What You Must Know About the French Verb Devoir

There comes a point when you’re getting pretty good at French. You can express basic thoughts and ideas, likes and dislikes, even plans. And then, you find that you need to say something more abstract. No longer  is it about what you like to do or what you’re going to do. Now, it’s about what  you must do, should do, or should have done.

…Come to think of it, this kind  of sounds Iike I’m describing becoming an adult, right?

Anyway, you’re in luck: there’s a verb that covers most of your obligation-related needs (including when you’re talking about how much of something you owe someone): devoir.

As its very serious meanings suggest,  devoir is not the most interesting French verb, and it’s not the easiest to use, either — although that last thing will get better. Regardless of its lack of fun, though, devoir is a really important verb to know. So, we must talk about how to use it.

How to conjugate devoir

Like most verbs that are used a lot, devoir is an irregular verb, which means you’ll have to memorize its various conjugations.

Here’s how to conjugate the most common tenses of devoir:

PresentPassé composéImparfaitFuture
Je doisJ’ai dûJe devaisJe devrai
Tu doisTu as dûTu devaisTu devras
Il/elle/on doitIl/elle/on a dûIl/elle/on devaitIl/elle/on devra
Nous devonsNous avons dûNous devionsNous devrons
Vous devezVous avez dûVous deviezVous devrez
Ils/elles doiventIls/elles ont dûIls/elles devaientIls/elles devront
ConditionalSubjunctive
Je devraisQue je doive
Tu devraisQue tu doives
Il/elle/on devraitQu’il/elle/on doive
Nous devrionsQue nous devions
Vous devriezQue vous deviez
Ils/elles devraientQu’ils/elles doivent

Conjugation is an important place to start with any verb, but especially when dealing with devoir, since it strongly influences the verb’s meaning (when devoir = must). While it’s fresh on our minds, I’m going to skip some other important devoir details for now, and pick them up a little later. If you want to go to them directly, you can use the links in the Table of Contents above.

What does devoir mean?

Man standing next to sign with security rules on French building site

Devoir is a word that’s tied to obligation and duty. From that springs two main meanings: “must” and “to owe.” 

Let’s look at how to use devoir in each of these ways. 

Devoir = must

There are a few subtly different nuances to this meaning of devoir:

1. an obligation or suggestion 

Devoir can be used to show that someone must do something (Il doit arroser les plantes deux fois par semaine. (He must water the plants two times a week.)).  But it can also be used to suggest something to someone – or to oneself. For example, almost every day I tell myself, Je ne devrais pas manger un autre biscuit. (I shouldn’t eat another cookie.). 

The difference between obligation and suggestion, as well as the degree of each, depends what tense of devoir you use. 

That’s not something that will come naturally at first, but over time you’ll get it. I can promise that today I use these different tenses to express obligation quite easily. 

One thing that really helped me when I started using devoir was the basic idea that when devoir is conjugated in an indicative sense (present, past future, imperfect…), it means “must” (or a past or future tense equivalent like “had to”, “will have to”, etc.). When devoir is conjugated in a conditional tense (conditional, past conditional), it means “should” or a past equivalent (“should have”). 

Je dois acheter un cadeau pour Jean.

I must buy a gift for Jean/I have to buy a gift for Jean.

vs.

Je devrais acheter un cadeau pour Jean.

I should buy a gift for Jean.

You can see more examples of this in this helpful article (start at the phrase “And now to our magic verb…”). 

Now that you have that down, here are basic translations of devoir in the tenses you’ll most commonly see it used with.

présent (present tense): must/need to/have to 

Tu dois verrouiller la porte, sinon les vélociraptors entreront.

You must lock the door, otherwise the velociraptors will get in.

passé composé (past tense): had to/was obligated to. ALSO : must have.  

There isn’t a way to differentiate between these two concepts in French, except for the context. Let’s look at an example of each:

a. Comme j’ai oublié de verrouiller la porte, j’ai dû combattre les vélociraptors. (Since I forgot to lock the door, I had to fight the velociraptors.) 

b. Si je ne me trompe pas, comme il a oublié de verrouiller la porte, il a dû laisser entrer les vélociraptors. (If I’m not mistaken, since he forgot to lock the door, he must have let in the vélociraptors.)

Imparfait (imperfect): had to/was supposed to 

Tant pis pour lui, il savait qu’il devait verrouiller la porte.

Too bad for him, he knew he had to lock the door.

futur simple (future): will have to. 

Tu es gravement blessé, mais au moins tu as survécu ! Tu devras verrouiller la porte la prochaine fois.

You’re seriously injured but at least you survived! You will have to lock the door next time.

conditionnel (conditional): should

Oui, s’il y a une prochaine fois, je me dirai, « Tiens, j’entends les vélociraptors – je devrais verrouiller la porte ! » 

Yes, if there’s a next time, I’ll say to myself, “Listen! I hear the velociraptors – I should lock the door!”

conditionnel du passé (past conditional): should have 

J’aurais dû verrouiller la porte. 

I should have locked the door.

velociraptor

Of course, even if a strong word like “must” is used, it can also be an exaggeration. For example, you could hear someone say, Tu dois lire ce livre! (You must read this book!) simply to show how much they loved the book and think it’s worth reading. However, this is less common in French, since the French don’t tend to exaggerate as much as Anglophones (especially my fellow Americans) do.

There are two other ways devoir can be used to signify an obligation:

2. something that is/was bound to happen or probably happened

This is like the English “must” or “must have”.

Here are some examples: 

Cela doit se passer comme ça.

This must happen like this.

Ça ne devait pas se passer comme ça.

That wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

La victime a dû essayer de s’échapper par l’escalier.

The victim must have tried to escape by the stairway.

3. something that’s assumed (must be)

Here are some examples: 

Tu devrais être ravie! 

You must be so happy !

Oh là là, Charles et Morgane ont cassé une fenêtre hier soir ! Leurs parents doivent être hyper fachés !

Oh no, Charles and Morgane broke a window last night! Their parents must be super upset!

Ça devrait marcher.

This should work.

Vous avez vu Claudine ? Elle devait être ici à 19h.

Have you seen Claudine ? She was supposed to be here at 7pm.

Ça ne devait pas être long.

This wasn’t supposed to take a long time.

Ta voiture est encore en panne ? Tu dois être contente.

Your car broke down again? You must be happy.

That last example is a typical sarcastic comment a French person would make.

And now for devoir’s second main meaning:

Devoir = to owe 

euro bank notes

This is often used with money, but it can be anything you could owe someone, including abstract concepts like gratitude, etc. 

Here are some examples:

Il me dois 5 euros.

He owes me 5 euros)

Je lui dois tout mon succès.

I owe him all of my success.)

Unlike when devoir’s meaning is tied to an obligation or suggestion, in the case of devoir as “to owe”, the translation of each tense is much more literal. The present tense simply means “owe”/”owes”, the past tense “owed”, the conditional “would owe,” and so on.

Making devoir negative

Making devoir negative is fairly intuitive, and, as you’ll discover in the next paragraph, knowing how to do it will expand your complex French vocabulary!

Making devoir (must) negative

Now that you know these various meanings of devoir as related to obligation, you also know how to say “must not”, “should not”, etc., in French!

Just place the ne…pas around the form of devoir and add the second verb in its infinitive after pas. For example: Les vélociraptors disent que tu ne devrais pas verrouiller la porte. (The velociraptors say that you shouldn’t lock the door.)

You can also use ne…jamais and other formulas of negation as well, like so: En fait, les vélociraptors précisent que tu ne dois jamais verrouiller la porte. (In fact, the velociraptors want to make it very clear that you must never lock the door.)

Making devoir (to owe) negative

When it means “to owe”, the negative form of devoir is often ne…rien. But of course, you can use it with ne…pas and other forms of negation, depending on the context. 

Here are some examples:

Tu ne lui dois rien ! (You don’t owe him anything!)

Tiens, Paul, tu ne me devais pas vingt euros ? (Wait a minute, Paul. Don’t you owe me twenty euros ?)

Although this meaning of devoir is less abstract, it can be a little tricky since, as these examples show, it often involves object pronouns. Here’s a guide if you need to review those. 

Those four meanings are the most common ways you’ll see devoir used in French today. But there are a few more subtle or unusual usages, as well. If you’d like to discover those, check out this very thorough list

Agreement with devoir

woman sleeping on table in train

Now that we’ve explored devoir’s meanings and how each tense can alter them in some cases, let’s talk about some grammar-related specifics.

All irregular verbs have their quirks, but devoir is, fittingly, a bit more uptight than most. 

For one thing, devoir’s past participle comes with a circumflex accent (accent circonflexe): .

This is to differentiate it from the article du (“of/some” for masculine nouns), although I’m not really sure that there are a lot of situations where it would be easy to confuse the two in the first place. 

Okay, so just remember to add the accent to the past participle of devoir, right?Well, not always….

For devoir:

–  the past participle is when you’re agreeing it with a masculine, singular word. For example, Son retard est dû à son réveil cassé. (His lateness is due to his broken alarm clock.)

– But if the word is feminine, you drop the accent circonflexe and add an “e” at the end, making it due. Example: Sa fatigue est due à son insomnie. (Her tiredness is due to her insomnia.)

– If the word is masculine plural, you remove the accent circonflexe and add an “s”, making it dus. For example: Tous frais sont dus avant la livraison. (All fees must be paid before delivery.)

– And if the word is feminine plural, the accent circonflexe is removed and an “e” and “s” are added, making dues. For example: Les périodes de calme dans le magasin sont dues aux rythmes des habitants du quartier; ils rentrent déjeuner, ils se couchent tôt le soir. (The periods of calm in the store are due to the rhythm of the people in the neighborhood.; they go home for lunch, they go to bed early at night.).

So, essentially, when isn’t modifying a singular masculine pronoun, it takes off its hat and puts on an “e” or an “s” or an “-es” instead.

The imperative form of devoir

…doesn’t exist!  

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense, since the verb itself implies some kind of obligation.

Une chose de moins à mémoriser ? Vous devez être contents ! (One less thing to memorize? You must be happy!)

What does se devoir mean ?

As you learn to use devoir, you may see or come across it as a reflexive verb.

Se devoir means “must/have to/have a duty to do something”.  

For example: Je me dois de vous dire que je suis accro aux biscuits. (I must tell you that I am addicted to cookies.)

Notice that se devoir  is always followed by de.

But, je me dois de vous dire que, de nos jours, « se devoir » n’est pas très courant.  In all the years I’ve lived in France and read, watched, and heard French, I’ve rarely come across this kind of phrasing. In my experience, it’s fairly rare and formal. 

And if you have trouble with it, the good news is that, in most cases, you can simply replace it with devoir. So, that sentence I wrote in the last paragraph could also be written: Je dois vous dire que, de nos jours, « se devoir» n’est pas très courant.  

According to this forum thread, se devoir can be used to convey a very strong sense of duty.So you may choose to use it if you’re making a speech or writing fiction (or nonfiction) where it’s very important to express this in a very dramatic, formal way. Otherwise, I’d say just recognize it and know that it exists, but it’s absolutely fine to simply use devoir in your everyday speech and writing.

Devoir as a noun

Stack of books next to notepad and pen

Devoir also exists as a noun. Le devoir, as you might have guessed, means “duty”.

If you’re studying or once studied French in a classroom or online class setting, there’s another noun form of devoir that you’re probably very familiar with: les devoirs (homework).  

Apparently, this can also be used as a singular noun (un devoir), but I guess most of us who were or are in school usually have/had multiple assignments to take home, unfortunately.

When I first heard the word les devoirs , the seriousness of the expression hit me. The English equivalent is simply descriptive: it’s work you do at home. But devoirs implies that it’s your duty to do it. You MUST do it.

To me, this goes very well with the French attitude towards school and learning. Although I was surprised to find that France isn’t ranked among the top ten countries when it comes to scholastic achievement, school here is taken very seriously. Even my son’s preschool is very formal about explaining lesson plans to parents, making sure kids are on time, and taking them out for cultural field trips. 

This continues through children’s scholastic careers. Although there can be fun moments and activities, teachers and parents make it very clear that students are at school to work (and that they have to work at home, too). 

You can see this rigor even in the list of school supplies kids have to have with them. In America, we were required to have the basics: pencils, notebooks, and so on. In France, there are specific kinds of notebooks, ink pens with separate corrector pens, rulers used to assure that even young kids are writing on a straight line, and so on.

I was always impressed and even a little intimidated when the kids I taught in French elementary schools sat down at their desks and pulled out all of their paraphernalia, their faces very serious.

In high school, French kids continue to work hard. The focus is on le baccalauréat (informally called le bac), the huge, multi-subject final exam that they’ll take over their last two years of school. In American schools, by contrast, sure, our final exam, the SAT, is important (as this recent cheating scandal that even involved celebrity parents proves), but so are high school sports and school dances.

In France, there are no school sports. You can join a team or take lessons of some kind, but they’re not strongly tied to the school, and schools don’t host big games. There might be small school dances (though none I’ve ever heard of), but absolutely nothing with the level of cultural importance of homecoming or the prom in the US.

Early on when I started learning French, we were told that the French take school seriously, but work, less so. Americans are the opposite: Our school years are seen as important but should also be a happy, fun time of our lives, and our professional careers are supposed to be where we really buckle down and get serious.

I can’t say this is the case for everyone I know, French or American. But there is some truth to it in general, at least from what I’ve experienced. You only have to look at how Americans usually only get two weeks of paid vacation a year, as opposed to the French, who get a minimum of five weeks, plus sick/personal days. Or how many Americans will take a quick lunch at their desk, while most French people would be appalled if they didn’t get at least an hour to go eat and relax a little.

This isn’t to say that Americans are bad students or French people are lazy workers, because neither one is true.  In this study, for example, the US actually placed higher than France on overall academic scores. And France is among the world’s leading economies. It’s more about the way the overall cultures seem to perceive school and work life. 

I chose to compare France to my native country, since I’m familiar with both, but of course, there are comparisons you could draw between France and other countries and cultures, as well. For example, Benjamin told me about this delightful videoby comedian Paul Taylor, a Brit who lives in France  and shares his cultural observations on French cable channel Canal + (and in other venues).

I’m familiar with Paul’s videos on life in France, but in this one, he travels to Germany, where he finds that though the Germans do tend to follow rules more than the French, their schools are much more relaxed than French schools. The whole video is great, but if you only want to watch the part about schools, start at the 7:30 minute mark.

If you’re from somewhere other than the US or Germany (or if you experienced something different growing up in either place), I’d love to hear how you think the French school system compares with the one you know – feel free to leave a comment!

Some expressions with devoir

candle lit

Although this verb is usually used on its own, there are some phrases and expressions with devoir that you’ll often come across:

l’appel du devoir – the call of duty.  Despite this phrase’s existence, gamers, take note : French people just call the game Call of Duty.

le sens du devoir – the sense of duty. A sense of moral obligation.

le devoir de mémoire – the duty of remembrance. That is, the idea that we must remember and/or honor different historical events/people.  

Il doit y avoir – There must be. Example : Regarde-moi tout ce monde ! Il doit y avoir des milliers de personnes ici ! (Look at this crowd ! There must be thousands of people here !) 

devoir une fière chandelle à quelqu’un – to be forever grateful to someone.   For example: Je dois une fière chandelle à ma prof de français au lycée – elle m’a appris beaucoup de choses. (I owe a debt of gratitude to my high school French teacher – she taught me so many things.)   Or: Il a tout fait pour promouvoir ton album – tu lui dois une fière chandelle! (He’s done everything to promote your album – you should be forever grateful to him!). 

As this source explains (with a very funny example), the origin of this expression, which literally means “to owe a proud candle to someone” is found in Catholic tradition. When a person felt spared or saved by God or a saint, they would light a large candle in thanks. (fier meant “large, important”). Today, the expression isn’t religious and can be used by anyone. That said, it’s not the most common expression in France.

Is learning more expressions with devoir a “must” for you? You can find additional ones here.


So, now I’ve done my duty and told you all about devoir. What do you think about this verb, and about your relationship to learning French? Do you feel duty-bound to always do les devoirs

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

1 thought on “What You Must Know About the French Verb Devoir”

  1. Se devoir….I seem to associate it with certain teachers I’ve had, perhaps a bit full of themselves.

    Great article.

    Reply

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