Participle clauses in French

What are participle clauses?

Participle clauses (les propositions participiales) are subordinate clauses where the main verb is in a participle form; this can be the participe présent, the participe passé or the participe composé. These participles have their own subject that is different to the subject in the main clause, meaning that participle clauses are relatively independent from the main clause. As a result, we separate participle clauses from the main clause with a comma (,).

Read on to learn everything you need to know about participle clauses in French grammar, then test yourself in the free interactive exercises.

Example

Les cheveux lavés, Suzanne saisit le sèche-cheveux et les ciseaux.

Le sèche-cheveux soufflant de l’air très chaud, les cheveux de Suzanne commencèrent rapidement à secher.

Le sèche-cheveux étant tombé en panne, Suzanne sécha ses cheveux avec une serviette.

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Why do we use participle clauses?

We mostly use participle clauses in more formal written language, and only rarely in everyday speech.

Participle clauses can be constructed with the participe présent, the participe passé and the participe composé.

  • We use the participe présent to express simultaneous actions: two actions taking place at the same time. It can also express a cause and effect relationship between two actions. We can reformulate these phrases with the conjunction parce que.
    Example:
    Tenant le sèche-cheveux dans la main gauche, Suzanne coupa ses cheveux de la main droite.Holding the hairdryer in her left hand, Suzanne cut her hair with her right hand.

    Suzanne held the hairdryer in her left hand and simultaneously cut her hair with her right hand.
    alternatively: Because Suzanne was holding the hairdryer in her left hand, she cut her hair with her right hand.

  • We use the participe passé to express that the action in the participle clause took place before the action in the main clause. These clauses often actually contain a participe composé but the verb être is left out.
    Example:
    Les cheveux lavés, Suzanne saisit le sèche-cheveux et les ciseaux.Her hair washed, Suzanne picked up the hairdryer and the scissors.

    First Suzanne washed her hair. Then she picked up the hairdryer and the scissors.

  • The participe composé – similarly to the participe passé – also expresses an action that occurred prior to the main clause. The participle clause indicates the reason behind the action in the main clause.
    Example:
    Ayant coupé ses cheveux, Suzanne ne se reconnut pas dans le miroir.Having cut her hair, Suzanne didn’t recognise herself in the mirror.

Don’t confuse participle clauses with other uses of the participle!

  • In a participle clause, the participle has its own subject.
    Example:
    Le sèche-cheveux soufflant de l’air très chaud, les cheveux de Suzanne commencèrent rapidement à sécher.With the hairdryer blowing very hot air, Suzanne’s hair started to dry quickly.
    « le sèche-cheveux » is the subject of the verb souffler = participle clause
    « les cheveux de Suzanne » is the subject of the verb commencer = main clause
  • If the participle doesn’t have its own subject, i.e. its subject is the same as the one in the main clause, the participle is not part of a participle clause.
    Example:
    Tenant le sèche-cheveux dans la main gauche, Suzanne coupa ses cheveux de la main droite.Holding the hairdryer in her left hand, Suzanne cut her hair with her right hand.
    « Suzanne » is the subject of both verbs tenir and couper.

The participle can shorten sentences by acting as:

  • a relative clause
    Example:
    Suzanne, ayant un sèche-cheveux, peut se sécher les cheveux.Suzanne, having a hairdryer, can dry her hair. (participe présent)
    → Suzanne, qui a un sèche-cheveux …Suzanne, who has a hairdryer …
    Elle n’a pu rendre les ciseaux empruntés à son amie.She couldn’t return the borrowed scissors to her friend. (participe passé)
    → Elle n’a pu rendre les ciseaux qu’elle a empruntés …She couldn’t return the scissors that she had borrowed …
    Suzanne ayant observé le coiffeur peut maintenant se couper les cheveux toute seule.Having observed the hairdresser, Suzanne can now cut her hair on her own. (participe composé)
    → Suzanne, qui a observé le coiffeur, peut maintenant …Suzanne, who watched the hairdresser, can now …
  • an adverbial clause
    Examples:
    Tenant le sèche-cheveux dans la main gauche, Suzanne coupa ses cheveux.Holding the hairdryer in her left hand, Suzanne cut her hair. (participe présent)
    Pendant qu’elle tenait le sèche-cheveux dans la main gauche …While holding the hairdryer in her left hand …
    Suzanne ayant observé le coiffeur peut maintenant se couper les cheveux toute seule.Having watched the hairdresser Suzanne can now cut her hair on her own. (participe composé)
    Puisqu’elle a observé le coiffeur, Suzanne peut maintenant …Because she watched the hairdresser, Suzanne can now …

How to construct French participle clauses

We use a participle clause to connect two sentences by turning the full verb into a participle.

Example:
Suzanne se lava les cheveux. Puis elle saisit le sèche-cheveux et les ciseaux.Suzanne washed her hair. Afterwards she picked up the hairdryer and scissors.
Les cheveux lavés, Suzanne saisit le sèche-cheveux et les ciseaux.Her hair washed, Suzanne picked up the hairdryer and scissors.
  • The participe présent is invariable: its form always stays the same.
    Example:
    Tenant le sèche-cheveux dans la main gauche,…Holding the hairdryer in her left hand, …
  • The participe passé is similar to a passive construction: it agrees with the gender and number of the subject it’s referring to.
    Example:
    Les cheveux lavésHair washed, …
    La coiffure finieThe hairstyle finished, …
  • We construct the participe composé by using the participe présent of avoir or être and the participe passé.
    Example:
    Ayant vu une jolie coiffure dans un magazine, elle voulait la même.Having seen a pretty hairstyle in a magazine, she wanted the same one.

Tips on the usage of the participe passé and the participe composé

Since both the participe passé and the participe composé indicate an action prior to the main clause, sometimes both forms can be correct in the same context. In the following cases, however, the participe composé has to be used instead of the participe passé.

  • for verbs in the active voice without a direct object (intransitive verbs), and more generally for verbs that form their participe composé with avoir
    Example:
    Suzanne ayant réfléchi, le vendeur lui redemanda si elle voulait acheter ce nouveau sèche-cheveux.With Suzanne having thought about it, the sales assistant asked her again if she wanted to buy this new hairdryer.
  • with the verb aller
    Example:
    Suzanne étant déjà allée chez le coiffeur, son amie lui avait conseillé de se couper les cheveux toute seule cette fois-ci.Having already gone to the hairdresser, her friend advised her to cut her own hair this time.
  • Conjunctions that indicate time are omitted in a participle clause, because we can tell from the participle itself whether the action takes place before (participe passé or participe composé) or at the same time as (participe présent) the action in the main clause.
    Example:
    Pendant que/Comme le sèche-cheveux soufflait de l’air très chaud, les cheveux de Suzanne commencèrent rapidement à sécher.As the hairdryer blew hot air, Suzanne’s hair started to dry quickly.
    → Le sèche-cheveux soufflant de l’air très chaud, les cheveux de Suzanne commencèrent rapidement à sécher.With the hairdryer blowing hot air, Suzanne’s hair started to dry quickly.

    Two simultaneous actions → participe présent

    Après que les cheveux furent lavés, Suzanne saisit le sèche-cheveux et les ciseaux.After her hair had been washed, Suzanne picked up the hairdryer and the scissors.
    → Les cheveux lavés, Suzanne saisit le sèche-cheveux et les ciseaux.Hair washed, Suzanne picked up the hairdryer and scissors.
    orAyant lavé ses cheveux, Suzanne saisit le sèche-cheveux et les ciseaux.Having washed her hair, Suzanne picked up the hairdryer and scissors.

    anteriority → participe passé or participe composé

(see also Participles)