In our previous lesson on present participles, we discussed how they can be used as verbs or as adjectives. In this lesson, we’ll focus on present participles used as verbs, known as le gérondif.
Basically, the gérondif is the construction "en + present participle," as in en faisant (while doing). Like all present participles used as verbs, present participles in the gérondif don’t take agreement.
In addition, the gérondif construction "en + present particple" never changes in French, but it will translate differently in English depending on context and function.
The gérondif usually indicates simultaneity and causation, and can be translated as "while x-ing," "by x-ing," or "as x."
When the gérondif is used to emphasize two actions taking place at about the same time, it usually translates as "while x-ing," as in en attendant (while waiting):
Bon... en attendant que notre pâte lève, on s'attaque au bredele?
Good... while waiting for our dough to rise, shall we tackle the bredele?Play Caption
En attendant can also be used on its own as an idiomatic expression ("in the meantime/meanwhile"):
En attendant, les communes doivent payer des ramassages quotidiens
In the meantime, towns must pay for daily collection
Caption 31, Le Journal - Marée verte en BretagnePlay Caption
The construction "en + present participle" can also be equivalent to "as + verb" in English when indicating simultaneity:
Mais... en partant, elle m'a donné son numéro de téléphone.
But... as she left, she gave me her phone number.
Captions 35-36, Extr@ - Ep. 6 - Le jour du loto - Part 3Play Caption
To further emphasize simultaneity between two actions or to indicate opposing actions in French, you can use the construction "tout en + present participle" (all while x-ing), as in tout en parlant (all while speaking). This construction is especially useful when you're talking about multitasking:
Je joue sur mon téléphone et parle avec mes amis tout en regardant la télé.
I play on my phone and talk to my friends, all while watching TV.
The gérondif can also indicate a means to achieve something, equivalent to the construction "by x-ing" in English:
Parents, veuillez surveiller bien vos enfants en leur apprenant à respecter les animaux.
Parents, please supervise your children well by teaching them to respect the animals.
Caption 12, Voyage en France - Chantilly - Part 3Play Caption
The gérondif can also describe the way an action is performed:
Est-elle rentrée en chantant?
Did she come in singing?Play Caption
Here, the translation is straightforward. En chantant simply means "singing."
However, when that sentence is put in the negative form, you must use the infinitive and not the present participle. As Patricia explains in her video, en chantant (singing) becomes sans chanter (without singing). The preposition sans (without) must be followed by the infinitive:
Non, elle est rentrée sans chanter.
No, she came in without singing [she didn't come in singing].Play Caption
The present participle is much more prevalent in English, whereas French favors the infinitive instead. In English you can follow a conjugated verb by an infinitive or a present participle. In French, it’s preferable to use the infinitive. For example, when talking about something you like doing or like to do, you cannot say j’aime faisant (I like doing). You have to say j’aime faire (I like to do):
J’aime faire des dessins.
I like drawing./I like to draw.
Similarly, when a person witnesses someone doing something, it’s better to use the infinitive after a conjugated verb:
Je les ai vues chanter.
I saw them sing./I saw them singing.
Another word of caution: the present participle is never used to form a progressive tense, simply because there is no such tense in French. You must use the present indicative instead. For example, "I am thinking" (present progressive) and "I think" (present indicative) both translate as je pense.
The construction je suis pensant, the literal translation of "I am thinking," simply does not exist! The only option is the present indicative: je pense (I think).
If you really want to emphasize an action in progress in French, you can use the expression être en train de (to be in the process/in the middle of):
On est en train de réchauffer la pâte en fin de compte.
We are in the process of warming up the dough in the end.Play Caption
To sum up, French uses the infinitive in many instances where English uses the present participle, and the gérondif construction "en + present participle" can take various forms in English.
There you have it for present participles! En passant (incidentally), we hope this lesson will be useful to you!