If you live or have travelled in France, you’ve probably heard French people use the phrase “Il faut” in numerous contexts, especially when someone is telling you how to do something, or how to get to a place, or how you shouldn’t do something… It is a very popular short phrase and used widely in the everyday language. Il faut can be expressed in an impersonal or personal way. Instinctively, foreigners tend to translate literally and say C’est nécessaire de… each time they want to express “It’s necessary to…”. It is not wrong but not very French; they will almost always say “il faut”! Try to do the same when you wish to give directions, orders and very strong suggestions.
There are two ways to use “Il faut”: impersonal and general, or personal and specific to the person you are talking to.
1) If you are giving an impersonal order or a suggestion, meaning that you’re not pointing your finger at anyone, but you’re just stating how something needs to be done, or how to get somewhere, then using Il faut is perfect. Not only do the French use it all the time, but it’s easy to express it verbally with a simple sentence structure. You don’t need to add a subject and a verb, but just a verb in the infinitive form. The impersonal form “It’s necessary to” in French is simply:
Il faut + verb in the infinitive form.
For giving directions: Il faut aller à gauche ! = It’s necessary to go (turn to the) left!
For giving orders: Il faut arriver au travail tous les jours à 9 heures. = It’s necessary to get to work every day at 09:00am.
For making strong suggestions: Il faut prendre son temps dans la vie… = It’s necessary to take one’s time in life…
Note: you can see that the second verbs aller, arriver and prendre are not conjugated.
2) If you are making it personal, meaning that you’re telling a specific person what to do, how to get to a place, or you’re giving a strong suggestion, then you change the structure somewhat and add que, plus a subject and a conjugated verb. You’ll have to learn how to conjugate the 2nd verb in the subjunctive form.
Here is the structure of the personal form with Il faut:
Il faut que + subject + verb in the subjonctive form.
The subjunctive conjugation of verbs ending by er is not difficult, it’s the same as conjugating the verb in the present tense except with the vous and nous subjects where you’ll need to add an i to the ending of the verb.
Example: conjugation in the subjunctive form of parler:
However, the other groups of verbs are a bit trickier as some verbs change completely, especially the irregular ones.
For example, the verb être (to be) changes completely:
Note: For a more detailed discussion of the subjunctive, see our article: “How I learned to love the subjunctive” in issue Nr 41, February-March 2013, of French Accent Magazine.
Personal – using the above examples:
For giving directions: Il faut que vous alliez (subjonctif) à gauche = You must/have to go left.
For giving orders: Il faut que vous arriviez (subjonctif) au bureau tous les jours à 9 heures = You must/have to get to the office everyday at 09:00am.
For making strong suggestions: Il faut que tu soies plus concentré en général… = You have to be more concentrated in general…
Note: Il faut is the present conjugation of the verb falloir – it is a very unusual, verb because you can only conjugate the verb with il. You CANNOT say je faut, vous fallez, etc.
The negative form of Il faut is quite straightforward, you just need to place ne + pas around faut: Il ne faut pas.
However, the translation of Il ne faut pas is NOT: “You don’t have to”; it actually means: “One mustn’t”.
Il ne faut pas faire de bruit après 22h. = One must not make any noise after 10pm.
Il ne faut pas que tu t’inquiètes pour lui. = You mustn’t worry about him.
Now, if you wish to say “You don’t have to”, then you’ll want to use ne pas obliger de.
Tu n’es pas obligé d’aller à la fête ce soir. = You don’t have to go to the party tonight.
Coming back to obligations or directions, you can either say Il faut or another well known verb called devoir. The conjugation of devoir is: je dois, tu dois, il/elle/on doit, nous devons, vous devez, ils/elles doivent. Devoir implies a stronger obligation – almost a moral imperative – than il faut. The meaning is really “must”.
Vous devez finir votre travail ce soir. = You must/have to finish your work tonight (no choice).
Elle doit partir. = She must leave.
What about when you want to suggest something? This is where it can get a bit tricky. As you know, devoir means “must” or “have to” in the present tense, BUT when devoir is conjugated in the conditional (equivalent of “would” in English), then this verb changes its meaning and it becomes “should”! This is how it works when devoir is used in the conditional:
Je devrais, tu devrais, il/elle/on devrait, nous devrions, vous devriez, ils/elles devraient = I should, you should. etc.
Je devrais aller chez le coiffeur, mes cheveux sont vraiment trop longs ! = I should go to the hairdresser, my hair is really too long!
Vous devriez acheter une nouvelle bagnole, car celle-ci est vraiment vieille ! = You ought to buy a new car, since this one is really old!
At this point, it is no longer an obligation but something that should eventually be done.
To summarize this article:
– When you wish to give general directions or tell someone how something is to be done, use the form Il faut + verb at the infinitive form:
Il faut un CV pour trouver un travail = one needs a résumé when looking for a job.
– When you wish to give a suggestion, use devoir in the conditional form:
C’est un petit restaurant, vous devriez réserver une table. = it’s a small restaurant, you should reserve a table.
– When you wish to give a strong order, use devoir in the present form:
Vous devez finir le ménage ce soir ! = you have to finish the cleaning this evening!
– When you are giving specific directions or orders to a person, use il faut que + subjonctif:
Il faut que tu sois à l’heure pour ton rendez-vous demain matin ! = You must be on time for your appointment tomorrow morning!
-When you want to tell someone that they mustn’t do something in particular, then use Il ne faut pas:
Il ne faut pas pleurer = one mustn’t cry.
-When you wish to tell someone that they don’t have to do something, then use pas obliger de:
Vous n’êtes pas tous obligés de travailler demain. = You don’t all have to work tomorrow.
Much more coming soon…
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