voudrions|
|tu voudrais||vous voudriez|
|il voudrait||ils voudraient|
Finally, all three of these verbs are normal action verbs conjugated with avoir and their past participle form.
- devoir → du
- pouvoir → pu
- vouloir → voulu (remember that the past participle of voir is vu, so vouloir has to be a different past participle from that)