When learning French, you must learn the verb “devoir”, you must learn how to conjugate it, and you must know what it means. Have you guessed it yet? “Devoir” means must! This irregular verb is extremely common and important to master as it’s not only the word used for must and have to, but it can also mean should. We seem to be getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s take a few steps back and learn some more about the “devoir” conjugation.
1. For an obligation (must)
- Je dois partir à 15h. – I must leave at 3pm.
2. For a supposition (must/probably)
- Tu dois être fatigué après ce long voyage. – You must be tired after that long trip.
3. Something that’s supposed to or bound to happen/to have happened
- Elle a dû oublier quelque chose à la maison. – She must’ve forgotten something at home.
4. Owing someone something
- Tu me dois 5 euros pour le sandwich. – You owe me 5 euros for the sandwich.
5. For “should” using the conditional tense
- Tu ne devrais pas fumer, c’est mauvais pour la santé. – You shouldn’t smoke, it’s bad for your health.
There are a lot of tenses in French, so many, in fact, that it can get quite overwhelming trying to learn them all. With “devoir”, some tenses are used more often than others, so we’re going to focus on those key tenses for this all-important verb.
|Je dois||I must|
|Tu dois||You must|
|Il/elle doit||He/she/it must|
|Nous devons||We must|
|Vous devez||You must (formal/plural)|
|Ils/elles doivent||They must|
- Je dois aller chercher les enfants à 16h30. – I must go and fetch the children at 4pm.
- Elle doit aller en Écosse pour le travail. – She must go to Scotland for work.
- Nous devons acheter une plus grande table pour inviter des gens. – We must buy a bigger table to invite people over.
- Ils ne doivent pas jouer dans la rue, c’est dangereux. – They mustn’t play in the road, it’s dangerous.
- Je lui dois la vie. – I owe him my life.
|Je devais||I had to/was supposed to|
|Tu devais||You had to/were supposed to|
|Il/elle devait||He/she/it had to/was supposed to|
|Nous devions||We had to/were supposed to|
|Vous deviez||You had to/were supposed to (formal/plural)|
|Ils/elles devaient||They had to/were supposed to|
The verb stem for devoir is “dev”, to which we must add the usual imperfect endings to talk about things that happened regularly or continuously in the past. When using “devoir” in the imperfect tense, more often than not it means “supposed to” rather than a strict obligation.
- Tu as fait ce que tu devais faire. – You did what you had to do.
- Elles ne devaient pas écrire un essai sur ce sujet ? – Didn’t they have to write an essay about this? / Weren’t they supposed to write an essay about this?
- Je devais partir en vacances mais je n’ai pas reçu mon passeport à temps. – I was supposed to go on holiday, but I didn’t receive my passport on time.
- Si nous devions parler plus qu’écouter, nous aurions deux bouches et une oreille. – If we were meant to talk more than listen, we would have two mouths and one ear (Mark Twain).
|J’ai dû||I had to|
|Tu as dû||You had to|
|Il/elle a dû||He/she/it had to|
|Nous avons dû||We had to|
|Vous avez dû||You had to (formal/plural)|
|Ils/elles ont dû||They had to|
The passé composé of “devoir” is used to talk about an obligation in the past. We use it with the present tense of the verb “avoir” and the past participle of the verb devoir, which is “dû”.
- J’ai dû courir pour ne pas rater le bus. – I had to run so that I didn’t miss the bus.
- Vous avez dû bien travailler pour avoir une place dans cette école. – You must have worked very hard to get a place in this school.
- Elles ont dû partir sans nous. – They must’ve left without us.
|Je devrai||I will have to|
|Tu devras||You will have to|
|Il/elle devra||He/she/it will have to|
|Nous devrons||We will have to|
|Vous devrez||You will have to (formal/plural)|
|Ils/elles devront||They will have to|
Once more we form this tense by adding the future ending onto the stem “dev”.
- Tu devras t’habituer à cuisiner si tu comptes habiter seul. – You’ll have to get used to cooking if you’re planning on living on your own.
- Il devra en acheter lui-même la prochaine fois. – Next time he will have to buy some himself.
- Nous devrons prendre les routes de campagne pour éviter les embouteillages. – We’ll have to take the country roads to avoid traffic jams.
|Je vais devoir||I’m going to have to|
|Tu vas devoir||You’re going to have to|
|Il/elle va devoir||He/she/it is going to have to|
|Nous allons devoir||We’re going to have to|
|Vous allez devoir||You’re going to have to (formal/plural)|
|Ils/elles vont devoir||They’re going to have to|
I know what you’re thinking… What’s the difference between the futur simple and le futur proche? The simple future with the future endings is used to talk about a hypothetical event in the future, something further away, or without a precise date. On the other hand, the near future used with the verb “aller” talks about more concrete or immediate plans or something that is already arranged.
- Je vais bientôt devoir dormir, je suis épuisé. – I’m going to have to sleep soon, I’m exhausted.
- En juillet je vais devoir trouver un travail d’été pour payer mes vacances. – In July I’m going to have to find a summer job to pay for my vacation.
The conditional tense is used frequently with the verb “devoir” because it’s in this tense that the meaning changes. It becomes equivalent to the English modal verb should. Here are the two most common conditional tenses that are used with this verb.
|Je devrais||I should|
|Tu devrais||You should|
|Il/elle devrait||He/she/it should|
|Nous devrions||We should|
|Vous devriez||You should (formal/plural)|
|Ils/elles devraient||They should|
- Je devrais arrêter de boire du café, je n’arrive plus à dormir. – I should stop drinking coffee, I can’t sleep anymore.
- Je pense que tu ne devrais pas faire ça. – I don’t think you should do that.
- Elle devrait faire plus d’effort à l’école. – She should try harder at school.
- Vous devriez rentrer avant que la nuit tombe. – You should go home before night falls.
If you want to talk about regrets, then the past conditional is extremely important for the verb “devoir”. It is composed of the verb “avoir” in the conditional tense, and the past participle of the verb, which in this case is “dû”.
|J’aurais dû||I should have|
|Tu aurais dû||You should have|
|Il/elle aurait dû||He/she/it should have|
|Nous aurions dû||We should have|
|Vous auriez dû||You should have (formal/plural)|
|Ils/elles auraient dû||They should have|
You can get a better understanding of the past conditional “devoir” conjugation with a song by two young French rappers which is all about regret. It talks about different situations, from finding love, to following your dreams, and what each character should have done when they had the chance.
Let’s take a look at how they use “devoir” in the past conditional in the chorus:
“il aurait dû y aller, il aurait dû le faire, crois-moi” – He should have gone there, he should’ve done it, believe me
Here are a few more examples of regrets:
- Je n’aurais pas dû mettre une robe blanche, la mariée à l’air fâchée. – I shouldn’t have worn a white dress, the bride seems angry.
- Ils auraient dû faire leurs devoirs avant de sortir. – They should’ve done their homework before they went out.
- Tu aurais dû l’amener à l’aéroport, les taxis coûtent si cher. – You should’ve taken him to the airport, taxis are so expensive.
- Si elle avait faim elle aurait dû manger plus à midi au lieu de se gaver des bonbons. – If she was hungry she should’ve eaten more at lunch rather than bingeing on candy.
The word “devoir” can also be a noun, as you may have noticed in one of the examples above. In the singular, it means “duty”, while in the plural form it is a very common noun among children and teenagers, as it means “homework”.
- Il est de mon devoir de représenter mon pays. – It’s my duty to represent my country.
- Je dois faire mes devoirs tous les jours. – I must do my homework every day.
Devoir, just like the verb pouvoir, doesn’t have an imperative form.
You may have already seen direct objects in French (complément d’objet direct) and you might know that the verb has to agree with the object when it is placed BEFORE the verb. The feminine objects add an “e” to the past participle, and plurals take an “s”. It’s important to know that “dû” loses the circumflex accent in these cases.
However, when followed by an infinitive verb, it remains invariable:
- Les sommes que j’ai dues – The amounts that I owed
- Les sommes que j’ai dû payer à ma banque – The amounts that I had to pay to my bank
This informal phrase means as customary, properly, or it can be ironic, meaning “as might be expected” or “as it should be”.
- Ne fais pas ça, comporte-toi comme il se doit. – Don’t do that, behave properly (behave yourself as you should).
- On a fêté notre mariage comme il se doit ! – We celebrated our marriage as you might expect!
This reflexive verb means to have a moral obligation to yourself, or a reciprocal obligation to one another.
- Les sœurs se doivent la vérité. – The sisters owe each other the truth.
- Les époux se doivent fidélité. – Married couples have a duty to be faithful to one another.
Wait a minute, what’s that got to do with the verb “devoir”? As a matter of fact, the French equivalent of this saying includes the verb “must”, so it might be useful to add to your collection of helpful French expressions.
Tout ce qui doit arriver arrivera ! – Whatever happens, happens (literally: Everything that must happen, will happen)